Fresh protests at creeping ‘tyranny’ in Egypt

Mad as hell: An anti-Morsi protester roars chants at a rally in Tahrir Square © Getty Images

First a decree granting the President emergency powers, now a worryingly restrictive constitution. Is Egypt sliding back into dictatorship? Or did the Arab Spring change things for good?

Egypt’s Tahrir Square booms this week with a familiar fury. ‘The people want the fall of the regime,’ shout protesters, echoing the chant that less than two years ago sent a dictator fleeing from his palace.

Today Hosni Mubarak is gone for good. But the man that Egyptians have chosen as their first freely elected President, a moderate Islamist named Muhammad Morsi, is starting to look ominously similar to the oppressor he replaced.

On November 22 Morsi issued a decree that concentrated government power in his own hands, banning judges from challenging his decisions at the stroke of a pen. Then, this weekend, a parliament packed with supporters of the President voted to accept a constitution that worries human rights advocates.

Before the constitution becomes law, however, it must be put to a referendum – and that could cause problems. In protest against Morsi’s authoritarian decree, many of Egypt’s top judges have voted informally to strike – though the Supreme Constitutional Court is committed to overseeing the referendum.

At first glance Morsi’s behaviour looks like a classic power grab. From Hitler’s use of the ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’ to Egypt’s own ‘Emergency Law’ between 1967 and 2012, this sort of edict has been a favourite tactic of would-be dictators.

But this case is complicated. Morsi’s supporters claim that the constitutional measures are temporary, aimed at blunting the influence of powerful judges who remain loyal to the old regime and were part of its ruling elite. This may be a smokescreen, but experts say that elements of the old guard really have tried to cling on to their powers.

So alongside the vocal anti-Morsi rallies, other Egyptians are marching in support of their leader. The protests even threaten to turn violent, with clashes between rival groups and some reported attacks on offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a member.

The atmosphere in Egypt is more highly charged than ever: more people have taken to the streets in recent weeks than in the original Arab Spring protests.

Tahrir guard

Very dispiriting, say most revolutionaries: this is the Arab Spring but in reverse. A president hoarding powers, deepening fears over human rights and a country in disarray as a fragile young democracy slides slowly back towards dictatorship – Egyptian democracy is flirting with failure.

But some see silver behind the cloud. The instant Morsi poked his toe over constitutional boundaries, they point out, the country rose up to resist. No more, it seems, can dictators trample Egypt unopposed. The chaos in the streets might look unsettling and chaotic, but this is the essence of democracy – not constitutional law, but the spirit of the people.

You Decide

  1. Do protests on the street show that a society is democratic, or simply that it is in chaos?
  2. Is it ever justifiable for a democratically elected leader to suspend the rule of law?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are an Egyptian activist with a popular blog. Write a short, engaging post either defending Morsi’s actions or calling for him to leave office.
  2. ‘Monarchy degenerates into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into savage violence and chaos.’ – Polybius, Ancient Greek historian.
  3. Write a paragraph outlining what this means and the extent to which you agree with it.

Some People Say...

“True freedom exists in hearts and minds, not constitutions.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Constitutional matters in Egypt are hardly going to change things for me.
Perhaps not – though instability in the Middle East is a threat to global security. You also don’t need to be an Egyptian to worry about the state of democracy.
What do you mean?
Take America, for instance: there, libertarian activists accuse Barack Obama of inflating the powers of central government to impose laws and taxes on US states. In Europe, there are concerns from both ends of the political spectrum that an unaccountable EU is overriding decisions of elected governments.
But those places aren’t threatened with dictatorships are they?
Not unless you take a radical view. But one day your country may have to struggle for democracy. And if it does, will you be out on the streets like those in Tahrir Square?

Word Watch

Constitution
The new constitution is much like the one under Mubarak (which he frequently ignored). But there are several significant changes. Some of them guard against dictatorship, such as a clause preventing presidents from standing for more than two terms; others reflect the Islamist ideology of the committee that drafted it. Several references to Sharia law have spawned concerns over the rights of women and minorities.
Reichstag Fire Decree
In February 1933, the National Socialists were the largest party in the German parliament, but they did not have a majority. Then, under shady circumstances, a fire started in the parliament building, the Reichstag. Hitler blamed communists and seized on the fire to argue that emergency measures were needed. It was his first major step in establishing a Nazi dictatorship.
Temporary
Morsi’s decree is set to expire as soon as a new constitution is in place.
Muslim Brotherhood
A secretive organisation operating across North Africa and the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Egypt under Mubarak. Now they are the most potent political organisation in the entire region – but other than sharing a belief in conservative Islam, it is unclear exactly what their aims are.