The barrage of international criticism against President Mohamed Morsi’s latest constitutional declaration, which places him above the law, oversimplifies Egypt’s situation and largely comes down to one sentiment: “I told you so.” The dark forces of Islamism have reneged on their commitment to democracy (as everyone expected), and are being fought tooth and nail by the gallant supporters of liberty and legality. How much simpler can it get?
Just a scratch beneath the surface reveals that this newest wave in the two-year turmoil is yet another byproduct of the paradox that has haunted the revolt from the start: how can a regime be overthrown using the very same crooked laws and legal agencies it had set up for its own protection? And how can a democratic regime emerge through the ballot box, if Egyptians simply insist on voting for whoever or whatever the Islamists endorse? Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, actually presents a convincing case.
Voters demand revolutionary changes and retribution against former president Hosni Mubarak’s cronies, yet judges still loyal to their old political masters overrule the reforms he proposes and trials are still carried out by Mubarak’s handpicked general prosecutor, a man who served the ruling party for over a decade. Little wonder that most cases brought against Mubarak’s associates flop in court.
Worse still, the country’s first elected parliament was dissolved over a legal technicality, and the committee voted to draft a new constitution functions daily under a similar threat.
At the same time, those who weep over the sanctity of the legal system include some of the old regime’s most sinister figures, now reinventing themselves as friends of freedom. And the same people who censure the president over legal violations have until recently been preaching that revolutionary justice trumps the law.
This is not to suggest that the Islamists are the good guys either. As many Egyptians suspect, the Muslim Brotherhood does not have the interest of the revolution at heart. Morsi’s high-flown rhetoric cannot hide the fact that his policies differ little from Mubarak’s and his government has failed to offer possible solutions to Egypt’s deteriorating economy and infrastructure, much less actually solve them. As his rivals point out, Morsi could not even deliver on his promise to clean the capital’s streets during his first 100 days in office. So Egypt is once again polarised between two packs of political opportunists, with a handful of well-intentioned activists on each side.
Meanwhile, the true arbiter of power remains Egypt’s all-powerful security apparatus, which is being actively courted by both camps. Morsi partly justified his draconian decrees by the need to punish “hired thugs” (Mubarak’s preferred nickname for the opposition) who attack the police. He previously pledged not to overhaul the security sector, and chose as interior minister Ahmed Gamal, a ruthless police officer who was also one of the Mubarak trial’s defence witnesses. In return, of course, Morsi expects the security forces’ co-operation in containing popular demonstrations against him, and disrupting plans for popular unrest.
His opponents warn of the Islamisation of the security forces, and their upholding of the old legal system tacitly guarantees that police officers will not be held accountable for their past crimes. Not a single security officer has been punished for violations carried out before, during, and after the January 2011 revolt.
The anti-Islamist camp assumes, in exchange, that the interior ministry will keep Islamist ruffians in check and turn a blind eye to efforts aimed at bringing down Muslim Brotherhood rule. The security establishment has yet to assess the dowry and choose a bride. Either way, with all the legal squabbles, intellectual hairsplitting over the constitution, and daily economic concerns dominating the revolutionary scene, the prospects of dismantling Egypt’s authoritarian police state seem less and less likely.
The challenge facing the Egyptian revolution is quite familiar. The machinery of law tailored to safeguard the old regime is a natural obstacle to its removal, and extra-legal measures (sometimes even violence) are necessary. But once revolutionaries take the law into their own hands, they are tempted to bend the rules of the democratic game over and over again. This is why most revolutions either fail to effect real change or end up producing worse regimes than the ones they replaced. Success demands (a temporary) disregard for the law to destroy the old order and a quick return to it to build the new.
Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor its enemies can be trusted to play this role. The hope remains that the continuing turmoil will produce a revolutionary actor capable of walking this thin line. But at the same time, it is disingenuous for liberal western critics to simply say: “I told you so.”
Hazem Kandil is a lecturer in sociology and St. Catharine’s College fellow at Cambridge University. He has also taught at the American University in Cairo and is the author of Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen.