“There is no middle ground, no dialogue before (Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi) rescinds this declaration,” said pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. “There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says, ‘Let us split the difference.’”
Morsi won last June’s presidential election fair and square but many Egyptians are frightened his Nov. 22 decree sweeps aside the democratic gains of last year’s revolution. It declares the courts cannot challenge any of his decrees until another election takes place.
Morsi has given himself greater powers than the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, ever possessed but this is puzzling since nothing in Morsi’s previous history suggests he wants to be Egypt’s next dictator. He belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood but that organization has moved a long way from its radical origins.
Nevertheless, the suspicion now arises he was just waiting for the chance to impose Islamic rule on everybody, including liberals, Christians and secular Egyptians. If Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country, succumbs to a new tyranny, then the whole “Arab Spring” was just a brief illusion.
Morsi’s actions are wrong but he is not actually aiming at a dictatorship. He just wants to thwart the Supreme Judicial Council, made up of judges who almost all date from the Mubarak era, which has already dismissed the first body charged with writing a new constitution. There were indications that it might also be about to dissolve the second one.
In the last month or so, the prospect this new body will produce a constitution based mainly on Islamic law led most of the secular and Christian elements to withdraw. That deprived it of a voting quorum but the remaining members, including many MPs linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, carried on regardless, so there was a growing probability that a new court ruling would dismiss this assembly too.
Morsi moved swiftly, not only giving himself supreme powers beyond the ability of the courts to challenge but specifically forbidding the Supreme Judicial Council to dismiss the second Constituent Assembly. He also gave that assembly an extra two months to finish writing the constitution, after which it would have to be approved by referendum.
What is happening now, therefore, is not the rise of a new dictatorship but rather a ruthless political manoeuvre aimed at creating a democratic but Islamic Egypt. Naturally, it frightens a large proportion of the 49 per cent of Egyptians who voted against Morsi in the presidential election and it absolutely terrifies the country’s eight million Christians.
Morsi’s edict has been met with impassioned protest in the streets, and the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at uniting all non-Islamist groups to force Morsi to rescind his edicts. But that may not be enough.
The truth is that the elections produced a parliamentary majority and a president who want to impose Islamic law, and that its opponents are using various legal devices in an attempt to stop the process. Moreover, a new constitution imposing Islamic law would almost certainly get a “yes” in a referendum.
But the other truth is that majorities should not try to impose their views on large minorities who do not share them. Egypt is in for a rough ride.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.