Quilliam Insight: The Nature of Power in Egypt

Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi moves to grant himself broad powers over the judiciary, sparking mass rallies across Egypt. Chairman of Quilliam Maajid Nawaz, a former Amnesty International adopted Prisoner of Conscience in Egypt, poses serious questions surrounding Morsi’s motives.

Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, propelled to power by the Muslim Brotherhood in June has survived 150 days as the most powerful man in Egypt and now seems to be breaking his promise to be a president for all Egyptians. Amid the slow pace of social change in Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak, Morsi’s move on 22 November to issue an emergency decree granting himself broad powers over the judiciary as the guardian of the revolution came about remarkably quickly. This move and the manner in which it was announced, just a day after Morsi played a leading role in the mediation of the ceasefire in Gaza, has not only sparked mass rallies in Egypt but also serious questions surrounding the motives of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is unclear whether the regime change in Egypt has in fact changed the country’s tendency to one-party politics.

Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked Morsi for his role in Gaza and “assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made [Egypt] a cornerstone of regional stability and peace”. President Obama also said he felt he had a connection with Morsi after six phone calls in the days preceding the ceasefire. This is remarkably reminiscent of the close relations between Obama and Mubarak described by Wikileaks cables from 2009, which revealed that he not only wanted to maintain a close political relationship with the former Egyptian dictator, but that the US would continue to provide Cairo with $1.3bn annually in foreign military aid. Washington’s interests in this regard are threatened by a liberal democratic opposition to Morsi’s rule. In the past, the White House has considered the stability of dictatorship in Egypt preferable to democracy. The concern now is that such a policy hasn’t substantively changed, and that the Egyptian president’s move towards autocracy was initiated after his role in the Gaza ceasefire, and his promise to ensure greater security co-operation with Israel and an American presence in the Sinai.

Morsi must have recognised that with a bilateral debt-forgiveness deal and a loan from the International Monetary Fund still pending, the US had considerable leverage over his government. Did he therefore change his policy on Gaza to appease the West so that he can focus on his own domestic agenda, namely establishing an Islamist dictatorship? Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman joined Washington in heaping praise on Egypt’s president, something that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood could never have envisaged during their long time in opposition. Indeed Mohammed al-Badie, the Brotherhood leader, has denounced peace efforts with Israel, urged holy war to liberate Palestinian territories and does not recognise Israel as a state. Is this a planned tactical move from Morsi as part of a much larger strategy or has he sacrificed his values in favour of his power-focused interests?

This is a time in which the priority for Egypt should be the rebuilding process. If Morsi is honestly striving for political, economic and social stability, he needs to be open to co-operation with other political parties as he lacks a majority government. Despite previous help from the Wafd Party and the Islamic Labour Party (Hizb al-‘amal al-Islami) when they were banned or in opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood have distanced themselves from these former allies in the months since Morsi came to power. The Brotherhood and many other political factions including the Secularists, Coptic Christians, Liberals, Nationalists, Salafis and Nasserists have become completely polarised and now that they are in power, Morsi refuses to co-operate with other parties. Furthermore, with policies focused on their ideology, they are ignoring the fact that the priority of the Egyptian people is social justice and the improvement of living standards. They need only to look at the post-Islamist Hizb al-Nahda in Tunisia as inspiration, where the Coalition for Rights and Freedoms in Tunisia of 18 October 2005 is now being implemented to the benefit of both country and party, and where the Hizb al-Nahda – in their very own ‘clause 4 moment’ – dropped the condition from their constitution that ‘Shari’ah’ must form the basis for law.

The Egyptian people are adamant that there is no such thing as a “just dictatorship” and certainly do not want to return to a Mubarak-style tyranny. Countries post-regime change are notoriously unstable and the examples of Nuri al-Malaki in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran are clear warnings of how new dictatorships can be constructed after such regime change. The Egyptian people are thus understandably sceptical of Morsi claiming extraordinary powers in the new constitutional declaration, aware that he may well attempt to cement the Muslim Brotherhood as the new permanent ruling power. Morsi has named himself the Guardian of the Revolution, pitting himself against the remnants (fulul) of the previous regime. In fact, with this opportunistic move to claim vast executive powers he has pitted himself against the people of his country and is, more accurately, the Guardian of the Evolution. Perhaps he truly believes in the conspiracy of the former regime and feels holding power will give Egypt the greatest chance to make progress. Perhaps his actions are influenced by the nature of his agreement with the US. Perhaps he considers this to be a test of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology. Which of these is the true reason for his strategic policy remains to be seen.


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