Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi turned Egyptian politics on its head on Thanksgiving eve with his now familiar style of governance: a unilateral, surprise decree, the fourth of its kind since Morsi assumed his position in June. Each of these decisions has proceeded with little to no consultation and, regardless of their intent, each proclamation was notable for carving out further and broader authorities for the executive. The common thread linking these decisions is the majoritarian lens though which the Muslim Brotherhood understands political life and democratic politics -- one which bodes ill at this foundational moment when Egypt is attempting to refashion its social compact and establish a sustainable constitutional and political order.
Morsi's majoritarian mindset is not anti-democratic per se, but depends upon a distinctive conception of winner-takes-all politics and the denigration of political opposition. Winning elections, by this perspective, entitles the victors to govern unchecked by the concerns of the losers. This chronic overreach has cemented the divide between Islamists and non-Islamists and heightened suspicions of the Brotherhood's ultimate intentions.
The latest constitutional declaration included defensible measures such as victims' compensation and the reopening of cases related to the violent repression of protesters. But they came with a poison pill, namely, the granting of unlimited and unreviewable presidential authority. In plain terms, Article VI of the declaration enshrined immunity for any and all presidential decisions and an ostensibly temporary form of unchecked one-man rule. Needless to say, for a deeply divided country that had risen up against the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak not two years past, these steps were shocking and ominous for many outside the Islamist political fold (and perhaps even some within it). These measures set the stage for potential repressive actions by an unchecked executive in response to any form of opposition
Morsi's defenders presented the move as a natural response to obstructionism by figures from within the old regime. Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood spokesman, argued that "[t]his president saw a clear danger that can derail Egypt's transition, and he acted within his legal bounds to protect the transition against that danger." But such unstinting support seemed divorced from the political realities that have limited the scope and pace of reform since the fall of Mubarak. That transition has been marked by fragmentation that has diffused the energy behind the original uprising, and double-dealing by all political factions that has imbued political actors with justifiable paranoia. The majoritarian mindset has so clouded the judgment of the president and his insular advisors that they were either wholly unaware of the potential backlash his edict would engender or wholly dismissive of the opposition that would articulate that rejection.
As opposed to engaging in constructive dialogue and coalition building with reformist forces, the Muslim Brotherhood has eschewed broad-based politics since the fall of Mubarak. While all political factions have been guilty of such irresponsible behavior, the onus for this state of affairs falls disproportionately on the Brotherhood. The group chose to maximize its political power at each critical juncture and now dominates affairs of state. The group has instead only engaged seriously with the Egyptian military, an institution with credibility and popularity that made it a potential hurdle to the Brotherhood's agenda. The pacted transition which emerged from that tumultuous and adversarial process sheds light on how the Brotherhood understands Egyptian politics and its place within it. While the group and its political wing enjoy deep-rooted support and organizational advantages, the Brotherhood seems oblivious to the fluidity and shallowness of political allegiance or the possibility of its own fall from dominance.
Among the true tragedies of the current crisis is that the institutions and bureaucracy of the former regime -- including the judiciary -- are in dire need of reform. Judicial reform, including removal of the ineffectual prosecutor general, was in fact a core and unifying goal of the revolutionary movement. The courts have acted in politicized and obstructionist fashion at various junctures and have appeared to defend the old regime's interests. But the judiciary's record on reform is mixed, with numerous decisions supporting the early tide of reform, and the more politicized stances of the courts have been enabled by the country's polarized politics.
The actions of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), which controversially dissolved the country's democratically-elected parliament in June, have received the most attention, particularly as it stood poised to pass judgment on the reconfigured Constituent Assembly drafting a new constitution. While the move was suspect and problematic when considered within the broader context of the transition process, it was defensible based on legal precedent. More importantly, however, the move was driven by the convergence of institutional self-interest, with the SCC concerned by heavy-handed parliamentary threats to neuter the court, and justified fears of unchecked majoritarianism by the ascendant Islamist forces. This political cover is the key to understanding activist judicial behavior, and can be remedied by a broader conception of the transition process to include meaningful minority input and protections where the courts are not the sole check on executive authority.
It is striking that Morsi has evinced no comparable interest in reforming acquiescent institutions of state, including the ministry of interior, which was the primary tool for state repression under Mubarak. This spotty commitment to reform suggests Morsi's moves were more a function of securing unobstructed authority. Many of the goals iterated as the cause of the president's abrupt decision could have been secured through negotiation and consensual means.
Considering the limited nature of the stated goals, the audacity and breadth of the declaration present an incongruous picture. Within Egypt's polarized and contested politics, worst-case assumptions regarding ultimate intentions are inevitable in light of ambiguous and dangerous language allowing the president to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution." In a deteriorating political environment and faced with implacable opposition, abuse of such presidential authority would be nearly inevitable. Even if one were to assume good faith on the part of Morsi, the president appears woefully out of touch with the country he governs. In fact, Morsi seemed to have a better grasp of the lenient international political climate in the wake of his diplomatic efforts on Gaza than the depth of opposition to his rule. With mass mobilization and limited political violence a continuing fact of life, there is no guarantee that destabilizing steps will not escalate beyond the current norms that have typified and bounded the scope of conflict. Serious and broad-based civil strife remains unlikely, but not impossible. Such an eventuality will only seem inevitable in retrospect.
Even if the declaration is annulled or scaled back, it seems clear that President Morsi will attempt to use the threat of the declaration to coerce acceptance of the unrepresentative and dysfunctional constitutional-drafting process. This is particularly unfortunate as the drafting process has been a microcosmic reflection of the broader ills that have undermined post-Mubarak transition and reform. It is also the arena least suited to the majoritarian impulse, with a constitution expected to provide a sustainable foundation for the emerging political order. With serial resignations of the assembly's non-Islamist representatives, the current process is likely to further political conflict and is unlikely to establish sustainable divisions of power that can steer the country away from instability and violence.
As opposed to mustering a more durable and broad-based consensus for change and reform, Morsi's fateful step ensured that the divisions that have marred the post-Mubarak era will only be heightened and more irreconcilable. More broadly, this recurrent pattern raises fundamental questions about the Brotherhood's commitment to an inclusive democratic process in which compromise and consensus are necessary ingredients. At root, the Muslim Brotherhood believes that it represents the authentic voice of Egyptian society and that its years of repression and its impressive electoral victories have invested it with the right to implement its agenda. As opposed to undertaking the arduous and difficult task of negotiating consensus outcomes, the Brotherhood now seems intent on eschewing the give and take of democratic politics and monopolizing political power. Egypt may step back from the brink yet again, but Morsi's ill-conceived gambit will have poisoned the body politic and exacerbated the chronic and manifest flaws of the country's transition. At a moment when a consensus outcome is most needed, that possibility will have been foreclosed.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation.