x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Nobody knows what the 'civilian rule' will be after Morsi's victory

After forcibly retiring Scaf's top generals, Egypt's new president is now being accused of a power grab and of not reaching out to minorities.

There is a new regime in Egypt. This is the bottom line from President Mohammed Morsi's dramatic retirement of senior military figures and assertion of his own power on Sunday. But it is too soon to tell whether this new regime is a democratic one, an authoritarian one based on an alliance between Islamists and generals, or something in between.

The good news is that at least this means there is a regime of some kind. The last 18 months of post-Mubarak transition had a military regime in place that protested it was temporary but increasingly wanted to perpetuate itself. The ambiguity of the last two months, during which the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave itself formal powers to co-rule with the new president, was unsustainable. The prospect of a coup against Mr Morsi to resolve this tension was becoming increasingly real.

This mounting tension paralysed the country at a time when it faced multiple crises: national security in the Sinai, electricity and dealing with the expectations for change that had been delayed by Scaf.

On paper, the recent changes are also an assertion of the principle of civilian rule, including civilian control of the military. But it has been arrived at by a deal with elements of the military, essentially the next generation of senior officers after those who had been closest in age, and loyalty, to former president Hosni Mubarak. Mr Morsi did not suddenly assert his authority; he conspired with these officers against their superiors.

The exiting generals may be let off lightly - they have been decorated, given medals, token advisory positions, cabinet posts or lucrative jobs in the military-industrial complex - but they are unambiguously out of power.

Mr Morsi claimed the presidential prerogatives he felt, rightly, he was elected to wield. In exchange, it appears that he has given the military immunity for its behaviour during the transition period, and probably a wide berth with regards to its traditional privileges, history of corruption and economic interests. The junta has been vanquished: it has made a deal that an old guard is cast side while protecting the interest of the military as a corporation.

As I recently argued in these pages, every Egyptian institution is in the middle of a corporatist battle - vis a vis the state and within itself. The military appears to have settled this battle, choosing to abandon official control of politics for a more comfortable role behind the scenes.

This has risks: the civilians now in charge (or those who might be in the future) could whittle down the military's independence over the years to come. But for now, it protects a once untouchable institution that, by directly wielding power, found itself the target of criticism and exposure as unthinkable as the fall of Mubarak once was.

If the balance of power between the military and civilians is a story that will play itself out over the long term, the question of how Mr Morsi will use his new powers is a more urgent one. Many observers are rightly alarmed that he has taken over the excessive powers once wielded by Scaf, notably the power to legislate and the power to appoint a new constituent assembly should the one currently in place prove unable to gain a consensus.

It might be argued that in the absence of a parliament, Mr Morsi had no choice but to assume these responsibilities - someone had to other than the military. But, considering the legal and constitutional limbo he is operating in, it might have been wiser to ensure power is shared or at least to engage other political forces.

The appointment of the new vice president, Mahmoud Mekky, a senior judge said to have Brotherhood sympathies who was a leader of the fight for judicial independence under Mubarak, reinforced the perception that Mr Morsi is not reaching out. Christians, women and personalities of diverse political backgrounds have not been promoted despite Mr Morsi's pledge to be a uniter.

In Mr Morsi's defence, he is not alone in bearing responsibility for this. Over the past month and a half, many personalities - from young revolutionaries to secular politicians - turned down offers from the Morsi administration, preferring to remain in opposition.

The calculus then may have been that, as long as Mr Morsi and Scaf were at loggerheads, it was better to be on the outside - or even simply that participating in an administration that lacked formal power was pointless. Well, the situation has changed. Being in government in today's Egypt is an ungrateful proposition, but one cannot simultaneously complain of a Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and reject offers of power-sharing without even testing if they are genuine.

On Sunday, Mr Morsi should have called for a national conference to hammer out a compromise on the constituent assembly. He can still do so, and perhaps even delegate legislative power to that assembly or give it some kind of veto over new legislation.

The accumulation of power in his hands is dangerous and, as multiple Egyptian political leaders have said, must be addressed. It is time for the president to address the ambiguities in his political discourse - what he means by being inclusive, what he means by respecting the civil state (a code word by which the Brotherhood means something that very much sounds like an Islamic state), and what he means by supporting an inclusive, consensual constitution.

Of course, Mr Morsi and his Islamist brethren could very well decide that they don't need to reach out and simply impose their ideas. They might even decide that the only interlocutors they need are the generals. If they do so, Egypt will have missed the opportunity to begin a genuine democratisation - one that goes further than majority rule. The new regime Mr Morsi has inaugurated will be undermined from its very beginning. This would probably result in the new Egypt living, as it has for the last 18 months, in a state of permanent crisis. Let us hope that both Mr Morsi and his opposition understand this.

 

Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo and visiting fellow at the European Center for Foreign Relations

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