Egypt's politics since the 2011 revolution has consistently combined bare-knuckled combat with abstruse legal maneuvering, as if WWE wrestlers were attempting to operate parts of their contest within the framework of a Japanese tea ceremony. There are four major differences. First, wrestling matches and tea ceremonies last minutes and hours, but Egypt's legal-political battles began decades ago and show no hint of dénouement. Second, the Egyptian struggles are completely unscripted and unpredictable. Third, they matter. Fourth, their participants are focused not only on the moment but also steeped historical antecedents of today's struggles -- it is impossible, for instance, to hear a discussion of the judiciary that does not refer to an infamous judicial purge in 1969.
In order to assist befuddled observers of Egyptian politics, we have assembled this brief guide explaining the current state of play.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
In the fall of 2012, three mothers, along with their infant children, begin serving one-to-two-year prison terms in Iran. Their crime? Being Baha'is in the birthplace of their faith. In February 2012, a man is jailed without charge in Saudi Arabia. Why? According to authorities, for his own safety because he allegedly "disturbed the public order" by tweeting comments deemed to insult the religious feelings of others. In December 2012, an atheist blogger is sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt. His offense? Posting online content that allegedly "insulted God and cast doubt on the books of the Abrahamic religions."
These are just some of the many examples of the contempt that governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) often exhibit toward freedom of religion or belief. Since the onset of the Arab Awakening in early 2011, religious freedom conditions have not improved, but declined. While larger hopes for justice and democracy are experiencing convulsive birth pangs, majority and minority religious believers alike face increasing government repression in many MENA countries; sectarian violence is on the upswing; and violent religious extremism is fueling regional instability.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images
Mounting anti-Ikhwan sentiment inside and outside Egypt has become indisputable. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government's poor performance coupled with its political arrogance and immaturity have irritated many Egyptians and alarmed western policymakers. However, the crucial question is: Does it really matter? Does the MB take their critics seriously? More importantly, how will this anti-Ikhwanism play out with the internal politics of the MB?
The MB doesn't seem to be much concerned with the growing resentment against its rule. The movement is chiefly preoccupied by grabbing as much power as it can and its leaders don't give much attention to the allegation that their popularity is waning.
Moreover, President Mohamed Morsi tends to ignore, disdain, or threaten the opposition's leaders, which he believes are attempting to undermine his rule. For him, as long as MB support is secure, nothing should be worrying. Not surprisingly, since taking power, Morsi has shown no sign of disentanglement between the presidency and the MB. His discourse and policy are still much attached to the MB's ideology and leadership.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
There could be more outrageous public relations disasters for a government to engage in. There could be. I just can't think of any. Imagine Jon Stewart being arrested on charges of insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and insulting Judaism. Then imagine that in the entire English-speaking world, there are only political satirists. You then get to what it means for the Egyptian authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Bassem Youssef, and the easily predictable repercussions. But this case goes far beyond Bassem Youssef -- it speaks to the future of freedom of expression and the media in the largest Arab country, and to the success of its ongoing revolution.
Bassem Youssef is a unique phenomenon -- a political satirist that is well known all over the Arab world, as well as the West. His meteoric rise through the use of social media and television over the past two years could never have been planned, but he emerged at a time when Egyptians and Arabs were waiting for a non-partisan critic to combine classic Egyptian irony with political awareness. In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef considered the revolution as a continuing one -- and that his role within it would be to push the envelope of public discourse, holding authority to account. But always with humor -- and thus far, he has touched not only the hearts of Egyptians, but of Arabs around the world.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Egyptian opposition's decision to boycott parliamentary elections looks familiar to those of us who study Latin America, where high profile boycotts have periodically been used by parties who distrust the government in charge of administering those elections. Unfortunately for the Egyptian opposition, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale, since boycotts have too often turned into self-inflicted political wounds. The opposition is choosing not to act as a legislative brake on the executive, thereby reducing its own political influence.
Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or elsewhere, this is the basic scenario. A controversial regime in a politically divided country holds elections and opposition parties must decide whether to participate or withdraw. Both choices require a difficult cost-benefit calculation.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.
However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country's newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has finally issued dates for the new parliamentary elections, due now to begin April, and end in July, over staggered rounds. Voices within the opposition have begun to splinter apart over participation; the presidential candidate that never was, Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, has already called for a boycott. Looming in the distance, however, is the key reality around what the country is going to look like in a few months time -- and if a civilian led Egypt is still a reality. Indeed, ElBaradei recently reminded the international community of the stakes in this regard, explicitly indicating that holding elections in April would risk placing the country into a state of "total chaos and instability," resulting in a military intervention. He said, "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the army] have a national duty to intervene."
ElBaradei was not advocating the intervention of the military -- he was simply pointing that it may happen as a natural consequence. Nevertheless, a certain scenario has been making the rounds around some elements within the political elite in Egypt's opposition -- some, it should be noted, rather than all or most. It goes something like this:
Morsi has made a mess of the transition to democracy, and even though he was elected, he has failed in his duty. The political turmoil and polarization are proof enough of that -- the economic disaster that is about to fall upon Egypt will simply be the logical consequence of all of that, and will ensure that the military intervenes to save the country. When the military does so, the Muslim Brotherhood might put up a little bit of a struggle, but they'll fold pretty quickly in order to assure themselves a political future in Egypt. Alternatively, they might fight a little bit, but the military will make short shrift of them, and they will then be shunted underground, ending for once and for all this abysmal experiment of Islamist rule in Egypt. The military, having understood the mistakes it made during Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's reign, will be far more suave this time around, and will set the stage for a new constitution, and a new presidential election, before it departs the scene. The international community will cluck, cluck, perhaps, but will quietly be satisfied, as they also never wanted an Islamist regime to emerge. The opposition will then provide an alternative leadership that can lead Egypt forward.
It is an interesting scenario, to say the least -- but it is not terribly realistic, let alone ethical. The military may indeed intervene, as it might under any regime that contributes to the instability of Egypt -- it did so under Mubarak, and it may do so again. However, Morsi is not Mubarak. The military intervened when it was clear the overwhelming majority of the country wanted Mubarak to go -- demonstrating in massive protests, in which millions of people over several weeks showed that they would not accept anything less than his departure. The same cannot be said for Morsi. He is certainly unpopular -- and with very good reason -- but the vast majority of Egyptians haven't shown they want him to have the same fate as Mubarak.
If the military were to intervene, moreover, no one should expect it to be a walk in the park. When Mubarak was forced to resign by the military, his own establishment, including those who had the arms, turned against him. The police force would not fight against the military, and that was that. In a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood is forced from power -- a movement, living in an existential moment, that already feels the world is out to get it -- it is hard to see the MB not reacting with force. It would eventually lose against the combined forces of the military and the police -- but it would not be pretty. It would be a betrayal of the revolution of Tahrir forever, if any "revolutionaries" wanted such a bloodbath in order to put aside their political opponents.
If the military then takes control, the assumption that this leadership would be that much different from the previous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not certain, to say the least. The former SCAF under Tantawi, regardless of the media assertions to the contrary, was incredibly popular in Egypt. Among the political elite, whether opposition or MB, it had a varied reputation -- but across the country, the military's standing was solid. It may thus believe that there are actually not many errors to correct for, and another transitional phase may not prove to be all that much better than the last one. Of course, no one knows how it will behave -- only that in general, the military will look out for it's own interests, which include the stability of Egypt, as well as the fortification of military independence and autonomy.
To assume that the opposition leadership has the ability to provide a genuine alternative that can steer the country better may turn out to be wishful thinking -- in general, political leadership in Egypt has been indescribably lacking for the masses of Egyptians. This goes just as much for the opposition, which does not enjoy as much blame as the MB for the political turmoil, as it is not in power -- but is still hardly stellar by comparison.
What is generally true is that the international community would, in all likelihood, cluck, cluck, and let things unfold as it will -- as long as Egypt remains stable. The failure of Egypt is simply not an option, for broader political, economic, and security considerations.
All of this should not come as a surprise to any political force within Egypt -- whether the opposition or the MB. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the way to avoid this outcome is not in the opposition's court. Even if it were to disavow, and actively be against any military involvement in politics, its weight is negligible in that regard -- the military will come or not come according to its own calculus, not that of the opposition. The Egyptian presidency is what makes the difference in Egypt in terms of averting the realization of this scenario. The presidency must be aware that within the opposition, the broad majority would want to avoid any further turmoil in Egypt. They no longer need political allies who are simply willing to back up the government -- the presidency need partners who are willing to serve in a genuine national salvation government that resolves the political turmoil on the one hand, and sets into motion an economic recovery immediately. As the days go on, that all becomes more and more difficult -- and the likely scenarios become less and less palatable, for everyone.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter@hahellyer.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt watchers were briefly all a-twitter yesterday about the appointment of the country's first post-revolutionary mufti. With rumors widespread that a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, would get the nod, concerns that the "Brotherhoodization" of the Egyptian state was soon to spread to the official religious establishment. In the end, al-Barr was passed over, but the brief kerfuffle obscures the real long-term struggle likely to take place over Egyptian religious institutions.
Instead of al-Barr, the designee is Shawqi Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Karim, a scholar of Islamic law teaching in Tanta. ‘Abd al-Karim is a figure known to his colleagues but with a low public profile. He has written widely on subjects ranging from the narrowly technical (a comparison between Islamic and civil law on the right to cancel a sale while the contracting parties are still in each other's presence), to the broadly social ("Women and Globalization in the Arabian Peninsula" in which he praises the spread of education among women but decries homosexuality), and to the esoteric (a book on sex selection and sex changes, a surprisingly lively topic among Islamic legal specialists in part because laws governing the family and even prayer are highly gendered, so that it becomes important to know whether one is dealing with a male or a female).
Egypt's latest spasm of unrest has stretched from Cairo to the Suez Canal, leaving more than 60 people dead and thousands injured. The police response has been chaotic and often brutal, a stark reminder that Egypt's security services remain unreformed and largely unaccountable two years after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Although President Mohamed Morsi's early months in power offered cause to believe that systemic change within the interior ministry was a distinct possibility, intransigence from the security services, the presidency, and Egypt's political opposition are now pushing the prospect for reform out of reach.
Popular anger against the brutality of Cairo's police force was catalyzed last week when satellite television broadcast a video of Hamada Saber, a 48-year old laborer, who had been stripped naked, dragged, and beaten by the Central Security Forces near Morsi's Presidential Palace.
At a press conference following the emergency national dialogue meeting held between members of the opposition and Islamist parties, prominent activist and revolutionary figure, Wael Ghonim said, "The aim of this meeting is not political, but rather to launch an initiative to stop the violence. It's a moral initiative aimed at stopping the bloodshed. That is why the Egyptian April 6 youth movement called on Al-Azhar to hold this meeting and gather together all Egypt's political forces and parties." Despite the positive first step in political reconciliation and Ghonim's encouraging words, an unspoken (yet glaring) gap stands out in this meeting: the absence of government or any other representative of the security apparatus. Although representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) attended the dialogue, no formal authority from the most significant party to the "bloodshed" -- the ministry of interior -- to which Ghonim refers could be found. Sadly, the discrepancy renders the resulting signed document committing the parties to nonviolence moot.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt approved a new constitution in a popular referendum on December 22, 2012, by a 63.8 percent vote. The establishment of the new legal framework for the post-Mubarak political order came after weeks of political turmoil, which pitted an Islamist current against a fragmented camp of liberals, leftists, and assorted non-Islamists. This diverse opposition responded to President Mohamed Morsi's fait-accompli with a return to street protests and an angry outcry against the procedures through which the constitution was introduced.
