The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.
The Middle East is in a mind-boggling muddle right now. Palestine, Egypt and Syria, the three countries and major conflict zones that have influenced the Arab world in profound ways have entered a critical phase with serious ramifications for the region and beyond. The long and bitter war in the Levant appears to be approaching a final showdown with the desperate regime resorting to even more desperate measures.
The Palestinians have earned themselves a momentous victory in the UN recognition. The world community for a change defied Israel and the US to stand up for Palestine, granting it the status of a ‘non-member’ state. Although it’s likely to change little on the ground for the Palestinians immediately, the diplomatic victory does mark a watershed in the long and hard struggle of an incredibly resilient people.
In Egypt, President Morsi is battling the consequences of what is being panned by the west and many in the Arab media as a ‘midnight power grab.’ That he happens to be the nation’s first democratically elected leader isn’t of much help.
So much so even those who celebrated Morsi’s election in the face of great odds and his coup sending Mubarak’s generals and other remnants of the past packing are having doubts about the new leader and his ability to lead the nation past the treacherous, stormy seas ahead.
The US-trained professor couldn’t have chosen a worse time to spring up his special powers surprise. By confronting Israel and pressing it to withdraw from Gaza, he had earned himself and Egypt grudging respect and admiration around the world, including in Washington. The country appeared to reclaim its pride of place in the region.
Morsi picked this moment to spoil his party, inviting the wrath of both the Egyptian street and remnants of l’ancien regime (ancient or former regime). Perhaps, the president and the Muslim Brotherhood misread the popular mood and underestimated the clout and nuisance value of the old order, including the militant judiciary which harbours serious suspicion of the Islamists and sees itself as the sole guardian of Egypt. It was the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) that scrapped an Islamist dominated parliament elected after Mubarak’s exit.
Civil society is more reasonable of course. However, having lived with an oppressive police state for decades, ordinary Egyptians, including the Tahrir liberals, are suspicious of all authority and anyone who talks of ‘special powers’ even if intentions are noble. The foreboding sense of despondency that greeted the Brotherhood victory is back.
Morsi would have done well to take the nation into confidence and explain why he needed those special powers. With no constitution, an elected parliament suspended, wings of the president clipped and the forces of change and status quo pulling in opposite directions, Egypt has been hanging upside down in a Kafkaesque limbo. The impasse and persistent uncertainty has sapped the life out of the region’s most vibrant nation. The economy is in a mess. And the military-backed SJC seems to think it rules the country.
President Morsi has argued that he needs special powers temporarily to push the country out of this jam and to move forward with a new constitution in a new direction. He has put the new draft constitution, presented by a new constituent assembly, to referendum on December 15. After initially dragging their feet, the judiciary has agreed to oversee the constitution vote. The issue is now in the people’s court.
The next few days and weeks could prove defining for Egypt and the Middle East. Morsi would do well to tread with caution and try to build a national consensus about the future direction of the country, rather than push his way through. He mustn’t blow the opportunity that the Islamists have got to prove the workability and wisdom of their worldview after decades of wandering in political wilderness. Slow and steady does it.
The recent Gaza episode and Egypt’s effective leadership proved what a decisive difference sincere and real leadership and the right man in the right place could make. It would be a shame if that windfall of goodwill and momentum is lost. The world is watching Egypt. If it fails, it could have a catastrophic, cascading impact on the whole region, giving a new lease of life to tyranny, oppression and corruption.
Everyone who cheered for the Arab spring celebrating the change that had been long coming is now filled with despair. Although given the entrenched nature of special interests that fed off power and benefited from the open loot all these years no one thought it was going to be easy, what’s unfolding right now is truly disturbing.
Morsi inherited a broken political system and a corrupt, ossified order. His hands are tied behind his back with the judiciary and military breathing down his neck. Many of the sympathisers and remnants of the old order are still hanging on in there resisting and fighting change at every turn from their high, protected perches.
From the army’s furtive takeover from Mubarak assuming unlimited powers, including the midnight order clipping the wings of the incoming presidency, to the constitutional court’s dissolution of the elected parliament and their open support for Ahmed Shafiq, another military relic, every attempt has been made to undermine this revolution and the epic sacrifices made by the Egyptian people.
No wonder. despite the clear mandate for change that he received and impossibly high hopes and expectations that the revolution generated, Morsi hasn’t been able to do much. Under the circumstances, is it any wonder Morsi decided to assert himself ending the political uncertainty? How else to move on those goals that the Tahrir Square revolution set itself?
Indeed, it has been one of the most dysfunctional political transitions in history belying the euphoria that followed Mubarak’s fall. This may be why Morsi is sticking to his guns on the question of new powers in the face of protests across the country, backed by groups like April 6 that supported the Brotherhood presidency. They feel betrayed by Morsi’s ‘power grab’, which is a tad unfair for someone who has managed to rid Egypt of six decades of military dictatorship without firing a single shot.
Do not forget that the first step that the man being called a pharaoh today was to reconvene parliament, only to be severely rebuked by the court. It was the first genuine freely elected parliament in Egypt’s history. The constitutional court has twice thwarted attempts to draft a new constitution.
It makes sense to give Egypt’s new leadership time and opportunity to implement the change that the nation promised itself last year. Everything cannot be trashed out in the streets. Time for that has passed. It’s time to build a new Egypt. For his part, Morsi must realise that you cannot force change down an unwilling people’s throat. That was the first lesson of the Arab awakening.
Change has to be voluntary and willingly embraced. Democracy and duress do not go together. Indeed, the Islamists, now in charge in Tunisia, Morocco besides Egypt, need to send out a clear message to the world, including minorities, that they have nothing to fear in a polity inspired by Islamic ideals and principles. It would be a real tragedy if the historic opportunity presented by the Arab awakening is squandered because of the unseemly haste and excessive missionary zeal of some. Egypt cannot afford to fail.