Egypt's Five Branches of Government
November 28, 2012
The dramatic events in Egypt over the past few
days following President Mohammad Morsi’s unilateral decree giving him
unchallenged political authority should not surprise or frighten anyone. In
fact, the continuing developments can be seen as a positive stage in the
country’s historic political transition from autocracy to democracy. We are witnessing
now the first serious move by several important sectors of governance and
political society to affirm their influence, and start to shape a
checks-and-balances foundation for the democratic transition that remains to be
Egypt’s democratic political development is less tidy than Canada’s or
Sweden’s. It has been clear since the first parliamentary elections last year
that five branches of government now prevail in Egypt, and they need time to
shape their relationships: the presidency, judiciary, parliament, military
(SCAF) and citizens in the street (Tahrir Square). Slowly but surely, the
powers of each of these five parties are being defined and exercised.
Historically, the military and presidency held the most power. Today, a shift is
underway that sees the presidency and Tahrir Square being the most powerful in
the short run, but with a clear mandate for the judiciary to safeguard civilian
authority and oversee the whole process of change. This will evolve again when
the constitution is promulgated and parliament elected in the coming months.
So the most important aspects of this week’s developments, to my mind, are the
assertion of the role of the judiciary, and the first serious move by secular
liberal and opposition forces to come together into an alliance that could
challenge the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist
colleagues. The rapid establishment of a protest tent camp in Tahrir Square by
assorted populist forces and demonstrations against Morsi’s decree across the
country are an important reminder of the single most significant development
that happened during the overthrow of the former Mubarak regime and the
assumption of presidential powers by Morsi: The political legitimacy of the
ruling civil powers in Egypt is now grounded in populist consent, now
represented by demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
Morsi acknowledged this when he symbolically took his oath of office before a
large crowd of ordinary Egyptians in Tahrir Square last June, before he was
formally sworn in before the Constitutional Court, with the then-ruling Supreme
Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) holding real power in the background.
Morsi’s message to the citizenry in Tahrir Square was that political power and
authority are vested in the people. Today, he has to answer to the same Tahrir
Square that challenges the legality and wisdom of his unilateral decree placing
himself and his decisions above the authority of the judicial system.
It was inevitable that his move would elicit the strong responses it did from
opposition forces that have long feared that the Muslim Brotherhood would
eventually make a power grab and try to install itself as permanent ruler in
the country. It is not clear to me that this is what Morsi was trying to do
with his decree last week. In the face of the swift and robust pushback he
received from many Egyptians, he started back-peddling by saying that his
judicial immunity only refers to his moves to safeguard the ongoing process by
which a council of selected Egyptians is debating and writing a new
That in itself has been a drawn out and messy process, and another arena where
non-Islamist political forces are pushing back against what they feel is a
constitutional development mechanism that is dominated by Islamists. It is at a
critical stage now where dozens of non-Islamists have resigned from the
constitutional council, which throws the process into jeopardy because of --
once again, the mighty new beast rears its beautiful head -- the need to be
sure that any major political development on the road from autocracy to
democracy is anchored in populist legitimacy.
The constitutional process is critical because it will define how the
foundational authority and legitimacy of crowds in the streets are translated
into an orderly political process, and because it assumes greater
representational significance in the current absence of an elected parliament.
Neither Morsi’s power grab nor the swift push-back by opposition forces are a
surprise. We have seen similar push-backs against other looming single powers
in Egypt in the past 22 months -- against SCAF when it assumed unilateral
powers for itself last summer, just before Morsi’s inauguration; against
assorted Islamists who appeared to be gaining disproportionate power after the
parliamentary elections last year; and against the old guard of Mubarak
supporters who seemed to make a run for power in the presidential run-off
election this summer. Now Morsi is learning the same lesson -- that political
authority in Egypt today cannot be monopolized by any one faction, but must be
subjected to the validation and the checks-and-balances of democratic pluralism
that are anchored in the principle of the consent of the governed.
The Arab citizen who was born in Tunisia and Egypt nearly two years ago is now
an adolescent child, still growing awkwardly but steadily towards adulthood.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and
Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International
Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global