The exchange of reasoned arguments may have been a somewhat naïve aspiration prior to the popular referendum given the poisoned political climate. But it is still striking that the text of the constitutional draft received so little attention in the shrill accusations exchanged by intransigent political opponents. There may yet be time to rectify this failing, however. Representatives of the Morsi government, its opposition, and the judiciary have recently shown signs of willingness to renegotiate bits and pieces of the constitution as well as the by-laws governing the vague provisions in the document. If they do, there will be a wide range of articles to reconsider.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt's cataclysmic courtroom battles seem to be giving way to prolonged guerilla warfare over the judiciary. Attention-getting lawsuits will continue -- Egyptian judges simply see their courtrooms as places that should welcome calls for justice; Egyptians outraged by their government or their fellow citizens will continue to seek to cast their anger in legal form. Judicial anger over recent presidential actions will still simmer (indeed, I cannot remember a time when I have heard so many judges express themselves so ... well, so injudiciously). But the likelihood of a repeat of 2012's string of startling rulings is receding. That development may cause some relief to those struggling to master Egyptian law on the quick, but Egyptian politics, law, and courts are paying a price for those battles and their resolution.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
On January 25, thousands of Egyptians will gather in Tahrir Square and across Egypt to commemorate the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. They will celebrate with good reason. When Mubarak, pressured by millions in the streets and ultimately betrayed by his own top generals, resigned on February 11, 2011, a military-backed dictatorship that had ruled and largely abused Egypt for more than half a century came to an end. Most Egyptians were euphoric, and the world was transfixed by the unexpected power of the Tahrir Square freedom movement.
However, in the two years since, the transition remains fragile, and Egypt's politics remain dangerously polarized. In fact, in addition to celebration, there may also be clashes on January 25. Today Egypt has an elected president, a new constitution, and will soon hold parliamentary elections. But if Egypt has made halting steps toward democracy, worrying signs of illiberalism and poor governance are increasingly apparent. The outcome of the revolution in the Arab world's most populous country remains uncertain, and the threat of violence looms large.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Justice comes slowly to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and sometimes not at all. In August 2012, local security officials announced that they were searching for 120 militants wanted on charges of attacking police stations and killing 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military post near the border with Israel. Six months later, they're still looking. Police are few and far between, and those who do patrol the streets are increasingly the victims of the same crimes they are trying to prevent. Police cars are hijacked in broad daylight while officers are gunned down by masked assailants in a climate of brazen banditry and lawlessness that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously described as "a kind of Wild West."
The 23,500 square mile Sinai desert has long been a sanctuary for militant Islamist groups and smugglers operating along Egypt's porous border with the embargoed Gaza Strip. But despite their strategic significance, the two governorates of North and South Sinai are among Egypt's poorest and most politically marginal, accorded a mere four seats each in the 508-member People's Assembly. Decades of neglect and economic discrimination by the central government have fueled resentment among the Bedouin tribes that account for around 70 percent of the Sinai's 500,000 residents. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the Bedouins are formally employed, and one out of every four does not possess a government ID card. Their many grievances -- including legal obstacles to land ownership, lack of basic public services, job discrimination, and systematic exclusion from military and police academies -- have reinforced a climate of mutual distrust between the central government and the Sinai.
On Saturday, Egyptians voted in a national referendum on the country's new constitution, drafted over the course of six months by a largely Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. Opponents of the new document say it restricts freedoms, inflates the powers of the presidency, and makes second-class citizens out of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a loose coalition of opposition figures, including former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, declared that the constitution did not represent a majority of Egyptians, and urged his followers (after some dithering about a boycott) to vote no.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the results of the first phase of the referendum (conducted in 10 of Egypt's most populous governorates, with the remaining 17 to vote on December 22) were a blow to ElBaradei's narrative. The new constitution passed comfortably, with an estimated 57 percent voting yes. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has "hailed" the poll, describing the result as a rebuke to "politicians and collaborators who ignored the will of the people."
