Egypt Democracy Under Muslim Brotherhood Proving to Be Messy and Chaotic

In an unexpected and unprecedented move last Sunday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy issued an executive decree calling for the reinstatement of the People’s Assembly. The parliamentary body had been disbanded by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) just one day after a June 14 ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) that declared the parliamentary elections law (which brought the body to power) unconstitutional.

On Tuesday, the disbanded People’s Assembly met for a grand total of five minutes, with a single agenda to clarify the legality of the body’s membership. Speaker Saad El-Katatny closed the session after stressing a deep respect for the judiciary; MP’s then voted to refer the SCC June 14 verdict to Cairo’s Court of Cassation. At this point, it remains unclear how the Court will rule on the verdict in light of the fact that SCC decisions cannot be appealed.

Later in the afternoon, the SCC which had been reviewing the legality of Morsy’s decree, released its verdict, ultimately concluding that the executive decree was illegal as it came in clear defiance of the June 14 ruling. The new court decision essentially means that parliamentary sessions cannot continue and legislative power will remain in the hands of the SCAF until a new constitution is drafted and new parliamentary elections are held.

It is unclear how long legislative power will remain in the hands of unelected generals because the drafting of the new constitution is still being seriously debated (on issues like the  wording of Article 2).  

To add to the constitutional, legal, and political mess, the country's Supreme Administrative Court is also reviewing a number of Egyptian institutions. The legality of (1) the constitutional declaration (to which controversial amendments were added by the SCAF on March 30, 2011 restoring legislative powers to the armed forces until the election of a new parliament); (2) the Shura Council (the upper house of Parliament); and (3) the Constituent Assembly (the committee currently drafting the new constitution) are all to be decided on July 17. On that day, the Administrative Court will also be reviewing the legality of SCAF’s decision to immediately dissolve the People’s Assembly following the June 14 SCC verdict.

The implications of these court decisions are not clear on an immediate level, but what is certainly clear is that we are witnessing an aggressive tug-of-war between President Morsy (or rather, the entirety of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party) and the SCAF, on the turf of the country’s judicial and political system. At the heart of the problem is the following: Each entity seems to be working to further its own interests, rather than the interests of the Egyptian people. In the process, they are alienating significant portions of the population and weakening the semblance of institutional structure that remains in the nation.

There is no doubt that the Brotherhood expended an incredible amount of energy on Morsy’s presidential campaign and successfully brought to power a candidate who had originally been a back-up. Although they initially promised to contest only one-third of seats in the People’s Assembly and not run a presidential candidate, they reneged on both promises, ultimately contesting all seats in the Assembly and running both Khairat Al-Shater (who was disqualified early on) and Morsy. Their heavy representation in the Constituent Assembly and the means by which they reached this representation has also been contested by non-Islamist political forces. Explaining this change of heart, some analysts note that after decades of government oppression and political arrests, the Brotherhood has sought to dominate with numbers and make up for lost time. After seeing the uncertainty of the political situation, the continued upheaval caused by politicized court cases, and the rise of a strain in relations with the SCAF, the group has sought to ensure their ascendancy in the political scene. While acting in their immediate political interests, there is no doubt that the Brotherhood is digging its own grave by alienating the remainder of political forces, pursuing priorities that are not representative of the population’s demands, and seeking a superficial dominance in institutions that is unlikely to further their cause in the long run.

The SCAF, which had been the de-facto president since the resignation of Mubarak until Morsy’s inauguration and now has legislative authority as well, is also working to further its interests.  Having long enjoyed a unique prestige among Egyptian society, business enterprises, and well-paid government jobs for retired generals, the armed forces will do everything in their power to maintain what have been almost 60-years of autonomy and independence. Most likely, it is not in the long-term interests of the SCAF to remain in direct power, but rather to return to their behind-the-scenes, away-from-the-spotlight roles (in what some refer to as “the deep state”). Their actions to date, however, like the supplementary constitutional declaration and their speedy move to dissolve parliament, have made it clear that they will suffer what may be temporarily “bad publicity” from activists, Twitterati, and the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain their standing.

Finally, while there is no doubt that the judicial system in Egypt is not a monolithic entity which we can generalize on, but instead one that is colored by a variety of bodies from the SCC to the Administrative Court and the Judges’ Club, it is also equally true that we are witnessing a widespread “politicization of the judiciary.” While Egypt’s judges may not be working to further their personal interests, there is no doubt that a heavy burden has been placed upon them, complicating the verdicts which they have produced to date. Of its most recent cases, the decision to rule against the parliamentary elections law has raised the most questions. In the past, SCC justices took months, if not years, to review vital cases like these, making the timing of this specific verdict (just days before the presidential elections) suspect and leading many to question a potential alliance with the SCAF. The disbanded Parliament’s July 10 decision to refer its membership to the Court of Cassation further confirms a growing lack of trust in the SCC judicial structure. Since the beginning of the post-revolutionary period, Egypt’s courts have taken on a more proactive role, almost unprecedented in recent history. From the dissolution of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party to the ruling on the Political Disenfranchisement Law which kept presidential candidate Shafiq in power and everything in between, justices in Egypt are now expected to rule on the most political of cases in the most politicized and dramatized of environments.

In the short term, the tug-of-war will continue; as the Brotherhood works to further its political standing and the SCAF seeks to maintain its interests, clashes will ensue, chaos is inevitable, and the judiciary will continue to keep us on our toes. At times, we may witness the Brotherhood speaking of their deep respect for the justice system or the country’s honorable armed forces. At others, we will see Tantawi shaking hands with a smiling Morsy and commending him on his success in “leading the nation.” We will see a judiciary that will, at times, seemingly side with Morsy and at others, directly challenge his decrees. And as non-Islamists build up their bases, work to refine their party lines, and prepare for what are impending parliamentary elections, we are likely to see the introduction of a stronger and more unified entity that will join as an equal partner in the struggle for political influence.

The political tug-of-war we are witnessing today is not unique to Egypt and is widespread in any political system, whether one looks into the Egyptian transition (which seems to be on steroids these days) or congressional hearings in our own American backyards (although among a different set of actors). One hopes, however, that as these clashes ensue, as the Egyptian electorate remains informed and takes on more proactive roles, and as the transition continues, we begin to witness the rise of political actors and institutions which seek to further the will and interests of the Egyptian people, rather than their own, albeit in different ways.

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Mai El-Sadany

Mai El-Sadany is a law student at the Georgetown University Law Center, with an intent to focus on international and human rights law in the context of Middle East politics. She is a graduate of Stanford University and formerly worked as a research assistant in Washington, DC.

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