Egypt’s president Muhammad Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s civil wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, issued a wide-ranging set of decrees on Thursday that greatly enhanced his power and would have led to a constitutional crisis if there were a constitution. He seems likely, in any case, to have set off substantial social turmoil, on the eve of the second anniversary of the beginning of the movement against his predecessor. He appears buoyed by the close working relationship he developed with US president Barack Obama during the Gaza crisis and by his success in facing down Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the question of an Israeli land invasion of Gaza.
Prominent Egyptian liberals and leftists denounced the decrees and pledged to go to the streets to overturn them.
Among the steps Morsi took was to fire the public prosecutor (roughly, attorney general), Mubarak holdover Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, replacing him with Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah (who is alleged to be the brother-in-law of the vice president, who is from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party).
A constituent assembly had been appointed by the parliament before it was dissolved, but it was found illicit by the courts, which ruled that parliamentarians could not serve on it. It was therefore reformed to exclude the Freedom and Justice Party members of parliament who had tried to dominate it. This body is still hammering out a constitution, and Morsi on Thursday extended its deadline from the end of the year to the end of February.
Morsi appears to have feared that the constitutional court might dissolve the constituent assembly, which has a Muslim Brotherhood bias and from which prominent secularists, Christians and even fair-minded Muslims have increasingly resigned. This crumbling of support for the body and its work, which is said to have restricted personal freedoms *more* than the 1971 constitution, may have opened it to court action on its legitimacy. One of Morsi’s decrees therefore forbade the courts to impugn the constitution-drafting body.
The 7 decrees can be summarized as follows:
1) All officials of the Mubarak regime who were implicated in violence against protesters will be investigated yet again and possibly retried.
2) None of Morsi’s executive orders issued since June 30, 2012, can be abrogated by the courts and all suits launched against them are hereby dismissed.
3) The public prosecutor (~attorney general) will be appointed for 4 years by the judiciary.
4) The Constituent Assembly will be granted an extra 2 months to finish drafting the constitution.
5) No court may dissolve the Constituent Assembly or the upper house of parliament.
6) The president may take any steps he feels necessary to preserve the revolution, or national unity, or the country’s security.
7) This decree will be published in the Official Gazette.
The new public prosecutor announced that he would retry Hosni Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Adly. Many officials appear destined by these decrees for retrial, apparently on the theory that former prosecutor Mahmoud had run interference for them. Morsi is especially interested in looking again at officials and police accused of using violence against demonstrators during the movement to overthrow Mubarak. He further pledged to pay pensions to those wounded or made disabled during the revolution.
The retrial of officials and security personnel who ordered violence against the protesters is a demand of the Egyptian masses, spearheaded by the New Left, and these steps appear to be aimed at pacifying the opposition. If so, Morsi badly misjudged how easy it would be to buy them off.
Secularists and leftists were furious at these decrees, and were especially anxious about no. 6 above, which is worrisomely vague and broad. Some called for Morsi to be impeached.
But the High Constitutional Court promptly denied that it had the prerogative of removing the president, though it seems to differ with him on whether it can dissolve the constituent assembly drafting the constitution.
Morsi’s rivals for the presidency in the first round of last May came out against these decrees. Leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, a favorite of the unions, denounced what he called an ‘unprecedented dictatorship.’ He worried that Morsi seemed poised to reinstate the Brotherhood-dominated parliament of fall, 2011, which the courts had dissolved for electoral fraud. The Brotherhood would then have two of the three branches of government without having to conduct new elections for the legislature.
The New Left organization, April 6, had typically avoided slamming the Brotherhood, fearing the Mubarak holdovers and the military much more. But on Thursday for the first time I noticed prominent April 6 leaders such as Asma Mahfouz denouncing Morsi. The New Left, the old Left, and the secularists are all calling for anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square on Friday.
These decrees are the second time Morsi has used his electoral victory of last June to challenge holdovers from the old Mubarak regime. In mid-August, Morsi weakened the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) by forcing its top officers to retire (including Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan). SCAF had attempted to declare itself the de facto legislature of the country, and had issued decrees curbing Morsi’s presidential prerogatives. Morsi appears to have connived with a second tier of officers less hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, promising them high appointments if they supported his move against Tantawi’s circle. Morsi abrogated the ‘constitutional addendum’ that SCAF had issued in June, and we’ve never heard anything more about the officer corps being the legislature.
(The parliament elected in fall of 2011 was dissolved by the Egyptian constitutional court because the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi fundamentalists illegally ran party candidates for the one third of seats reserved for independents, allowing them to dominate the lower house).