Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The rapid encroachment of an Islamic state in Egypt: A timeline

By Nezar AlSayyad

The election of Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s first Islamist president, on June 24th, 2012, marked an important moment in the history of the country and promised to bring major change. In the past few months, as a popular uprising broke out against Morsi and his Islamization project, Egypt has inched closer to his vision.  When Morsi issued a decree granting himself unlimited emergency powers, allowing him to hold executive and legislative authority, while shielding himself from any possible judicial challenges, the opposition rightfully compared him to Mubarak and started to call him a dictator and a Pharaoh.

But whatever we may think of Morsi, we have to accept that he and the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails have been very shrewd in playing their political cards. Indeed, in the span of six months and through incremental steps, Morsi and his party have charted a direction that is likely to change the face of Egypt for a long time. To fully realize what Morsi achieved in the past six month, it is important to understand the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has always been a secretive organization. Its main ideology calls for the use of Shari’ah, or traditional Islamic law, as the main basis for governing the state and controlling all individual and societal affairs.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s website boldly declares that any international laws in the areas of the family, women, human rights, and freedom of expression and the press deemed contradictory to Shari’ah should be overturned in Egypt.

None of the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions, before or after the Egyptian uprising, demonstrate that that the organization has truly embraced democracy.  Having failed to gain power through their almost 80 years of existence, initially through violent means and later through limited opposition, the Brotherhood came to accept that the only way to acquire it is through the democratic process. Their ultimate objective however is to revive the Islamic Caliphate, a system they consider to be an alternative political structure to the democracy that brought them to power.  Reflecting on Morsi’s decisions since he took office illustrates how the brotherhood is on the track to achieve many of these goals in the near future.

Two weeks before Morsi took office as President in late June, and after narrowly winning the presidential election, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the recently elected parliament because of legitimate electoral violations that allowed the Islamists, particularly Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, to dominate the chamber. His first act as president was a surprise and bold move to call back to session the dissolved parliament which was controlled by his Islamist allies. A few days later he had to backtrack when the High Administrative Court ruled that he does not have the authority to do so, and only after the military — partially still in power — surrounded the Parliament Building and prevented the Islamists legislators from entering it.

The lesson that Morsi learned from this experience was that he needs to tame the Constitutional Court in the future. Incidently, the parliament before it was dissolved appointed an assembly of 100 individuals, dominated by Islamists, to draft a new constitution.  When he took over as President, Morsi's second act was to assert the legitimacy of this assembly.

A few weeks later Morsi appointed his first cabinet, and although most of the ministers were technocrats, the cabinet was dominated by Islamist sympathizers.  In fact, Morsi entrusted important ministries like the Ministries of Information, Education, Religious Affairs, and Parliamentary Affairs to well known conservative Islamists. In the same week, he released many prisoners including those imprisoned during the uprising and detained by the Military during its 17 months rule. But Morsi also seized this opportunity to release some detainees convicted of smuggling and similar crimes, as well as other prisoners, all Islamists, who had been convicted of terrorism charges for premeditated attacks on government officials, secular legislators, and foreign tourists during Mubarak’s rule.

On August 12th, and in another surprise and bold move, Morsi forcibly retired Generals Tantawi and Enan, the two main figures who presided over the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which handed him the presidency after governing Egypt after the uprising. Their removal resulted in a few resignations of other SCAF members in protest. But again, Morsi seized this opportunity to appoint General Abdul-fattah El-Sisi, a closet Islamist, to serve as Minister of Defense and Head of SCAF and thus neutralized the military.

On October 10th and in another bold and unprecedented move against the judicial branch, Morsi attempted to remove the Public Prosecutor Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud.  But when the entire Judiciary and the Judges Club protested his decision, Morsi again backtracked and left Mahmoud in his position.

Having played a major role in stopping the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in November and anticipating that the courts will nullify his Constitution-drafting Assembly, Morsi took another bold decision. While world leaders were showering him with praise for his intervention in Gaza, Morsi again fired the Public Prosecutor and appointed an Islamist sympathizer as the new Public Prosecutor. Knowing that his decision will be challenged by the judiciary, he issued the Constitutional Declaration on November 22nd which gave him the unprecedented emergency powers mentioned earlier which have his decisions immunity from court challenges.

He did so primarily to ensure two objectives. First, this action would prevent the courts from dissolving both the Islamist-dominated Shura Council- the Upper House of Parliament — which had been elected in the same manner as the dissolved Lower House, and the Constitution-drafting Assembly which was about to produce an Islamic leaning constitution.  The few liberals and Christians who were part of that assembly had already resigned earlier in protest since their voices were not being included in the drafting process.  To ensure that the Constitutional Court would not be able to act, Morsi’s allies galvanized thousands of Salafi protesters to surround the courthouse, literally not allowing the judges to reach it to prevent them from meeting.  The Military, now under Islamist leadership, protected the protesters instead of helping the judges reach the courthouse.  Second, Morsi’s declaration called for a speeded-up referendum to be held on December 15th to approve the draft constitution.

Major protests broke out around Morsi’ presidential palace and several protesters died in confrontations between the opposition and the Islamist groups who were defending the palace.  On December 9th and after the protest started to die down, Morsi, in what had by now become a familiar pattern, backed down and issued a second Constitutional Declaration. The second declaration supposedly cancelled most of his emergency powers except the most important one, which required an immediate national vote on the draft constitution in two weeks' time.  By then, Morsi had already achieved his two objectives, since the court could not meet to announce a ruling on the legitimacy of the two suspect bodies, and since the voting on the draft constitution was already underway.

