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Morsi’s dilemma

November 28, 2012

WHEN Mohamed Morsi first took office as president of Egypt, after a narrow win he was derisively referred to as the “spare tyre” because he became the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate only when its leader was disqualified.

It was said he had no independent base and none of the experience needed to navigate the dangerous shoals of the politics of a newly emerging democratic order. Belying his critics, he proved himself to be an adroit politician using the debacle of the Egyptian army’s failures in the Sinai peninsula as a lever, in August this year, to dismiss the leadership of the armed forces.

He also rescinded the laws that the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces had enacted to give the armed forces autonomy and a strong say in determining the political dispensation when they took the reins of power after Mubarak.

His Muslim Brotherhood background notwithstanding, he showed great political acumen. He allayed US concerns about the direction a new Egypt would take on issues of such political importance to the superpower and biggest aid donor as the Israel-Egypt treaty, the Syrian situation and ties with Iran.

Perhaps the measure that won him the most plaudits was the role he played in successfully bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza resulting at the very least in a pause in the appalling destruction that had been visited upon the people of Gaza.

One indicator of his political acumen was the conclusion of an agreement with the IMF for a $4.8bn loan, which was announced a few days before the Gaza crisis. This was meant to be the IMF contribution to the huge aid package of $14.5bn being put together under IMF and US auspices with the European Union, Qatar and Saudi Arabia the other donors. The IMF loan is to be approved at its meeting on Dec 9. Contributions from the others remain at a discussion stage.

In the meanwhile, an internal crisis had been brewing. Members from Islamist parties dominated the 100-member constituent assembly put together by Morsi to frame a new constitution.

Opposition members of the assembly protested with wide media coverage the insertion of clauses they believed would make Egypt a theocracy. But they could not have their views reflected in the document to be completed by Dec 10. Many opposition members suspended their participation in the assembly, as did members belonging to the Coptic minority.

A number of advisers submitted their resignations claiming that their views were not being heard. There was a very real fear that the constitutional court would dissolve the assembly just as it had the lower house of parliament. This was a crisis that had to be resolved.

Some observers believe that having achieved success in Gaza, Morsi became confident he could resolve the ongoing internal crisis by assuming draconian powers at a time when in the absence of a lower house of parliament he had both executive and legislative powers.

He decreed that no power could dissolve the constituent assembly and extended its term to February 2013. In a series of other decrees, he put his decisions since assuming office beyond judicial review, dismissed the public prosecutor and decreed that there would be a retrial of the military and civil officers who had been acquitted of the charge of attacking protesters during the Mubarak era.

He appears to have miscalculated the results. Demonstrations have been held all over the country. While the crowds in Tahrir Square have not come close to matching the numbers that participated in the anti-Mubarak protests they were large enough to show that the opposition’s strength was substantial.

Following these protests and the decision of the Judges Club to suspend the work of the courts until the decree is rescinded, Morsi has held meetings with the judges and sought to assure them that he would not misuse the powers he has assumed and that, as desired by the Supreme Judicial Council, the decree with respect to the courts would apply only to “sovereign matters”. The judges had not been persuaded at the time of writing.

The opposition in Egypt is split but the current crisis appears to have brought together such strange bedfellows as the ‘Mubarak remnants’, the liberals and the minorities. Many of them would support Morsi’s decision to re-prosecute Mubarak officials that the Mubarak-era prosecutor and judges acquitted. Many would support the extension of the time limit set for the drafting of the new constitution and others would support the view that the upper house of parliament should not be subject to dissolution by the courts.

The key point, however, is the composition of the constituent assembly. So long as it is dominated by Islamists who give short shrift to the views of the opposition there will be the fear that Egypt will be made into a theocratic state.

As one critic put it, the present draft calls for “the entirety of Islamic jurisprudence and tradition to be the source of legislation, while Article 4 entrusts the interpretation of this jurisprudence and tradition to the body of senior scholars at al-Azhar, following in the footsteps of Iran and its Council of Guardians (Shura-ye Negaban). Thus, the current constitution has managed to feature the worst of the Iranian constitution, the Pakistani constitution, and the Saudi Wahhabi Bedouin doctrine.”

Morsi as a pragmatist may decide that he has overreached and agree to give the opposition more representation in the constituent assembly. If he does, he would lose the support of the Salafists, which he can ill afford.

If he does not there will be continued turbulence internally and eventually the withdrawal of the international aid package that is in the works and that Egypt’s straitened economy cannot do without. Morsi is on the horns of a dilemma.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.