July 20, 2019

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  • Editorial: Egypt’s two presidents

    Nothing epitomizes the absurdity of Egypt’s political crisis than Morsi and Tantawi's appearance side by side.


    The election of Egypt’s first democratically chosen president since the beginning of history, Mohamed Morsi, was a dramatic overturning of this country’s political traditions in more ways than one. Morsi is neither the closest male descendant of the last Pharoah, nor the god of choice of the royal priests; nor does he hail from the Mohamed Ali dynasty or from the “superior breed” of military men who overthrew its last monarch. Most of all, he is possibly the only president on earth, not just in Egypt, who has publicly taken the oath of office three times.

    Now that’s a revolution. Or is it?

    This three-pronged oath taking encapsulated a degree of political pandemonium also unmatched anywhere else in the world. Soon after the ouster of Mubarak in February, the ruling generals set off a process for the so-called democratic transition to civilian rule that was not only fraught with legal pitfalls, but one that in hindsight was deliberately constructed to ensure that the next president will have no choice but to deliver multiple oaths: one to a motley crew of Tahrir supporters under the impression that he is the revolutionary choice; another before the general assembly of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which only days before had ruled to dissolve parliament; and a third to an audience of emasculated legislators who, as the only other democratically elected state institution, are the ones who, theoretically, should have sworn him in.

    But no theory holds under the iron fist of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The collision course between SCAF and the most powerful Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood with their political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), was charted since the lower house of parliament was seated in January following elections acclaimed as free and fair, but which yielded a 70-percent Islamist representation.

    Legislation passed by the PA was hampered by SCAF’s veto power and a wholly uncooperative government aligned with the generals. The debilitating conflict in the authorities chipped away at the popularity of the Islamists, radically turning their supporters against them as shown by the results of the first round of the presidential election, indicating their waning popularity among an electorate disillusioned and fearful of an Islamist hegemony.

    But the coup de grâce, indeed the final exposure of what SCAF had been planning all along, was revealed when the third estate, the judiciary, stepped in to further compound the chaotic transition, in fact lead the proxy war between the generals and the Brotherhood.

    The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) only days before the presidential election runoff, upheld a lower court ruling that deemed the law regulating legislative elections unconstitutional and ordered the dissolution of parliament, a ruling which the generals were quick to implement, immediately surrounding the chamber with military and civilian police to bar MPs from entering.

    That ruling triggered a series of blows to the democratic process which culminated in what can only be described as a soft coup when, under the pretext of “filling legislative holes” in light of the SCC verdict, SCAF issued an addendum to the interim constitution, giving itself far-reaching executive and legislative powers including power over the state budget and the right to form an entirely new constituent assembly to draft the new constitution. Again paving the way to absolute chaos, SCAF’s addendum to the vaguely worded Article 60 gave veto power over “constitutional clauses [which] conflict with the revolution’s goals or the common principles of Egypt’s past constitutions” to five separate entities: the president, the head of SCAF, the prime minister, the Supreme Council of Judicial Institutions, or one fifth of the constituent assembly who now have the mandate to demand an amendment to said clause within 15 days. It would take three years not three months in the current state of political polarization to write a constitution with this many cooks in the kitchen. But surely that was the plan all along.

    In yet another move trumping the authority of the president, indeed, diluting both his powers and undermining his public image, SCAF announced a new formation of the National Defense Council that will see Morsi, the parliament speaker and Cabinet ministers outnumbered by top brass, with 11 army commanders versus only six civilians.

    In this power struggle, Morsi is not only confronting a deeply-entrenched militarized state whose top generals have no intention of giving up their immeasurable economic empire and say over national security and sensitive foreign policy, but is also facing the now disgruntled beneficiaries of Mubarak’s Egypt: the business tycoons, former National Democratic Party leaders, senior media powerhouses and government officials embedded on every rung of the civil service ladder from the city councils all the way up to Cabinet and its hornet’s nest, the Ministry of Interior.

    And that’s not all. Over 12 million Egyptians had voted for Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik against Morsi in the runoff. While they cannot all be pigeonholed as pro-Mubarak counter-revolutionaries, the most powerful of them including those who practically and financially backed Shafik’s campaign, will not simply go gentle into the night.

    Theories abound that after having risen to the surface during the brief campaigning period, empowered by the SCC ruling against a proposed political exclusion law, former regime figures have now gone underground and are planning a long-term strategy of subversion not least through incidents such as the recent vigilante killing of a young man in Suez who was attacked for walking in the street with his fiancée. Their express aim is to tarnish the image and credibility of the Islamists in power to ensure more favorable results in the next PA and presidential elections.

    While a head on confrontation between the president and the political and ideological group backing him, and SCAF is unlikely to lead to a violence, it has become clear that the war of attrition between them has been relegated to the convoluted texts of Egypt’s laws and constitutional provisions, often subject to contradictory, even conflicting interpretations.

    Morsi’s move to challenge the authority of the generals by issuing a decree reinstating a parliament was unexpected, but initially signaled that the new head of state refuses to be relegated to the shadows of the Mubarak-appointed Field Marshal. The ensuing rebuttal of his decree by the SCC, followed by Morsi’s ambiguous freezing of the decree was compounded by another blow to the president’s authority when the Court of Cassation unanimously declared its lack of jurisdiction over a request by the PA, following a brief session boycotted by over 150 non-Islamist MPs, to rule on the status of MPs in light of the SCC’s ruling. An audacious ultimatum by the judges club — clearly emboldened by an unspoken nod from SCAF — setting a deadline within which the president must revoke his decree, is a reflection of the judicary’s muscle flexing and its enhanced role as the battleground between the brothers and the generals.

    Actively attempting to tip the balance against the assertion of the authority of the elected president, are the so-called liberal forces whose phobia from political Islam and whose acknowledgment of their abysmal performance at the polls and their own fragmentation, triggered at least 17 court challenges to Morsi’s PA decree. The “liberal” MPs’ preference for military dictatorship over Islamist democracy embodies the ultimate paradox in the discourse of Egypt’s advocates of a “civil” state.

    While the legal wrangling may have been a healthy phenomenon within a more stable context, at the moment it can only lead to a political deadlock that will solely benefit change-resisting agents headed by SCAF and further ensconce its chief as the de facto ruler of Egypt.

    It also draws attention to another imminent crisis related to the drafting of the new constitution by an assembly whose very legitimacy is being challenged in court, that is, the drafting of clear constitutional provisions that unequivocally guarantee the separation of powers. That discussion will not be free from another even more intricate one regarding the role of the military institution in political life, which inadvertently adds a fourth pillar to the power structure in Egypt now consisting of the executive, legislative, judicial and military authorities.

    Less than a month on, the symbolism of Morsi’s “historic” inauguration at the Supreme Constitutional Court across the street from where his predecessor lay in a hospital bed with a life sentence hanging over his head is quietly disintegrating.  As the Brotherhood’s Morsi and Mubarak’s Tantawi slug it out in court, nothing epitomizes the absurdity of Egypt’s political crisis than their appearance side by side at an air force display marking the graduation of a new class of pilots.

    To go back where we started, Morsi’s election is a dramatic overturning of this country’s political traditions in yet another way: he is only one of two presidents practically ruling Egypt today.

    Rania Al Malky is a co-founder and Chief Editor of The Egypt Monocle.

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