Egypt: pitfalls of working within the old system

Developing Just Leadership

Ayman Ahmed

Muharram 17, 1434 2012-12-01

News & Analysis

by Ayman Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 10, Muharram, 1434)

The travails of President Mohamed Mursi clearly highlight the pitfalls of accepting half-measures and working within the existing jahili system. The old guards are fighting back frustrating the march toward a constitutional-based order in Egypt.

The challenges facing President Mohammed Mursi in Egypt are piling up, especially from remnants of the Mubarak regime and discredited politicians. All this was quite predictable and expected. We at Crescent International had repeatedly pointed to these when al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun were grappling with the post-Mubarak Egypt and what course to adopt. Similar warnings were sounded when Mursi was elected president. Regrettably, all these and more have come true with stunning speed as he tries to wrest control from entrenched power-brokers who refuse to let go of the privileges they once enjoyed.

The latest crisis erupted when Mursi assumed vast powers, albeit temporarily, on November 22 to prevent the judiciary from disbanding another panel tasked with drafting a new constitution. The earlier body appointed by the elected but also-dissolved parliament was sent packing home by the military working in tandem with same judiciary, most of whose judges were appointed by the former dictator Hosni Mubarak. With the ouster of the old American-backed dictator, these judges should also have been sent packing but this was postponed with predictably serious consequences.

A meeting between Mursi and senior judges on November 26 seems to have pacified the latter when the president assured them that not only were his powers temporary but that these would be confined to “sovereign matters.” Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told the media after the meeting: “The president said he had the utmost respect for the judicial authority and its members.” Mursi assured the judges that he did not infringe on their authority. He also told them that the same immunity was extended to the two bodies — a panel drafting a new constitution and parliament’s upper chamber.

Mursi’s decree was used by remnants of the Mubarak regime to come out of the woodwork and whip up mass hysteria by calling the president a “new pharaoh.” They did more: violent mobs went on a rampage attacking the offices of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to which Mursi belongs. FJP offices in Cairo, Port Said, and Alexandria, among other cities, were attacked. A 15-year-old youth, Islam ‘Abd al-Maqsud was killed by the mob in Damanhoor on November 24 when anti-Mursi protesters tried to storm the local offices of his party. Thousands attended the youth’s funeral the following day. Health Ministry officials have said more than 440 people have been injured in clashes between supporters and opponents of Mursi.

Among those leading the charge against Mursi are such figures as Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei who did not contest the presidential elections and, therefore, has no demonstrable public support, and Amr Moussa, a one-time foreign minister during the Mubarak regime. Until just before the presidential elections, he had served as Arab League Secretary General, another regime-backed position. Moussa lost badly in the first round of presidential elections getting a paltry 3% of the vote. Yet he now presents himself as a champion of people’s rights, something he consistently ignored for decades during the Mubarak era.

What prompted Mursi to take this drastic step and is it really a power grab? The judiciary has been placing hurdles in his way — an elected president — to prevent the state from functioning. The judiciary was considering a motion to disband the panel tasked with writing a new constitution. It would not only have delayed drafting of the constitution, thereby preventing the country from having a system of government based on the rule of law but it would also have plunged the country into political paralysis. Opposition politicians are still trying to achieve that with support from their masters in the West. While many judges refused to work during the four days that political turmoil had gripped the country, prior to that they were considering another motion: to restore the military council, virtually bringing back martial law.

For the Mubarak-era judges to advance the argument about their independence and the rule of law is like the prostitutes of Paris claiming to uphold morality. It was these same judges that had sent thousand of people to the gallows on flimsy charges when Mubarak was in power. They also consigned tens of thousands of people to long prison terms. And as recently as October, the prosecutor general ‘Abd al-Magid Mahmud, another Mubarak era appointee, who is supposed to represent the government, deliberately bungled a case against 21 former regime officials. They were charged with instigating violence against peaceful protesters on February 3, 2011 in which hundreds were badly injured. Armed thugs — the baltagia — riding horses and camels were unleashed on Tahrir Square beating up protesters. Many of these thugs were caught by the protesters and handed over to the police yet Mahmud still bungled the case, deliberately.

When Mursi removed him from his post, Mahmud and the Judiciary Council protested. Mahmud said his was a life appointment. Mursi had to back down but it would have been irresponsible of him, as the first freely elected president of Egypt, if he allowed the situation to deteriorate. As part of his decree, he also announced compensation to the victims of violence during protests against Mubarak. The regime’s forces had killed 850 people yet the judges are shielding such criminals.

Mursi has said he wants to retain the new powers only until the constitution is drafted and presented for a referendum. The constitution will clearly define the powers of the president, parliament and the judiciary. Parliamentary elections will be held sometime next year. As part of their disruptive tactics, the secularists and their allies among the Coptic Christians that are also part of the constitution-drafting panel, walked out saying it is dominated by Islamic elements. In a country that is nearly 90% Muslim and that had parliamentary elections in which Islamic candidates won 75% of the seats, the secularists are still complaining about the panel’s composition. The secularists are so used to getting privileges that they have come to assume these as their right.

Mursi’s experience with the judiciary and the secularists should be a lesson for all Islamic movements that try to work within the existing system. Remnants of the old regime will frustrate every attempt to establish legality aimed at ensuring people’s rights. Institutions left over from the old regime — the bureaucracy, military and the judiciary — are instruments that are used to subvert the people’s will.

Unless the slate is swept clean and the Islamic movement starts from scratch building new state institutions, there will be endless hurdles placed in its way until the new order is either overthrown or so corrupted that it becomes indistinguishable from the old one. While building new institutions takes time and there are also the uncertainties of inexperience, these are better than living with the old system hoping that its operatives will reform themselves.

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