A struggle for political legitimacy: Morsy and the lack of debate

Thursday, January 03, 2013 9:06 PM 
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi - REUTERS
Any views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not of Aswat Masriya.

Wrote :Dr Vivienne Matthies-Boon

Just after the revolution, many commentators, scholars and activists had hesitantly given the newly formed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), the benefit of the doubt.  Whilst they were hardly the front-runners of the Egyptian revolution that they now claimed to protect, one could not deny the political adeptness and resilience of this political organisation.  Due to its large support network, it had managed to obtain a large parliamentary majority in the People’s Assembly.  Yet, when this Islamist dominated People’s Assembly was later disbanded by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), as the parliamentary elections law was deemed unconstitutional, one can say that the rug of legitimacy was pulled from underneath the Ikhwan’s feet – as their true representative body was now no more.  

Since then, it appears that the Ikhwan and their FJP have engaged themselves in a struggle to maintain political power and claim political legitimacy.  This struggle was not alleviated by the election of Mohamed Morsy as president.  Of course, at the moment of his election, the Ikhwan and FJP claimed victory for their candidate and their conservative political agenda. Yet, they could not have overlooked the small margin by which Morsy had won the presidential race.  Additionally, his victory was more a result of a vote against Mubarak’s strong man Ahmed Shafiq, than a real vote in favour of Morsy.  The choice between Morsy and Shafiq in the second round of presidential elections in fact appeared itself to be largely a result of the inability of the political opposition to organise and unite itself effectively, running on several individual candidacies instead.  But, it was said, Egypt is better off with Morsy than Shafiq, and people in the opposition tried to console themselves with the thought that the Ikhwan had at least been a significant opposition to Mubarak’s NDP in parliament from the 1980s onward.  Other commentators also sought to draw hope from the argument that, since the 1980s, it was possible to detect a younger generation of Ikhwan, led by the likes of Essam El-Erian and Mohamed Badie amongst others, who were more democratically oriented and open-minded towards Copts and women. So, perhaps also keen to counter the Orientalist discourse according to which all that is Islamic is backwards and inferior, there emerged a hesitant political narrative that, whilst not altogether happy with the rising dominance of the Ikhwan, was willing to give their FJP the benefit of the doubt and hopeful that this party would at least not be anti-democratic. 

Yet, for many these last hopes have been dashed over the last month as Morsy engaged himself in a direct confrontation with the political opposition as well as a direct battle with the judiciary.  Of course, trust in the FJP had been wavering from the beginning, and slowly decreased over the last year as the FJP backtracked (or flipflopped) on many of its earlier promises. For example: they promised not to put forward a presidential candidate but then ran with Mohamed Morsy (after Abdel Moneim Abdel Fotouh decided to run independently on a fairly lefist agenda and Khairat al Shater was disqualified due to his earlier imprisonment, earning Morsy the nickname of the “spare tyre”).  They also argued against borrowing money and criticised the IMF loan, only to enter negotiations with the IMF later.  They also insisted on liberating Gaza, whilst later on persisting to uphold and respect the existing peace treaty with Israel. 

However, things came to a head when Morsy issued a controversial constitutional declaration last November that undermined judicial overview over the upper and lower houses of parliament, and gave the president unprecedented powers in the face of any danger that threatened the nation and 25 January revolution.  Protests erupted across Cairo and other parts of Egypt in response to this decree, which due to its vague articulation would open to doors to a power grab under a thin veil of legitimacy.  Of course, those close to the president, such as the vice-president Mahmoud Mekki, tried to rhetorically alleviate the political tensions.  He insisted that as a lawyer he disapproved of the constitutional declaration.  Nevertheless, he had been reassured by Morsy that such powers were necessary in order to counter the feloulist elements (remnants of the Mubarak regime) in the judiciary and at the same time believed that the president would never use these powers.  The problem here is of course that the argument of its necessity runs counter to the promise of never using it.  Plus, given the past record of the FJP’s flipflopping or backtracking on earlier promises, it is not surprising to see that many were skeptical.

Moreover, in deploying the rhetorical quip of ‘urgency’, it appears that the Ikhwan and the FJP have in fact incorporated some of the tactical devices of the previous regime.  After all, was it not in the name of ‘urgency’ and ‘terrorist elements’ that emergency law could once again be extended? Or that, anti-terrorism laws and surveillance was increased and expanded? In fact, some have argued that Morsy’s attempt to reign in the judiciary went much further even than any attempts by Mubarak, who sought to employ legal loopholes rather than set out on a full collision course with Egypt’s lawyers and judges.  Of course, the FJP and Morsy argue that such a confrontation is necessary in order to eradicate any feloulist elements within the judiciary and protect the goals of the 25th of January revolution.  However, we need to both recognise the fact that not the entire the judiciary is feloul and that such feloulist ‘elements’ are best dealt with by a proper process of institutional vetting (i.e. a proper process of transitional justice) rather than what appears as a full scale eradication of judiciary independence. 

Furthermore, these measures take place in a context whereby the judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court are prevented from their work as Islamist protestors blocked the entrances to their offices – and thus obstructed the verdict on the constitutionality of the Constituent Assembly on 2 December 2012.  At the same time, on 5 December 2012, rather than ensuring that the pro- and anti-Morsy protestors were kept separate at all costs, Islamists were driven to the presidential palace where anti-Morsy protesters had staged a sit in – resulting in large scale and violent clashes, videos of which circulated not only on Youtube but also on the Ikhwan’s Misr25 channel.  As people were beaten up, confessions of conspiracy were forcedly obtained and broadcast for all to see.  To many watching this, it thus appeared as a reproduction of already familiar dictatorial methods, as the oppositional political forces were charged with attempt to overthrow the regime and creating political instability. 

Now, the problem here is that real stability – as well as real legitimacy – does not come from repression and oppression of oppositional forces and the suppression of political dialogue, but rather is derived precisely from a proper inclusive process of deliberation where all political voices are heard and no one is excluded from political debate.  As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued, political legitimacy is not derived from a display of one’s political power in front of the public – like a powerful and repressive king (or dictator) sitting on his thrown displaying his wealth to his subjects.  Rather legitimacy is derived from inclusive and transparent public debate amongst the public, so that understanding can be reached.  It is precisely this absence of proper debate that is so problematic, and one that in fact creates rather than resolves the political instability that Egypt is in right now. 

For a start, the constitution – the foundation of political community, which should clearly outline the rights and duties of citizens as well as limitations of state institutions – was drafted by an Islamist dominated Assembly where the other voices were marginalised to the extent they walked out in protest.  Not only, but that the end result, the draft constitution, was rushed through a voting session of 14 hours despite the assembly having another two more months at its disposal to deliberate on the problematic articles such as those on child labour, military trials and women’s issues. The fact that such a fundamental debate, wherein which all forces should have become united through dialogue, was exclusionary and rushed does not bide well for Egypt’s future.  Neither do the current lawsuits, wherein journalists, commentators and actors are charged with insulting the president, raise one’s hopes that an open political public sphere will soon emerge within Egypt, nor does the current anti-protest law - which severely hinders public association and demonstration – inspire confidence in Egypt’s immediate political process.  Nevertheless, whilst the immediate future does not look so bright indeed, one can draw inspiration from the fact that the path towards political transition has started, and Egyptians have certainly lost their fear of speaking out against political oppression.

- Dr. Vivienne Matthies-Boon is an Assistant Professor in International Relations and International Organisation at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands

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