x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Morsi substitutes a populist spectacle for coherent policy

President Morsi's decree seems designed less to protect the revolution than his own party's standing, and appears a pre-emptive move to forestall dissent regarding the handling of the constitution.

When several thousand Egyptians gathered in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square one week ago - to commemorate citizens who died in last November's clashes with security forces - the mood was bound to be grim. But Egypt's worsening economic situation and the recent aggression in Gaza heightened the anger and frustration felt by many. And so the commemoration provided an opportunity to vent, especially for disenfranchised youths.

A stone-throwing contest escalated, with police firing tear gas canisters and birdshot at protesters. Shop owners lowered their shutters and people visiting downtown recalibrated their schedules to accommodate the inevitable gridlock.

Far from quelling the anger, President Mohammed Morsi's "Revolution Protection Law" subsequently issued on Thursday lent fresh purpose to demonstrations. Thousands poured into the square on Friday to protest against the authoritarian decree, igniting a wave of dissent that may unite opposition leaders and disgruntled citizens in the first serious challenge to Mr Morsi's government and his Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Protesters in Alexandria burnt an FJP office; in Suez, Port Said and Cairo the same chants were heard: "The people demand the end of the regime" and "Down with Mohammed Morsi Mubarak".

Elected by a slim majority in late June, Mr Morsi's first months were spent consolidating his executive powers, and successfully undermining the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Thursday's decree grants him the last word in disputes at least for the next three to six months. During this time, Mr Morsi calculates, Egypt will ratify a constitution and prepare for the next stage in its political development.

The decree - and the issue of trust regarding its supposedly temporary nature - have confused a disillusioned public that had been waiting to see what Mr Morsi would do with his carefully amassed powers. "Right now we need stability," a pharmaceutical student told me. He fought against police last year, but like many Egyptians he has wearied of demonstrations and street fights.

But not everyone feels they can afford to sit this one out. One of the decree's farthest-reaching implications concerns the assembly that is charged with drafting Egypt's new constitution. The judiciary's calls to dissolve the Islamist-dominated body have been nullified, raising fears that the new constitution will be a litany of restrictions rather than the guarantee of civil rights to which Egyptians have long aspired.

Mr Morsi's announcement appealed to some sentiments by promising the retrial of former president Hosni Mubarak and his loyalists, asserting yet again that those responsible for protester deaths would be punished and families compensated.

Resurrecting the moribund Mubarak case for another courtroom drama is perhaps the most revealing aspect of the "Revolution Protection Law". Mr Morsi seems perfectly at ease talking down to Egyptians and assuming that a spectacle will subdue them.

"Don't pay attention to those who want to waste Egyptians' time with controversy," he said after Friday prayers at his neighbourhood mosque, referring to protesters while dismissing the wider fears regarding the framing of the constitution.

Mr Morsi's government has made remarkably little progress on policy issues. Recent ill-conceived proposals have included closing shops and cafes nationwide at 10pm to save electricity, and forbidding Egyptians with dual nationality from owning homes or businesses in Sinai - although thousands already do after investing in the peninsula's development over the past 20 years.

Mr Morsi's decree seems designed less to protect the revolution than his own party's standing, a pre-emptive move to forestall dissent regarding the handling of the constitution, forthcoming subsidy cuts, unrest in Sinai and relations with neighbouring countries. But at a time when Egypt must face the formidable challenge of economic recovery, the ruling has caused further divisions and raised greater doubts.

In Upper Egypt, where a stricken tourism industry awaits a decent high season, people hope that the visitors will remember that Luxor and Aswan, far from Cairo, are still tranquil and welcoming. While there have been no demonstrations there, defiance to what is perceived as state bullying and religious posturing is nonetheless as palpable as in the capital.

A video clip captioned "The Muslim Brotherhood" is circulating via mobile phone, showing three men praying, their backs to the camera. While they bow to touch their foreheads to the ground, the man in the middle deftly kicks first the one on his right, then the other. The men stand, look confusedly at one another, then kneel and are kicked again. The third time they kneel, both men on the sides join forces and kick the middle one simultaneously, sending him reeling.

Egypt's public, the video seems to say, will only be kicked so many times.


Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt