Published — Friday 30 November 2012
Last update 29 November 2012 11:58 pm
It seems that Egypt's fledgling democracy is reaching a turning point. President Muhammad Mursi's power grab has sent the revolution to square one. His unexpected edict exempting his decrees from judicial review until the ratification of a constitution was outrageous, as it eliminates the checks and balances system in one stroke.
No sooner had he taken this ill-advised decision than the Egyptian Internet sites and Facebook were buzzing with indignation and condemnation for this measure. No wonder the Egyptians took to the street to express their anger at the president's decision. While Mursi maintained that his decision was temporary, his political opponents saw in this undemocratic inclination the beginning of the transformation of the regime into an authoritarian one.
The president's last-ditch effort to preempt the ongoing mobilization of the Egyptian people against his autocratic step failed miserably. Mursi had a long meeting with members of the Supreme Judicial Council to explain to them that his decision was related to "act of sovereignty" and nothing else. Nonetheless, demonstrations have gained momentum. Mursi's last week power grab proved that he is shortsighted. With one stroke, he ignited a political polarization along secular-religious lines. Not surprisingly, this situation has the potential of undercutting him. His attempt to gain unchecked power may backfire as his decision has further divided the Egyptian society over politics.
And yet, Mursi's decree should be seen in its proper context. The battle in Egypt is over the constitution. To the vexation of liberal and non-Islamic forces, the assembly appointed to draft a new constitution is dominated by Islamists. Understandably, secular and non-Islamic forces fear that the assembly can serve as a means for Islamists to translate some archaic notions into the constitution. On more than one occasion, the highest court in Egypt signaled that it might disband the committee. To avert such a scenario, Mursi acted swiftly. And now, the head of the committee says that the final draft of the constitution will be ready by next Wednesday. It seems that the Islamist-dominated committee is in race to submit a final draft of a constitution and finish a process that had contributed in triggering the latest crisis.
If anything, the president's edict is a step toward autocracy. It is sad that the revolution took this bad turn. The fear that Islamists may use democracy to gain power and then turn against democracy is strengthened. All of a sudden, many observers began talking about the long forgotten line "one-person, one-vote, one-time". We all remember how Hamas was democratically elected in 2006 only to turn against democracy. It would be a major blow to the democratic forces in the region if Mursi insisted on this decision.
It is not as if Egypt had no impact on the Arab Spring. In fact, opponents to reform in some Arab countries are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought the Egyptian democratic revolution may be reversed. Explicit in the comments made by some traditional anti-reform forces in various Arab countries is the argument that Islamists could not be trusted. If anything, Mursi's decision played into the hands of traditional forces in this part of the world and indeed has given them further ammunition to dig in their heels to reject a decent reform package.
The argument that each Arab country is different will not hold for a long time. Even the international community and key Western powers that supported the Arab Spring and the transformation to democracy will have hard time believing how fast Mursi and his Islamist allies turned against democracy. Now, the American friends in the region feel vindicated. They may talk to the Obama administration to reverse its pro-reform policy.
That said, the continuous turns and twists in the incomplete Egyptian revolution may lead to the consolidation of a third way political current. The Islamists-military duality in Egypt is coming to an end. In months to come, liberals and non-Islamists may get their act together and form a formidable alliance that can contest the next election. The current political crisis can serve as a catalyst for a more competitive political system in Egypt. One, however, should not anticipate a setback in Egypt. A new Egypt may emerge and it will be a model for all in the region.