Opposition to something like President Mohamed Morsi’s now-controversial constitutional declaration is an inherent right in a democracy. In any free country, authority needs to have a strong opposition, up to a point. Such opposition should not include trying to overthrow a democratically-elected President by using the judiciary and taking the discussion from the proper forums onto the streets. To do so was a mistake, betraying the opposition’s lack of political experience and awareness of the power of the general public. This was an unnecessary battle, especially in a country taking its first steps towards the end of the transitional stage and laying down the foundations of the new, democratic state.
There is no doubt that the constitutional declaration included one or two articles, out of six, that were provocative. Perhaps the President did not have an urgent need for the second (empowering) article in particular but, after more than eighteen months since the fall of the previous regime, Morsi found that some forces, internal and external, do not want the transitional stage to end, institution building to be completed or for the new political regime to settle down.
Morsi’s motives for issuing the constitutional declaration were very clear; they did not need much interpretation and exaggeration. The country was devastated by three decades of tyranny and systematic looting of national resources, and the President was unable to take major decisions regarding the economy, health and education without providing the conditions for political stability.
Because a dominant and important section of the judiciary was against the revolution in any case, and political change, and then turned against the President, the legal institution itself became an obstacle to change and stability. That gave the judiciary a prime role in controlling the transitional stage once the people of Egypt, like the Tunisians, overthrew the regime but maintained the machinery of the state.
There was no argument about the need for reform in Egypt but the Armed Forces, who assumed power post-Mubarak, did not want to see radical reform; indeed, they did not see the need for radical reform.
This allowed many state players to keep their positions and play various roles in deciding the pace and mode of change. Thus, for instance, in a country that witnessed a revolution the size of Egypt’s, the judges of the constitutional court who were pillars of the previous regime remained in their positions; is that reasonable? Is it reasonable for the Attorney General, who was appointed by the ousted president, and who, throughout his career, did things that are not suitable for a man of the law, to stay in his position? Is it reasonable for heads of specialised state institutions appointed by the discredited president to stay in their positions? When a regime falls, shouldn’t those with strong ties to it, and who defended it, have a moral and political duty to step down? The revolution was a massive vote of no confidence in the previous regime, not only its head, but few if any senior Mubarak-appointees have left and are in positions where they can challenge and hinder the aims of the revolution. It is this which forced Morsi to take the exceptional step of his constitutional declaration.
The declaration included two controversial articles undoubtedly; the second one which protects all of the President’s decisions since he took office, and the sixth which implies that the President has the authority to declare a state of emergency, or form special courts. All of the other articles reflect public demands, which were announced soon after the fall of the previous regime, and have been stressed many times since; or it has become clear that they are necessary to give the transitional stage a push to finish building the institutions of the state. The President’s right to issue a constitutional declaration was not, and will not be, controversial. The controversy can only be about whether the way it was announced was correct or not.
Groups and individuals who opposed the constitutional declaration could have expressed their opposition and given their reasons for it, and then moved on towards negotiating with the President to reform the declaration or find another way to achieve the goals of the revolution and the people’s demands. But the opposition followed a totally different path and leaders of the opposition announced the formation of a “national salvation front”, something that they did not do when millions were protesting against Mubarak’s regime; they refused to negotiate with President Morsi, and provoked as many leaders of trade unions as they could into the battle as well as mobilised crowds on the streets. Within this context, for an entire week the President’s legitimacy was questioned and he was mocked personally. Not only that, but there were obscenities spoken against the Muslim Brotherhood, as if the movement had never been a partner in the struggle against the tyranny of the previous regime.
Two important headlines were apparent in the battle fought by Muhammad El-Baradei, Amr Mousa and Hamaden Sabahi: “Morsi’s dictatorship” and “Changing the regime”.
In a free democratic country, people in authority should not always be trusted; nor should their intentions, or any ambiguous policies. However, to describe a President who took office three months ago, through free elections after a major revolution, as a dictator is a serious exaggeration and probable defamation. No tyrant began his rule with tyranny; even Mubarak was democratic in the first years of his rule, when he was keen on freedom and listening to the people’s demands. In addition, Morsi did not seek the legislative authority and tried to get the Parliament to sit in a move that was blocked by the current Constitutional Court, which claims to protect the law and the constitution. Also, the essence of Morsi’s constitutional declaration, despite the arguments about its articles, was to fortify the Constituent Assembly which had almost finished drafting a constitution that decreases the powers of the President and empowers the advisory council. He wanted to speed up the transitional stage towards new parliamentary elections to put an end to the confusion in the legislative authority. A President who welcomed a draft constitution that limits his powers as never before can hardly be described as a dictator with any degree of certainty.
What’s more dangerous in the recent “opposition” moves was the implicit intention to overthrow the President; encouraging the crowds of demonstrators to adopt this aim; and being silent about violence directed towards the President’s allies, the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. What the three main opposition leaders did not realise is that mobilising the crowds was a losing strategy from the start, and that the majority of the Egyptians were aware that overthrowing Morsi would mean that no Egyptian president for decades to come will ever finish his term of office.
Morsi was subject to many accusations as soon as he took office but instead of cooperating with him to tackle the country’s major economic and social problems, most of the opposition avoided talk of a unifying national policy. It was only when the Constituent Assembly was about to finish drafting the constitution that, despite consensus on all problematical issues, some members of the opposition and factions started to withdraw and incite others to do the same. And once the Assembly finished its work and drafted the constitution, attacks against the constitution, the assembly and the president escalated, without any real attempt to launch a serious public dialogue around the content of the document. All of this has taken place even though senior Egyptian law makers have described it as the greatest Egyptian constitution since the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Resorting to the streets was a risk taken by the opposition troika and was their biggest mistake. Getting a unified crowd to change a tyrannical regime is one thing but mobilising a divided crowd to overthrow a legitimately-elected President is another. The constitutional declaration had among its articles elements of a political crisis, no doubt, but the roots of the crisis go back to before the constitutional declaration. As such, the opposition had better deal with the declaration in a political and negotiable manner, rather than use it as a tool to overthrow the President. In such a battle, the confrontation turns into a balance of power, and in that the opposition is the weaker side.
With the end of the Constituent Assembly’s work, drafting the constitution and calling for a public referendum, a new situation has emerged, and both sides should take this into consideration. The opposition has to realise, after a week of poor political insight and foresight, that the battle to overthrow the President was neither justified nor winnable. It has to consider participating in the referendum through opposition to the draft constitution as part of its duties as the opposition. And the presidency has to adopt a consensual approach, calm the atmosphere and work to contain the political polarisation. It is not in the best interests of the country and its stability to hold the constitutional referendum while such tension exists.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.