Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The rise of a Pharaoh: The Arab Spring's first dictator

By Nezar AlSayyad

Over the course of the past two years, the Arab World celebrated the fall of several of its most brutal dictators but last week it witnessed the meteoric rise of yet a new dictator, President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt.

While the world was occupied with celebrating the cessation of hostilities between Hamas and Israel in Gaza and heaping praise on Morsi for his intervention, Morsi seized the opportunity to issue the most sweeping decree ever issued by an Egyptian President in history. With one Constitutional declaration, Morsi  — who has held both executive and legislative authority since he sidelined the Egyptian Armed forces a few months ago — fired the Public Prosecutor and castrated the Egyptian Judiciary by declaring that his decisions cannot be appealed to any court.

Morsi and his party did not initiate the Egyptian uprising but they came out of it as the major winners with latent intent of giving Egypt a new Islamic constitution.  Citing a need to protect the “revolution” from unspecified dangers, Morsi achieved in a very short time what no modern leader of Egypt had ever achieved, a total control of all branches of government. Even Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century did not held such unchecked powers.

As Morsi announced his decree, the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails and its political wing — the undeservedly named “Freedom and Justice” Party — orchestrated major demonstrations in support of his decision in an attempt to preempt the anticipated opposition. The process of wrestling total control of governmental powers through preemptive mobilizations is not unusual. Indeed it is a recurring pattern in contemporary Egyptian History.   In the 1950s and 1960s Egyptians were mobilized to support the many decrees of the Army Officers who organized the 1952 coup that turned Egypt a decade later into a socialist republic.

The charismatic President Gamal Abdul Nasser was Egypt’s first modern dictator. Although he never possessed the broad powers that Morsi recently bestowed upon himself, Nasser — who was secular in outlook — arrested many of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and jailed them for many years because they were calling for making Egypt an Islamic State governed by Sharia. Although it was Nasser’s policies that brought about Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 War and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai, Nasser remained popular.  His ruling party — in a similarly orchestrated drive to the one pursued recently by the Muslim Brotherhood — managed to get its supporters out in the streets in the thousands to request that Nasser stay in office and to reject his resignation after the defeat. It was during Nasser’s time that Egypt acquired its first republican constitution which was a secular constitution laden with much Marxist and socialist rhetoric. It remained as a temporary constitution throughout Nasser’s rule and it was not until Anwar Sadat came to power after Nasser’s sudden death that Egypt acquired a permanent constitution.

Sadat — who was also a dictator albeit a benign one — was never fully appreciated during his life time.  Indeed, Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamist terrorists who objected to the peace treaty that he signed with Israel in 1979. However, many Egyptians came to admire him later because of his success in the 1973 Yum Kippur War, through which Egypt ultimately managed to regain the Suez Canal and part of its lost pride. Sadat, who was a devout Muslim and was even a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth, freed many of the Islamists who were imprisoned during Nasser’s time.

Recognizing that they are a real opposition that needs to be appeased or controlled, Sadat embarked on writing a constitution that included a statement that would later come back to haunt him and Egypt until today. This simple statement of only one line, in article 2 of the constitution, declared Islam as the official religion of the state and the principles of Sharia — Islamic Law — as the main source of legislation.

However, this gesture  was not sufficient for many of the fundamentalist Islamists and some of their organizations started to engage in acts of  domestic terrorism against state targets they considered legitimate.  In his final year before his death, Sadat cracked down and put many of the Islamists back in jail.  It was still a surprise to many observers when he was assassinated in 1981 by low-level army officers who belonged to some of the same groups he had released from Nasser’s jails a few years earlier. Their main justification for killing Sadat was that he had veered away from the principles of a Islam by engaging in the treaty with the Jewish State that they considered a colonizing presence on Arab Muslim land.

When Mubarak came to power after Sadat’s death, he paid very little attention to the constitution.  But as the population of the country increased and many Egyptian who worked in the Persian Gulf with its austere and intolerant brand of Islam returned home.  Egyptians — who are traditionally observant or devout — became more religious and more conservative. Mubarak dealt with this development in two ways; first, he allowed for a visible role for religion in the public sphere, enough to permit the members of the Muslim brotherhood with their Islamic platform to run for parliamentary elections as independents; and second, he encouraged the plethora of religious channels and programs on State Radio and Television before they became popular in private cable channels. Mubarak’s approach in dealing with the rising religiosity of Egyptians worked for more than two decades, as it allowed him to maintain control over the Islamists. However, he ultimately lost control over them in his last decade in power.

