TO PROTECT democracy we need to suspend it, temporarily, of course – it’s an all-too-familiar and deeply spurious argument championed by half the tin-pot dictators who rule today. And, although Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has framed his quasi-coup in terms of protecting the gains of the country’s Arab Spring revolution from Mubarak-era judges, those in their hundreds of thousands in the secular opposition who have come out to protest in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez are by no means supporters of the ancien regime.
Ironically, the Morsi decree has actually strengthened them by being the catalyst for a coming together of the fractious liberal and left groups in a united front against him.
On Monday Morsi attempted unconvincingly to put a gloss on his announcement last week that his decisions would no longer be subject to judicial review. His spokesman said Morsi would only use his new powers for “sovereign matters” and would work within judicial precedents to protect the Muslim brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly.
Egypt’s uncomfortable transition from dictatorship to democracy has entered a dangerous phase with the brotherhood failing the first test of its much-vaunted modernising, moderate Islamism. Morsi and the brotherhood have every reason to be distrustful of elements of the old judiciary, but their desire to protect the constitution-writing assembly, in which they have a dominating majority, from looming judicial challenge reflects also an unhealthy unwillingness to broaden the base of that process. The Brotherhood’s commitment to a pluralist constitution and a tolerant Egypt now rings hollow, a signal that others elsewhere in the region will also note.
Morsi may genuinely believe that he had to act to protect the path to democracy, but in doing so he has injected a dangerous instability into the politics of the country, an inevitable return to the streets that will be music to those who argue that what Egypt needs is a “strong leader” once again. They have not gone away.