In the lead up to the constitutional referendum in Egypt the protestors and armed forces are taking their familiar roles around Tahrir Square. The decree by President Mohamed Morsi over-ruling the powers of the courts to over-rule him set the stage for a new round of confrontation nearly two years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s dynasty. And as the country faces a watershed in its attempts to move on from the old days, there is the question of whether it is becoming a case of back to the future.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of simplifying this as a dictator-in-waiting versus a nation of would-be democrats. As ever with the Middle East though, the reality is much more colourful. And at the heart of the dilemma is that half the country are quite happy for Morsi to take all the power he needs.
The Pharaoh’s Curse
The problem for the current President is the ghost of the old one. Or rather, Mubarak’s legion of undead warriors in the upper levels of the judiciary and executive. Still loyal to the ancien régime, it was firstly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and now the supreme court who steadfastly hampered any attempt at reforming the country.
For Morsi that has meant a battle of attrition in pushing through a new constitution and governance structure. When he finally shunted Field Marshall Tantawi aside in August, the courts took up the baton, concerned that their status would be eroded by the proposed reforms. Challenges to the legality of the assembly drawing up the draft constitution and the process itself bogged things down in a Cairene Catch-22 – any changes to reform the old system were illegal under the old system.
The confrontation came to a head in late November when Morsi effectively declared himself above the law; infallible and unimpeachable, his word and the status of the constituent assembly would be unchallengeable until the new constitution had been ratified. (This last detail of interim duration is often unreported here.) The judges promptly went on strike and the protests began.
At least amongst some of the population.
How the other half lives
It shouldn’t be forgotten that 51% of Egyptians did vote for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood ideology. They see him as a saviour, a champion boldly slaying the dragon of Mubarak’s secular cronyism. To them, Egypt is an Islamic state and they’re happy for the Brotherhood to make it so. Their support for the President goes largely uncovered in the West because it doesn’t fit the narrative of Facebook driven protests in Tahrir Square.
That narrative though is also popular with some of the other 49% of the Egyptian people, particularly the young urban middle class and the Copts. For them, a retreat from secularism is equivalent to a retreat from modernity and freedom. They worry that an Islamist-dominated government will trample the rights of those who don’t want to walk the same path and that they will have swapped a corrupt dictatorship for a religious one.
In this clash of reasoning, both sides are having a problem selling their fears to each other. In an evocative anecdote, the BBC’s Shaimaa Khalil describes an interchange between two Morsi supporters during a demonstration in the Muslim Brotherhood heartland in the impoverished outskirts of Cairo:
A woman wearing a black abaya (cloak) walked over to a man waving the Muslim Brotherhood’s green flag. “Just hold the Egyptian one,” she told him.
“We want to tell them that Morsi is Egypt’s president not just the Muslim Brotherhood’s. Please understand how important this is. This is politics!” she urged him.
It’s the economy, stupid
Power and constitutional clauses aside, ruling such a divided and economically challenged nation is going to be difficult for whoever is in charge. Another inconvenient truth is that the germination of the Arab Spring protests, especially in Egypt, was more about economic stagnation than a whimsical aspiration for a change in political ideology. Egypt has tens of millions of people eking out an existence on pitiful incomes bolstered by government subsidies on staple commodities. Another chunk of the population relies on the tourist industry, a revenue stream that has dried up in nearly two years of unrest. Meanwhile the most important pyramid in Egypt is the demographic one, with an army of young people knowing they have little hope of obtaining meaningful employment.
The possibility of fixing such a broken economy is nil. In the short to medium term, it is America who will be writing the cheques, just as they did for his predecessor. That of course means that the Egyptian people will be affected by Morsi’s stance on things like support for Hamas and his ability to get on with Israel. It would be nice to think that a track record on human rights and personal liberty would come into it, but it didn’t for Mubarak.
With such division in the country and the understandable desire to have the problems fixed yesterday, the events of the last few weeks are the counter-revolution that Egypt had to have. The country has never really had any experience with democracy in its entire history. As with any complex task, be it riding a bicycle or installing a pluralist democracy, it is to be expected that someone won’t get it right first time.
This will be the first of many falls. The challenge for the West is deciding how much they feel compelled to step in and hold the back of the bike.