MAHMOUD kHALED/AFP/Getty Images
What happened to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood? Variants of this question have consumed the international media, academics, and policymaking circles over the last few weeks. Many Egyptians have equally given voice to unprecedented rage against the MB during the crisis sparked by President Mohamed Morsi's moves to push through a controversial new constitution. Bloody clashes between the MB followers and protesters in front of the presidential palace and the provocative discourse of some of the MB leaders took many by surprise, as did the outrageous actions of the MB and what is said to be torture chambers that were allegedly run by some of the MB members against peaceful protesters who were beaten and terrified at Morsi's presidential palace.
The Brotherhood's behavior seems bewildering to many observers who have followed the organization for many years. The recent crisis seems a profound setback and a retreat from its "moderate" character and longstanding "reformist" agenda. Some Egyptian politicians now accuse the MB of adopting a "fascist" propensity in dealing with its opponents. Many western commentators go farther, using the crisis as an excuse to cast profound doubts on the MB ideology and to question its democratic credentials. What does this crisis really say about the "nature" and the true "color" of the MB? Has it changed its ideology after taking power, or revealed its reformist rhetoric as a lie?
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
If a student of constitutional texts sat down to read the draft Egyptian constitution from beginning to end, he or she would find much of it familiar -- the language, structure, and institutions would seem to bear resemblances to constitutions in many other countries, even if the particular choices made or terms used were products of domestic political debates. He or she might pause at Article 4, promising that al-Ahzar will be consulted in matters of Islamic law. But the observer would likely be totally flummoxed upon arriving at Article 219, defining the principles of the Islamic sharia in technical terms from the Islamic legal tradition not used outside of scholarly circles: there has been nothing quite like this language adopted anywhere else. What does this mysterious clause say? How did it get there? And what impact would it have? These are three important questions, but each is more difficult to answer than the previous one.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
President Mohamed Morsi and his advisors cannot have expected that his November 22 constitutional declaration would throw Egypt into a renewed state of turmoil. That it has speaks volumes to the immense changes that have occurred in the country during the past two years. Morsi's support for President Barack Obama's truce initiative during the fighting in Gaza clearly reassured the U.S. president that under a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president Egypt would keep the peace with Israel. Because this has been the dominant concern within the U.S. foreign policy elite about the Egyptian revolution, Morsi had good reason to believe that the United States and the Egyptian Armed Forces would not object to his domestic decisions.
That Morsi's move has proven, in a deeply divided country, to have been a serious error of judgment is worth reflection. Early responses, especially in the United States, have either been self-satisfied sighs of recognition that the MB have finally revealed their true nature or, alternatively, sharp criticism of a westernized liberal minority that refused to accept gracefully the verdict of democracy mandating a stronger role for Islam, the MB, and Morsi himself.
With the violence that broke out in front of the presidential palace in Egypt yesterday, one can no longer describe the constitutional draft produced under the Mohamed Morsi government, as just "flawed." In process, the draft is abysmal. In context, it revises history. In content, it is silent, vague, and problematic. In consequence, it is bloody. It isn't just that Egypt can do better. Ratifying this constitution would reward, and deepen, polarization -- and the goals of the January 25 revolution would be that much further away from being achieved.
The most obvious problems with the constitutional draft are procedural. The process was supposed to deliver a representative constituent assembly, which would produce a consensus-based document that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians would sign up to, and feel invested in. The first assembly was dismissed in April, after the supreme administrative court pointed out members of parliament could not elect themselves onto the assembly, and that the assembly involved too few women, young people, and representatives of minority groups.
MAHMOUD kHALED/AFP/Getty Images
While the gradual meltdown of the Egyptian constitution-drafting process has been at center stage in Cairo over the past few months, the negotiations between the Egyptian government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $4.8 billion loan have rapidly become central to political conversations in Egypt. Egypt has a checkered past with the IMF. While it views Egypt as a success story for structural adjustment and privatization during the infitah, Anwar Sadat's economic liberalization, and the Hosni Mubarak-era transition away from state ownership, the Egyptian public associates the IMF with the human downside of structural adjustment policies: unemployment, rising prices, and increasing poverty. Even the IMF's own policy papers on Egypt now admit that the "social outcomes were unsatisfactory" during the 1990s and early 2000s.
