On Tuesday, people across Egypt, including tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square, came out to protest against recent decrees by President Mohammed Morsi. A range of diverse groups, including third place finisher in the presidential contest Hamdeen Sabahi, Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, and former foreign minister Amr Moussa all protested in Tahrir, demanding the cancell\ation of the decrees, which were announced on November 22. The decrees have clearly divided Egypt, but what are they and why have they proven to be so controversial?
The seven decrees are thus:
1. All investigations into the killing of protesters or the excessive use of brutality of protesters will be re-conducted. This means that former president Hosni Mubarak would likely be retried in court. However, questions remain if this includes instances of violence against protesters during Morsi’s presidency.
2. All Constitutional decrees and laws made since Morsi assumed the presidency on June 30 cannot be canceled or appealed by any individual, until a new parliament has been elected. This is the most controversial of the decrees, as it gives Morsi unchecked power.
3. The public prosecutor will be appointed by the judiciary for a fixed term of four years. Included in the statement was that Abdel Meguid Mahmoud would be let go from this position, and Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah would take his place. Morsi had a long bitter fight with Mahmoud after trying to dismiss him once, but that effort failed.
4. The Constituent Assembly’s timeline for drafting the new constitution will be extended two months. This part of the decrees is meant to give more time for the faltering assembly to create a new constitution.
5. No judicial authority can dissolve the Constituent Assembly or the Shura Council. There are lawsuits to dissolve both the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council, and this is clearly meant to neutralize those attempts.
6. The president is authorized to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve and safeguard the revolution. Again, taken with number two, this seems to give Morsi the authority to make any decision as he sees fit.
7. This declaration will be published in the Official Gazette. This was added because once something is published in the Official Gazette it is then legal and lawful.
An Arabic version of the declaration can be found here (no explanation why point seven is not included). The decrees are a clear wish list of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement from which Morsi hails (but from which he technically resigned his posts). The MB believes it is the judiciary that is trying to halt its attempts to rule Egypt, as clearly seen by Morsi’s speech after the decrees. Protecting the Shura Council and the Constituent Assembly, packed with Brotherhood members, goes hand-in-hand with ensuring the courts cannot overturn them, as the courts dismissed the MB-dominated lower house of parliament. Additionally, retrying those whom abused protesters is connected to replacing the public prosecutor, who has been accused of being lax in the prosecution of Mubarak era figures.
As to why Morsi declared these laws now, it is likely he was buoyed by his successful bid in shaping a truce between Gaza and Israel, and believed that his newfound international clout would help the public accept these decrees. Further, he clearly hoped that retrying regime era figures, a longtime demand of revolutionary activists, and talks of protecting the revolution, would help them swallow the other laws. Last, his government has been hard pressed lately, particularly after the death of 50 children in a bus-train collision nearly two weeks ago.
Morsi is now facing real and sustained opposition and has even accomplished something unique; he has galvanized opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood to actually work together. While some speak of a second revolution, and others say this crisis will pass after protesters eventually leave Tahrir, it is clear that Egypt is yet again in uncharted waters.