While Syria’s civil war dominates the world’s attention, less dramatic and telegenic events in Egypt retain the power to decide if popular uprisings will succeed in establishing a democratic alternative to tyranny in the Arab world.
Something of that magnitude has just happened in Cairo. Arguably it is just as significant as the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February last year. The system was decapitated but continued in the form of the military council, which assumed transitional rule. On Sunday the heads of that system, which has dominated Egypt for decades, were toppled – apparently with its acquiescence.
In forcing the departure of his defence minister and Hussein Tantawi, the head of Scaf (the Supreme Council of Armed Forces ), President Mohamed Morsi was not just getting rid of an ageing field marshall who had been central to the Mubarak era, and replacing him with the youngest member of Scaf, establishing the continuity of the system. He was changing the balance of power.
Morsi got rid of the man who was expected to replace Tantawi – the army chief of staff, Sami Enan – as well as the leader of every service of the armed forces. Tantawi’s replacement, the head of military intelligence Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, will now report to Morsi himself, not to Scaf. Further, Morsi annulled the constitutional power grab that Scaf made on the second day of the presidential election in June, which gave the military a right of veto over the new constitution that is in the process of being drawn up.
Accused by the left and liberals of political weakness, of cohabiting with the military, the Muslim Brotherhood president today stands accused of the opposite contention – accruing too much power. And it is true, that in assuming for himself the power Scaf had to appoint a new constituent assembly should the current one writing the constitution fail to agree, the Egyptian president now has the powers of a Russian one. But Morsi is no Vladimir Putin.
First, the powers Morsi has assumed are time-limited. The constitution is already mostly written, and should be finished by early September. Its work will be put to a referendum, and within two months of that, there will be fresh parliamentary elections. Morsi’s vast powers as president will only last for three months at the most before he puts his actions to the test of a popular vote.
Second, to ensure that the vote is indeed popular, Morsi appointed two brothers, both respected judges who are independent of the Brotherhood: Mahmoud Mekky, a senior judge, is now his vice-president, and Ahmed Mekky is his justice minister. The Mekky brothers are part of the Reform Movement within the judiciary, and its agenda is to roll back the powers of the second arm of the Mubarak military state – its politically appointed constitutional court. Both men were part of the so-called judge’s revolt after the tainted Mubarak elections in 2005. Civil society and the rule of law could not have two better non-Islamist champions.
Of course, a darker interpretation can be put on Morsi’s actions. If the constituent assembly cannot agree on a constitution, Morsi has the power to appoint a new one. He could also continue to rule by decree. Some analysts are pessimistic about what they see as the Brotherhood’s sense of electoral entitlement.
That may indeed exist below the democratic patina of these declarations. But doubters should ask themselves what the alternative is, given that the role of the transition is to establish a new civil order, with the military back in its barracks. Shortly after Scaf issued its constitutional decree in June, a broad coalition of the opposition met in the Fairmont Hotel in Cairo and issued a declaration promising to undo Scaf’s move. Morsi is now fulfilling this.
The test of the power he now holds will be his ability to share it with other constituencies who are suspicious of the Brotherhood – Christians, secularists, liberals, the left – and establish the effective government the country so desperately needs. For the moment, Morsi should be given the benefit of the doubt.
David Hearst is a foreign leader writer for the Guardian.