Last Thursday, while Americans gave thanks and stuffed themselves with turkey, Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi declared that the office of president was free from any judicial oversight. Essentially, Morsi said that he was no longer beholden to any other branch of government for any actions he chooses to take. Almost immediately, protests erupted in Tahrir Square, Cairo’s now famous protest assembly point.
Protests in Tahrir Square. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.
On Monday, after four days of protest, Morsi met with senior justices of Egypt’s highest court and listened to their arguments for the need to scale back or revoke his declaration regarding oversight of the office. He refused to change his stance and in fact, moved ahead with plans for a draft constitution. Morsi has claimed that his actions were designed to give him room to write a new constitution and that once that was taken care of, he would return power to the judiciary and to the people. Given the continuation of the protests, Egyptians do not seem to be buying what Morsi is selling.
One problem with Morsi’s statement is that the Shura Council (the People’s Assembly, the only fully representative legislative body in the Egyptian government, was dissolved in June of this year), dominated by Morsi’s fellow Muslim Brotherhood party members, worked double-time to write and pass a draft constitution. The speed of that action set off even more protests throughout Egypt and especially in Cairo. The same chants of “Leave, leave” heard during the anti-Mubarak protests were heard again. One small positive sign was the cancellation by the Muslim Brotherhood of counter protests in Tahrir Square. A spokesman for Morsi stated that the repeal of judicial oversight was only temporary and would be restored once the new constitution was passed in a referendum. Opposition leaders didn’t buy that argument either .
The NY Times reported that Morsi appeared to walk back some of his decree after meeting with the justices and after five days of protests. However, it remains to be seen if the semi-retraction is for real, or if that was a political move designed to calm down opposition.
During the Arab Spring movement last year, Egypt was widely perceived to be a leader in removing old, authoritarian leaders and ushering in a new era of liberalization in the Arab world and the Obama administration supported those moves. However, in recent weeks, any movement towards liberalization has been turned back and effectively stopped. Egyptian blogger The Big Pharaoh who, under the Mubarak regime, spent time imprisoned for his political writing (and on Twitter @TheBigPharaoh) notes that just 24 hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Morsi for helping to broker a cease fire between Hamas (the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Israel, Morsi issued his declaration regarding the removal of judicial oversight. The Big Pharaoh asks if Morsi has figured out what Mubarak and others did….give the U.S. what it wants and it will look the other way while you trample any move towards democratization in Egypt. The Obama Administration seems content to follow this play book.
Egypt is a key player in the Middle East; it is the only Arab state with a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt is also still a U.S. ally and partner in the region; the U.S. relies heavily on Egypt to help with regional issues. However, if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood continue their moves towards reversing liberalization trends and increasing individual restrictions through the imposition of Sharia law, the U.S. will have to take decisive diplomatic action. The Obama Administration was very supportive of the movement to push Mubarak out of power. How will the President and his administration react when that movement become antithetical to U.S. interests and values?