The Egyptian uprising was mainly orchestrated by students, bloggers, intellectuals, and labor groups who were dissatisfied with the economic and political situation in the country. By the time of the uprising, Islam occupied a very dominant role in Egyptian public life. It became common for many to talk about Egypt as an Islamic country. Similarly, many Egyptians Muslims started to speak publicly of themselves as Muslims first and foremost, while downplaying or even rejecting their identity as Arabs or Egyptians. That the uprising was hijacked by the Islamists, whose power had spread all over the country, should not have come as a surprise to any informed observer.

After Mubarak’s fall, the 18-month rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) bought a great deal of  chaos to Egypt.  Not only did it divert the political process put in place by the revolutionary forces, but it also corrupted the constitutional process in its infancy. Since the army had already been infiltrated by Islamist in the decades before the uprising, it was not difficult for SCAF members, sympathetic to the Islamists, to appoint a well known Islamist judge to be in charge of drafting a constitutional amendment that was favorable to the formation of Islamist political parties. The amendment was later approved by a large majority in the March 2011 referendum, which was the first free vote that Egyptians exercised in more than 50 years.  It laid the foundation for the current division in Egyptian society between the Islamists who insist on making Egypt an Islamic state governed only by Sharia law, and the liberals who favor what they call a civil state that accepts the general principles of sharia but that is governed by laws that would protect the secularists and the Coptic minority.

The parliamentary elections in 2011 and subsequent presidential election of 2012 would naturally bring the Islamists to dominate both the executive and legislative branches of government. Only the army and the judiciary, both of which contained a few loud liberals who were appointed by the former regime, had not fallen to them. To control the army, Morsi invoked executive authority and fired the head of SCAF and some of his top generals. Instead he quietly replaced him with another Islamist general and thus succeeded in neutralizing the army’s role in the affairs of the state after 60 years of its dominance over the political landscape of the country.

And when the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve the Islamist parliament in July 2012 a few days before Morsi’s election, because its members violated election laws, one of Morsi’s first acts as president was a move to reverse its decision by simply calling the parliament to reconvene under his orders.  The attempt was unsuccessful, as the court ruled that his order was unconstitutional. Since then, Morsi himself assumed both legislative and executive power and in one decree under the guise of leniency toward political prisoners, he freed many of the Jihadists, previously convicted of terrorist acts during the Mubarak regime. Morsi then spent much of his effort trying to either weaken or control the judiciary. When his efforts failed and invoking his executive authority, he fired the civil-leaning Public Prosecutor accusing him of failing to get major convictions against former government officials who were acquitted in the trials of the Mubarak regime. In what was now a clear pattern, Morsi appointed another Islamist-leaning prosecutor and ordered him to start a fresh round of investigations and retrials.

Using his legislative authority this time, Morsi also issued simultaneously a constitutional declaration which stated that all his decisions since her came to office on any matter are final and cannot be appealed to any court. In doing so, Morsi sidelined the Supreme Constitutional Court, the main branch of the Judiciary that could have stopped the full takeover by the Islamists. This happened at a time when that court was about to issue its ruling on a case brought by several civil society groups calling for the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated Constitutional Assembly appointed by the already dissolved Parliament. That committee was in the process of putting the final touches on a constitution that would make Egypt an Islamic state governed by Sharia law.

In acquiring all three branches of government in his hands, Morsi became Egypt’s new Pharaoh and the Arab Spring's’ first dictator. He amassed, in the span of a few months, powers that none of his predecessors could dream of acquiring in their combined 60 years of rule.  Ancient Egyptian pharaohs were not only kings but also gods who were worshipped by their people and accountable to the gods of the afterlife.  In his speech on Nov. 23,  as he tried to justify his decrees, Morsi declared that he was installed to his presidency by “God’s Will”, which made him “Captain of this Ship.” He asked Egyptians to trust him as the new ruler who claims he is still accountable to their one God.