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Don Robinson: Egyptian democracy stumbles

Don Robinson for Op-Ed page mug

GORDON DANIELS Don Robinson for Op-Ed page mug

Raised on a farm in northern Egypt, Morsi studied engineering at Cairo University. In 1982 he completed a doctorate in materials science at the University of Southern California. He entered politics in 2000 and held a seat in parliament for five years. In 2011, he was chosen leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi emerged as a contender for the presidency only after the leading candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared ineligible. Nobody gave Morsi much of a chance. A bland figure, his program was as uninspiring as he was.

But the Muslim Brotherhood delivered enough votes to win him a place in the June 2012 run-off, and there he prevailed against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era.

Turnout was low (just over half the eligible electorate), and Morsi’s margin of victory, 52 percent to 48 percent, was not large (about the same as President Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney). The choice between the political leader of the Brotherhood and a strongman from the Mubarak era was unappealing to many Egyptians, but a majority preferred a chancy future over a discredited past.

Morsi’s term began auspiciously. At his inaugural, he displayed impressive courage, stepping away from a carefully guarded podium, away from his security detachment (to their horror), speaking directly to the people about his hopes for his country. In August, he dismissed the two top-ranking military officers and replaced them with younger men, demonstrating that he would insist on civilian control.

Morsi then took a step that heartened not only the Brotherhood, but many leaders of the revolution against Mubarak. Hours after the polls closed in the June run-off, the military had issued a declaration giving itself legislative powers, control over the budget and the writing of the constitution and stripping the new president of authority over the army. The move outraged both the Brotherhood and the opposition. In August, Morsi annulled this decree, enhancing his reputation as a decisive leader.

Soon, however, events began to overtake him. The economy, never very robust, began to collapse. Young people found it increasingly difficult to get work. Electrical power black-outs became routine. Drivers had to stand in line sometimes for hours to get gasoline. Daily life in cities and villages was becoming miserable.

Morsi began to assert his own power in ways that looked almost desperate. The story was brilliantly told in February 2013 by Egyptian journalist Yasmine El-Rashidi in the New York Review of Books, several months before Morsi was toppled from power.

As she tells it, the political crisis began to come to a head in late November 2012, when Morsi, by decree, granted his regime unlimited powers to pass legislation not subject to judicial oversight. In November and December, Islamists took over the assembly that was drafting a new constitution. Some opposition leaders tried to be patient, but soon they began to boycott the assembly.

As street protests mounted, Morsi issued another decree, granting himself power to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” It was necessary, he said, to safeguard a “democratic transition” that was being threatened by judicial bodies of the old regime, acting in collusion with the army.

In a few short days, the regime rushed to finish its draft for a new constitution. At dawn on the morning of Dec. 2 — the day the Supreme Constitutional Court was to rule on status of the constitutional assembly — Islamists surrounded the court, refusing to let any of the judges in.

Bloody clashes ensued. Morsi had to duck out of the presidential palace by a back door. He was mocked in street demonstrations as “Morsilini,” but the taunt was misleading. Morsi may have been acting like a fascist, but Mussolini had at least been able, for a time, to make the trains run on time.

The hastily drafted constitution was put to a referendum on Dec. 22, where it gained a 64 percent approval. The government’s commission declared the referendum “impartial and fair,” though the turnout had been just 30 percent. Five days later, the commission announced that it would begin an inquiry into 15,000 reports of fraud. It was too late. The end-game played out over the next several months, but for Morsi’s regime, the handwriting was on the wall.

Why had a revolution that began so hopefully gone sour so quickly? There were many factors: an outsized military presence determined to preserve its power and wealth; civic institutions just emerging from decades of suppression and harassment; a lack of popular commitment to constitutional democracy; and, above all, a political culture still unsure how to reconcile its traditions with the rule of law. Some are inclined to criticize Muslims on this last point, but think how long it took the Christian West to figure that out, and we’re still not sure we’ve got it right.

The spread of democracy may be, as de Tocqueville said, a providential fact in our era, but democracy takes many forms. It took decades, and many false starts, for Argentina, Brazil and Chile to stabilize democracies after the overthrow of brutal dictatorships. Egypt, like Turkey, is struggling to create a version of constitutional democracy suitable for a nation overwhelmingly Muslim. It is exciting to watch these transformations, but we ought to extend the courtesy of patience. After all, Americans know that it may require a brutal civil war and decades more of agonizing work to correct flaws built into a nation’s founding.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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