Before the events of the last weekend, the main issue facing Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi (pictured) was his lack of real power. Now he may have too much. The key question is how he and the Muslim Brotherhood will use this power. Will it be to cement Egypt's transition to democracy or to serve their own narrow political agenda and interests? We will know the answer in coming months.
By amending Egypt's transitional constitution, Morsi has overturned the Supreme Council of Armed Forces' (SCAF) own earlier amendment which had stripped his position of real power. He now has full executive and legislative power and control over the writing of Egypt's new constitution.
By retiring the top brass he has removed those individuals in the military with the strongest connections to the old regime and those most likely to plot against him. He has promoted in their place a younger guard who appear to have been increasingly unhappy with the old guard's handling of the political transition and the way this had been sullying the military's reputation. This may now mean a military more focused on its professional responsibilities rather than on political interference.
By appointing a prominent and respected judge as his vice-president, Morsi has also signaled to the judiciary, parts of which are also strongly linked to the old regime, that it too needs to curb its political meddling. Key judicial bodies like the Supreme Constitutional Court had intervened repeatedly in Egypt's transition, and often in a way that seemed designed to obstruct the Brotherhood's political ascendancy.
Morsi's moves are positive insofar as they shift power from the unelected SCAF to the elected president and get Egypt's stumbling transition moving and government functioning again. But the concentration of power in his hands is extremely dangerous in a country only recently released from decades of autocratic rule. Three key tests will tell us what Morsi's new power means for Egypt's transition to democracy:
- How Morsi and the Brotherhood treat non-violent opposition and public criticism: Morsi can justifiably argue that some of the criticism directed at him by opponents in the media has verged on incitement. But with power now so preponderantly in his and the Muslim Brotherhood's hands, his willingness to allow even his most irreconcilable critics to have their say will be a key sign of his commitment to building a more open and democratic Egypt. Recent moves against two journalists deemed to have 'insulted the President' are a bad start.
- How Morsi manages constitutional process: the constituent assembly is drafting a new constitution which should be complete before the end of the year and will then be put to a popular vote. Because Morsi now has the power to appoint a new constituent assembly if the current one is incapable of completing its work, there is now a disincentive for opponents to mount legal challenges or obstruct the assembly. The question is whether Morsi will use his power to build a consensus around a new constitution or abuse it to pursue the Brotherhood's constitutional aims.
- How Morsi manages new parliamentary elections: one of the more disturbing aspects of Morsi's moves is the fact that he now holds executive and legislative power. The Brotherhood held a majority in the most recent parliament until the Supreme Constitutional Court prompted its dissolution. Morsi has promised to hold new parliamentary elections a few months after the constitutional process is complete. Whether Morsi keeps that promise and the manner in which the elections are conducted will be the final test of Morsi's commitment to Egypt's democratic transition.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.