President Mohamed Morsi's government has a real economic problem: a budget deficit around 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), falling tourism revenue, and difficulty encouraging international investment. Bilateral financial support has been forthcoming over the past few months, particularly from the Gulf states, but the IMF loan would be a key international indicator of approval for the regime, and would provide critical support for Egypt's position in the world market. In fact, the loan has been supported by both the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafi leaders, despite concern among other Islamists that the interest on the loan counts as usury and that the loan has been rendered haram. (The counterargument is that the low interest rate counts as a fee, and that no profit is being made; this is less than convincing to Islamist opponents, but serves as effective ideological cover for the Brotherhood.) The IMF had expressed a willingness to offer a loan package, provided that the Egyptian government drafted an economic plan that met with its approval.
While few noticed in the midst of an intense political crisis, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi issued another controversial decree recently: Decree no. 97 of 2012, introducing a few important amendments to Egypt's long-standing 1976 labor law. The highly controversial law has already garnered significant opposition from a wide array of labor activists especially as it threatens to extend a long history of state control over labor affairs. While this may not be directly linked to the battle over Morsi's decree claiming unlimited Presidential power, many Egyptians see it as part of a broader bid for executive and partisan power.
The most controversial amendments include a provision to remove any Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) union board member who is over 60 years of age. The ETUF has been historically close to Egypt's rulers and most of its current top leadership is comprised of loyalists to the Mubarak regime. The current leadership was elected in 2006, a year that many activists claim was particularly marred with state intervention to prevent reformist candidates from running and ensure the success of loyalist candidates. According to the law, removed unionists would be replaced by candidates who had received the second largest number of votes in the last union elections (2006). Importantly, however, the law authorizes the highest authority (in this case the minister of manpower -- currently also a member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled al-Azhari) to fill any remaining posts that could not be filled for whatever legal reason. Another amendment entails extending the current electoral term for ETUF leaders for an additional six months or until a new trade union law is enacted, whichever comes first.
These amendments raise two key questions: what implications does the content have for the future of state-labor relations in Egypt; and what is the significance of the timing of these amendments?
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.
If Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is ever in the market for a presidential theme song, he should consider, "U Can't Touch This." American rapper M.C. Hammer's infectiously arrogant refrain aptly sums up a stunning power play by the Egyptian president on November 22 -- a unilateral constitutional declaration that immunizes his decisions from judicial oversight and preempts legal challenges to an Islamist-dominated constitutional process. In short, the declaration makes Morsi's decisions legally untouchable. If this were Zimbabwe, we would call it dictatorship. But in Egypt, it's just business as usual in a dysfunctional democratic transition.
Morsi, who was elected Egypt's president in June on a platform pledging to purge remnants of the former regime from state institutions, is now taking cues straight from the playbook of his authoritarian predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. The president has attempted to justify the declaration as a necessary intervention to alleviate political gridlock, with the aim of achieving "revolutionary demands and rooting out remnants of the old regime." A senior advisor in the president's Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing), Gehad El-Haddad, took to his Twitter feed to defend the decision in less tactful terms. "Someone needs to get real," El-Haddad tweeted dismissively to critics who suggested that the president had less radical alternatives at his disposal.
AHMED MAHMOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt has had quite a week, even by its inimitable standards. President Mohamed Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, returning Egypt to the regional political balance and proving to be the pragmatic, realistic leader for which many had hoped. Almost immediately afterward, his government announced a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan. But then, just as Morsi stood poised to bask in the international acclaim, he suddenly released a presidential decree granting himself extraordinary powers and triggering a surge of popular mobilization protesting his decisions.