Although many judges refused to supervise the voting process on the new constitution as mandated by Egyptian Law, Morsi went ahead with the referendum making the voting on two days to make up for the absence of sufficient judicial supervision in one day.  On December 24th, the results were announced, indicating that less than a third of eligible voters participated, and the Egyptian people voted to approve a constitution that denies many of them basic human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of expression or press, and grants new powers to religious authorities to govern public behavior and morality.

Signature tactics

Morsi played a trick on the Egyptian people and won big. The pattern of issuing surprise and bold declaration in which he orders sweeping declarations and extreme measures, then backtracks but only on some of them a few weeks later to appear as if he is responding to the opposition, has allowed him to get many of these measures instituted in record time. Indeed this process had become a signature tactic of this rule. By the time, the constitution was ratified with 63% approving it, Morsi had acquired through it the authority to assign the Islamist-dominated Shura Council — a body he appointed one third of its members — full legislative duties until the election of the future parliament now renamed “House of Representatives” are conducted.

According to the new constitution, there are many new councils awaiting formation and the Shura Council will be in charge of appointing them and working out the laws that govern their operation.  For example, under the new constitution, the Supreme Constitutional Court members were reduced from 19 to 11 members and the new structure required the elimination of the junior judges based on seniority. This tactic was very effective in removing Judge Tahani El-Gebali , the only woman on the court and an ardent defender of secular causes in Egypt. Her removal was a victory for the hard-core Islamists who felt that her presence does not conform to Shari’ah, which does not accept women as jurists. But it was also deliberate strategy: you sideline one of the main advocates for the independence of the judiciary.

The Shura Council will also appoint a number of important agencies, like a counter-corruption commission whose mission is to fight corruption and conflicts of interest, a national agency for the press whose mission is to administer state-owned press corporations, a national council for media whose mission is to manage radio and TV broadcasting including private cable television, a national council for education to rewrite school curriculum, and a national commission for elections whose mission is to organize election procedures in Egypt.  All these critical institutions that will define the future Egyptian state are now being decided by a body whose legitimacy is questionable and whose membership is 88% Islamist.

Other new laws are expected to be issued by the Shura Council and possibly later by the Parliament. Most important among these is the law that will organize the next parliamentary elections, and the law that will govern the election of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the prime institution of Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt.  One can speculate that he intent of the first is to facilitate the election of another Islamist Parliament, and the second is to retire the current moderate Sheikh Al-Tayyeb and to replace him with someone more in line with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi allies, particularly because this person will be constitutionally in charge on interpreting Shari’ah for the state according to the new constitution.

Campaign to distract?

Subtle and not too subtle changes have already been observed in Egypt. State Television is now under the direction of an Islamist Minister who controls what the government wants to show to the public, just as it was in Mubarak’s time. The films of a famous actresses who is considered hostile to the Islamization process, are not being shown on state television, while news anchorwomen have now been veiled on state channels. Other public-sector employees, including the flight attendants of the national airline, are also now allowed to veil if they so desire, and an Islamist police officer has sued the state and won the right to grow his beards while in the service.  All these practices bring the Egyptian state closer to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideal of proper Islamic behavior in the public sphere.  Today, journalists and television personalities are being extra careful about what they write or say as the tendency of the Muslim Brotherhood groups is to file complaints with the new Islamist-appointed Public Prosecutor accusing these journalists of blasphemy or of insulting the president.

The Salafis, the fundamentalist Islamists who are the principle allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, are also engaged in their own disturbing discourse with some of their preachers proposing to desegregate schools and the work place by gender, and advocating that the statues in the ancient Egyptiam temples are idols and hence should be covered.  It seems that they have adopted the same strategies from Morsi’s playbook by initially proposing extreme measures, so that the final outcome would be lesser but still oppressive policies. It is as if this is a campaign to distract the Egyptian people from serious discussions about the direction of the country.

All of this is going on while the Egyptian economy is collapsing. Tourism is as at its lowest levels ever, businesses are unable to transfer proceeds out of Egypt, and no new foreign investment has come into the Egyptian economy for two years.  On December 27th, the new Public Prosecutor, responding to a request from Islamist lawyers, initiated a probe of the four main opposition figures — mainly the candidates who ran for president against Morsi — including, Nobel winner Mohammad  ElBaradei, former Foreign Mister Amr Mousa, former parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahi, and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, accusing them all of sedition. Similar charges have been filed against two major media personalities for insulting the presidency.

On January 5th, Morsi completed the total Islamization of the Executive Branch by shuffling his cabinet for the third time, to replace 10 ministers including those of Aviation, Municipal Affairs, Legal Affairs, Communication, Food Supplies, Finance, Transportation, and Interior which is in charge of the Police. All but one hail from the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is precedent for such a radical transition. We have seen a somewhat similar situation more than 30 years ago in Iran.  When the Egyptian uprising occurred, there was much hope that Egypt, led by Islamists, was going to resemble Turkey, but the Muslim Brotherhood quickly rejected the Turkish model as too secular. When the Egyptian military was still in control, there was a fear that Egypt was going to be another Pakistan. But that too has not come to be true, or at least not yet since Morsi seemed to have controlled the military’s presence in state affairs for now.  But Egypt, even if it is not going to become another Iran, may be quietly and rapidly evolving into an Islamic State. Once this happens, it will be irrevocable, at least for many decades to come.

In the end, Morsi has boldly installed the foundations of what can easily become a theocratic state in Egypt despite his party’s statements to the contrary. Indeed, he may claim that he is not a dictator or a Pharaoh, but he clearly desires to be a Caliph. Time will tell if there is a difference!