Is Egypt heading down the same road as Iran?
Abdel Latif El Menawy
Last updated at 12:01AM, November 26 2012
Morsi is doing the Muslim Brotherhood’s bidding. Now he has the final say on democracy
Recently, in a small room in the House of Lords, a group of Egyptian and British intellectuals and politicians debated events in Egypt.
Almost all the Egyptians were liberals, or considered themselves to be, and all feared for the future since the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency. But they were divided. Some said that liberals should give the new president a chance and co-operate with him, especially as the Brothers had never had an opportunity to rule before. Others believed that political Islam would mean the end of the secular state.
Then an Iranian who had lived in Britain since the Islamist revolution in 1979 spoke. He pointed to the room next door and said that in it he had once been part of a similar debate. The only difference was that it had been more than 30 years ago, and between Iranians. Ayatollah Khomeini had just returned to Iran and many liberals believed they could work with these religious men. The dialogue, he said, would have been identical to today’s. “Where are we now? Where is Iran?” he asked.
Mohamed Morsi’s new constitutional decree, which gives him total control of the state apparatus, grants him more authority than any Egyptian ruler since the Pharaohs. Egyptians had hoped that Mr Morsi would use power to piece back together a nation torn apart in the uprising that toppled President Mubarak last year. His first statement assured Egyptians that he would rule for every citizen of every sect. However, the decisions of his first few months in power have merely put into practice decisions made in the Muslim Brotherhood’s offices. For instance, under a process called “Brothering the State” all newspaper editors have been changed, with many replaced by Brotherhood members.
Meanwhile, a number of Christians and secularists have withdrawn from the committee drafting the new constitution, leaving it dominated by Islamists. The committee now has immunity from the law and the judiciary is forbidden even to discuss it.
Using international crises to achieve their aims is a frequent Brotherhood tactic. Egypt’s success in brokering a truce in Gaza has made the President an international star, and he has used that prestige to make decisions that will inevitably lead to the establishment of a new dictatorship potentially tougher than the previous one. He now has unlimited domestic authority and the right to halt any legal challenge to his decisions until a new parliament is elected. God knows when that will be.
Mr Morsi is allowed to issue any decree or take any procedures deemed necessary in the face of “dangers threatening the revolution and national security”. Another law, the “Act to Protect the Revolution”, gives the new Attorney-General the right to jail people for up to six months to “protect the revolution”. And the judiciary is forbidden from dissolving the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council, the upper house of the Egyptian parliament. It was expected that the constitutional court would do this in December, as it did with the people’s assembly, the lower chamber of parliament, in June.
The Attorney-General has also said that “any incitement by the media against the current regime” is against the new law. Complaints are already being pursued against a number of media and public figures.
Amnesty International has said that these powers undermine the rule of law and threaten a new phase of repression. It pointed out that no one should be above the law, including the President himself, and called on him to repeal his self-granted political immunity against the judiciary.
When the President spoke to a gathering of his supporters organised by the Muslim Brotherhood, he made what seemed like an oath. “I assure you, I will not use this legislation against anyone or to settle accounts with anyone, but when I see the nation put in danger by the old regime I will,” he claimed, adding: “Rest assured, I will not oppress anyone.”
But many did not believe him. On the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, and in the rest of Egypt, the people no longer believe anything from the Brotherhood, which hasn’t lived up to any of the promises it has made since the uprising began in January last year.
The justifications of Mr Morsi’s supporters are reminiscent of language used by the former regime — that exceptional circumstances require exceptional procedures. In other words, Mr Morsi will play the role of dictator only temporarily while it is “a matter of national security”. But the extent to which the political situation remains a matter of national security will, presumably, be determined by the Brotherhood itself.
When Ayatollah Khomeini was on the plane taking him from Paris to Tehran after the toppling of the Shah, he told reporters: “Men of religion do not want to rule.” Indeed.
Abdel Latif El Menawy is a former head of news for Egyptian State Television