Gwynne Dyer: Has Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gone too far?

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"There is no middle ground, no dialogue before [Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi] rescinds this declaration,” said pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. “There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says ‘let us split the difference’.”

Morsi won last June’s presidential election fair and square, but many Egyptians really are frightened that his decree of November 22 sweeps aside the democratic gains of last year’s revolution. The decree gives him absolute power, although he swears it is only for a limited time.

Morsi was already governing by decree pending a new parliamentary election, since the courts had dissolved the lower house of parliament because the election was flawed. His latest decree declares that the courts cannot challenge any of his edicts until that new election takes place.

The decree also states that he can take any steps necessary to defeat undefined “threats to the revolution”—and nobody can ask the courts to decided whether those steps are legal and justifiable. In theory, at least, Morsi has given himself greater powers than the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, ever possessed.

This is as puzzling as it is alarming, since nothing in Morsi’s previous history suggests that he wants to be Egypt’s next dictator. He is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood and shares its conservative social and religious values, but that organisation, the mainstay of opposition to Egypt’s military dictators during half a century of tyranny, has moved a long way from its radical and sometimes violent origins.

So was Morsi a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just waiting for the chance to impose Islamic rule on everybody, including liberals, Christians, and secular Egyptians? How else can you explain what he has just done? The answer matters, because if Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country (90 million people), succumbs to a new tyranny, then the whole “Arab Spring” was just a brief illusion.

Morsi’s actions are wrong, but he is not actually aiming at a dictatorship. He just wants to thwart the Supreme Judicial Council, made up of judges who almost all date from the Mubarak era, which had already dismissed the first body charged with writing a new constitution. There were indications that it might be about to dissolve the second one on the same grounds.

The grounds were legally sound, for the first assembly chosen by parliament included a large number of MPs who belonged to the Islamic parties, although the law said that members of parliament could not themselves sit in the Constituent Assembly. A second Constituent Assembly, chosen in June, once again included members of parliament in clear defiance of the law, which is why it is facing further court challenges.

In the last month or so, the prospect that this new body will produce a constitution based mainly on Islamic law led most of the secular and Christian elements to withdraw. That deprived it of a voting quorum, but the remaining members, including many MPs linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, carried on regardless, so there was a growing probability that a new court ruling would dismiss this assembly too.

Morsi moved swiftly, not only giving himself supreme powers beyond the ability of the courts to challenge, but specifically forbidding the Supreme Judicial Council to dismiss the second Constituent Assembly. He also gave that assembly an extra two months to finish writing the constitution, after which it would have to be approved by referendum.

Only then (perhaps next May) would a new lower house of parliament be elected—and once the constitution is in place and the subsequent election is past, Morsi promised, he will relinquish his extraordinary powers. But by then Egypt would have an Islamic constitution, and almost certainly a lower house of parliament dominated by the Islamic parties.

What is happening now, therefore, is not the rise of a new dictatorship but rather a ruthless political manoeuvre aimed at creating a democratic but Islamic Egypt. Naturally, it frightens a large proportion of the 49 percent of Egyptians who voted against Morsi in the presidential election earlier this year, and it absolutely terrifies the country’s 8 million Christians.

Morsi’s edict has been met with impassioned protest in the streets, and the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at uniting all non-Islamist groups to force Morsi to rescind his edicts. Its leaders include three of the candidates who ran against Morsi in the election earlier this year. But that may not be enough.

The truth is that the elections produced a parliamentary majority and a president who want to impose Islamic law, and that its opponents are using various legal devices in an attempt to stop the process. Moreover, a new constitution imposing Islamic law would almost certainly get a “yes” in a referendum.

But the other truth is that majorities in a democracy should not try to impose their religious and social views on large minorities who do not share them. Morsi is already showing signs of wanting to compromise—but, as ElBaradei pointed out, he cannot take these extreme measures and then offer to “split the difference.” Egypt is in for a rough ride.

Comments (9) Add New Comment
iSheep
Obviously both the Egyptian people (given the protests) and ElBaradei think Morsi (the fundamentalist idiot) has gone too far.

Morsi will be thrown out like the garbage he is just like Mubarak.
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doconnor
"The answer matters, because if Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country (90 million people), succumbs to a new tyranny, then the whole “Arab Spring” was just a brief illusion."

If you look at the history of revolutions a very high percentage of them end up with a new tyranny that replaces the old one, usually to the dismay of the original revolutionaries: the French revolution, the Russian October revolution, the Iranian revolution.

If this should happen to Egypt, it doesn't mean the other revolutions will fail or that the Arab Spring wasn't important.
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cuz
While I generally agree with this article, Dyer has once again shown his prejudice's with the statement that the brotherhood "has moved a long way from it's radical and sometimes violent origins". Really now??? They still advocate Islamic law, which advocates death to all nonbelievers don't they??? No wonder the Christians and all other minorities in Egypt and the entire middle east are worried.
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JMW
Dyer writes, "But the other truth is that majorities in a democracy should not try to impose their religious and social views on large minorities who do not share them."

Or to put it another way, "All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."- Thomas Jefferson

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nitroglycol
Cuz: Actually Islamic law is more nuanced and less monolithic than you think. Consider, for instance, that Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, while definitely second-class citizens, were far better treated than Jews and Muslims were in Christian Europe. Not exactly "death to all nonbelievers", eh?
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Issac Chandler
"Morsi won last June’s presidential election fair and square..."

How often are presidential elections held in a democracy?
Was the last election of the titular president, Mahmoud Abbas fair and square? Not with Israeli forces arresting and restricting the movement of other candidates in 2005:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmoud_Abbas#2005_presidential_election
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Matthew Gosse
Cuz: You do realize that Iran is an Islamic Republic run by Islamists and has been since 1979? Are you aware that the SECOND LARGEST (after Israel) POPULATION of JEWS in the Middle East lives there? Somewhere between 9,000-20,000. Most Persian Jews left after the revolution and they aren't always comfortable (which may be why they did not show up on the recent census), but they haven't faced the persecution you might assume. Things in the ME are generally not as monochromatic as you may be lead to believe by the media. Many people still are not aware that Saddam Hussein's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was CATHOLIC. Remember that the media/government was trying to sell the public a story where Hussein (a secular Arab Nationalist) could be on the same wavelength as radical Islamists such as bin Laden. Yes, the enemy of my enemy leads to some peculiar arrangements and Hussein was not beyond encouraging almost anything to defend himself, but the most important truth was that al Qaeda was a far bigger danger to Hussein than they ever were to the U.S.

Case in point: their dramatic attack on the U.S. in 2011 eventually lead to Hussein hanging from a rope. The U.S. and bin Laden both wanted Hussein dead. They ended up being the strange allies after 9/11,
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RK
What's that old saying? You reap what you sow?

Nobody should be surprised that Morsi is now making a very transparent grab for absolute power. The Muslim Brotherhood is based in the most extreme interpretation of Islam and has spawned most of the Muslim terrorist groups. Who would be naïve enough to think that this group would have any respect for democracy?

Egyptian voters made a big mistake by voting these fanatics into power.
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Issac Chandler
Eric Margolis shares more intelligent thoughts:
"Egypt’s “deep government” controlls the powerful military, security services, courts, universities, media, big business cartels, and Islamic religious institutions...
This parallel regime thwarted many of Morsi’s efforts to reform the corrupt ruling system, construct a truly democratic republic, and break the hold of Egypt’s pampered, westernized urban elite who enjoyed almost total political and economic power under Mubarak:

http://ericmargolis.com/2012/11/cairo-bombshell/
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