From Limitations to Unchecked Powers: the Buildup to Mursi’s Decree

Cairo - I started the week working on an analysis of the limitations President Mohamed Mursi faces. The criticism he was subjected to at home as the Israeli assault on Gaza continued unabated, as well as the crumbling infrastructure that led to the deadly Assiut accident, showed that external and uncontrollable factors could constitute insurmountable challenges for Mursi.

Or so I thought.

Mursi emerged victorious in Gaza. His initial limitations and embarrassments turned into a laudable brokerage of a ceasefire agreement. He overturned what was initially thought to be Egypt’s own limitations on the geopolitical map. He declared himself to the world a regional key player capable of containing flare-ups – a role so appreciated that local indiscretion won’t register on the evaluation sheet.

His failure to respond with equal force to more controllable incidents was not only ignored, but it was bundled into the buildup to his controversial constitutional decree Thursday evening.

It hasn’t been an easy week for Egypt. On Saturday, the bus-train crash that killed 50 in Assiut revealed bungled priorities and a lack of will to fix what really matters. A day later, the army raid on a Giza island that killed one suggested that Mursi would back both the army’s financial interests and its self-proclaimed right to use deadly force against civilians. The following day, he assured that the same applies to the ministry of interior, which – on the anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes – almost reenacted the same practices that left over 40 dead this time last year.

After a tense week, Mursi handed down a package of revolutionary decisions mixed with articles declaring him an uncontested president. The conservative and reformist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Mursi is affiliated, was evidently suppressed to issue this constitutional decree. After five months in office, such groundbreaking decisions were only taken to cement Mursi’s hold on power and unlikely to be employed for the sole purpose of addressing people’s needs.

The tension and the fatigue created by the series of events this past week created the perfect setting for people to accept whatever “solution” comes their way. It is the same tactic employed by the military rulers for a year and half before Mursi’s election. It doesn’t matter that the decision were in direct conflict with the demands, as long as the headlines imply the opposite.

The tremulous week came on the heels of a mushrooming political crisis. The walkouts from the Constituent Assembly betrayed a lack of consensus and an inability to sustain dialogue over Egypt’s new constitution, the charter that would guide its future. A prolonged court case, which would decide on disbanding the assembly, remains pending.

With Thursday’s constitutional decree, Mursi’s solution came in the form of granting the assembly judicial impunity. Mursi supporters assured me that this creates stability. True, but only for the Muslim Brotherhood – not the constitution.

Instead of tending to the core problem pertaining to consensus, Mursi forces those who quit to go back to the Assembly and accept whatever is handed to them by their Muslim Brotherhood counterparts. Even if they don’t return, the result won’t be that different. No one – assembly member or citizen – can contest the assembly in court or any other place.

The presidential spokesperson argued that this would shorten the transition period. True; like the military did before him, Mursi is creating a period of absolute and unchallenged power so that people will feel compelled to vote “yes” to whatever constitution he offers, just to put an end to it. A flawed constitution is better than no constitution; or one-man rule is a lot easier to sell.

Mursi also bestowed legal immunity upon the Shoura Council and himself. In the name of protecting the revolution, Mursi granted himself the powers against which the people revolted.

The same tactic of promoting a headline, which is then contradicted in the fine print, was also employed in articles pertaining to the removal of the prosecutor general and the ordering of new trials for those implicated in killing protesters. Both are recurring demands, but a closer look reveals that they are curbed by limitations.

A new prosecutor general would indeed breathe fresh air into the complacent and complicit prosecution office that has abetted state crimes and covered up for many officials. He is, however, still bound by the findings of the investigation arm of the interior ministry. Taking a cue from the immunity Mursi has bestowed upon himself, the prosecutor general would have limited capacities in making serving officials answerable to the law – the true implementation of justice – much less the president himself.

The announcement of new trials is also conditioned on new evidence. Despite a clause limiting the application of the law to figures of the old regime, Ikhwan Web, the media arm of the MB, says it would be used in crimes committed post-February 2011 – specifying the Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud killings committed by the army in October 2011 and the police in November 2011, respectively.

The law and the decisions in general are justified with the long-ignored calls for justice. But even aside from the fine print, reality betrays a different inclination. This past week, the ongoing clashes with protesters, using the same childish provocation and thuggish assaults – coupled with non-stop vilification of the protesters in the media and ignoring their demands for justice – was proof that police tactics will remain unchanged. Mursi could have ended this with a phone call; he could’ve ordered police to leave their barricades at a French school off of Tahrir Square at least during his announcement of the constitutional decree.

But he didn’t. The impunity granted to police will continue. The most surreal moment came Thursday during a walk from the High Court where the MB were celebrating Mursi’s decisions to the neighboring Tahrir Square, where confrontations with the police continued; from the celebration of a new revolutionary Egypt to the stench of teargas and the same abuses that were at the core of the revolt. It’s not that the security sector reform was missing, but that its abuses are sanctioned by Mursi against his opponents. The ongoing physical and desperate fight for justice on Mohamed Mahmoud Street will render Mursi’s promises of retribution an elusive concept.

Mursi used the criticism of his own limitations and failures to justify giving himself unchecked powers, instead of making the much simpler decisions people have been asking for.

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