Morsi's move should be seen in the context of Cairo's intensely polarized, gridlocked politics rather than as some pure expression of Islamist intent. His power is more impressive on paper than in reality. But there is no real question that Morsi went too far: decrees changing the rules of the game and placing the executive above any appeal were dangerous and wrong when done by the SCAF, would have been dangerous and wrong if done by a President Shafiq, and they are dangerous and wrong when done by Morsi. They should be reversed. But that will no more solve the underlying problems than last week's Israel-Hamas ceasefire will solve the enduring problems of Gaza.
AHMED MAHMOUD/AFP/Getty Images
The bargaining among Egypt's political forces over the content of the country's constitution has been noisy, public, stormy, and dramatic. Indeed, over the past week, that tussle has brought the entire constitution drafting effort into crisis. It is still not clear whether that bargaining can still lead to a consensual document or whether the Constituent Assembly will collapse or produce a star-crossed constitution.
But there has been another bargaining process that has drawn far less attention and commentary, even though much of it has been carried out in clear public view. Even those parts of this second process that have taken place behind closed doors still have left unmistakable footprints in the various drafts. And while not devoid of drama, the slightly quieter process seems more likely to produce successful outcomes. This is the bargaining among various structures of the Egyptian state.
Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis have always had an authoritarian streak. Under Hosni Mubarak, Salafis scored points with the regime for taking a philosophical stand against democracy, which they rejected as an un-Islamic model of government. Mubarak successfully coopted Salafis to provide a religious justification for authoritarianism, and used the movement as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood's demands for political reform. During the January 2011 uprising, Salafis initially denounced mass protests against Mubarak, claiming that Islam prohibits rebellions against Muslim rulers.
When it became apparent that the old authoritarian system was disintegrating, Salafis reluctantly reversed their position on political participation and formed parties as a necessary means to achieve their end-game: a theocratic state. But now that the democratic process is derailing their efforts to enshrine Islamic law in Egypt's new constitution, Salafis appear to be reverting to their authoritarian roots.
AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Images
For decades, "human rights in the Middle East" was a subject of scrutiny, debate, and mobilizations spearheaded from outside of the region. Western governments including successive U.S. administrations frequently took up the region's dire human rights conditions and funded a variety of human rights initiatives to remedy them, in many ways as a substitute for forgoing economic and military alliances with highly repressive regimes. These foreign governments' human rights talk was heavy in its emphasis on women's rights and other violations for which backward cultural and religious belief were designated as the key culprits and light on its emphasis on civil and political rights violations. During the post-9/11 era, as highlighting the Middle East's deplorable human rights conditions added a veneer of moral purpose to military interventions in the region, the "human rights in the Middle East" line of inquiry took on a life of its own and created a cottage industry of Western-driven human rights assessments and prescriptions. All the while, local voices promoting human rights were largely silenced by authoritarian rulers simultaneously paying lip service to human rights and undermining it by arguing that it served foreign, Western, imperialist agendas. Cumulatively, there dynamics resulted in minimal Middle Eastern agency in defining the nature and scope of its own predicament vis-à-vis the human rights paradigm.
Today, the region's myriad of human rights mobilizations and contests are increasingly being spurred from within the Middle East, not abroad.
Long in the making, the embers of a dormant showdown between President Mohamed Morsi and the Egyptian judiciary have started glowing hotter in the past few weeks. Observers smelled traces of smoke when Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud failed to convict 24 prime suspects in the Battle of the Camel, the February 2011 attack on anti-government protesters in Cairo. More recently, members of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), the court responsible for the Supreme Council of the Armed Force's (SCAF) legal cover to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament, held a press conference rejecting all articles of the draft constitution concerning the powers of the court. Lastly, the administrative court set to rule on the validity of the second constituent assembly, elected by the disbanded parliament, postponed the case yet again before issuing a verdict, which is planned for next week. These events could be taken at face value -- insufficient evidence, an ambiguous constitutional framework, and more time needed to deliberate, respectively -- but the political implications behind each step suggest an institution issuing subtle warnings to restore its clout on the Egyptian stage or suffer the chaotic mess of a renewed constitutional process.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.