What to make of the compromise allegedly worked out between Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and the judiciary to curb the sweeping powers he gave himself last Thursday? Those powers, among other things, put his rulings outside the purview of judicial review until a new Parliament is elected. The agreement, as purveyed to the press by a presidential spokesperson, suggests that only “sovereign decisions” would be kept outside judicial oversight. These decisions, the spokesman explained, pertained to “declaring war and dealing with existential threats” — a handy escape clause that can be open to wide interpretation, as any Indian who lived through Indira Gandhi’s Emergency will attest. The alleged compromise did dilute Mr Morsi’s Thursday declaration for a retrial of crimes committed against protesters during the street protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. It is telling, however, that no representative of the judiciary, which met Mr Morsi on Tuesday after four days of violent popular protests in Cairo, was present at the announcement or commented on it, although the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organisation of Mr Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, called off a planned “million man march” in support of the president. More to the point, the balance of power still lies with the president, since two other key elements of his Constitutional Declaration of November 22 remain in place. The Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly that is rewriting Egypt’s Constitution retains immunity from legal challenge, as does the Shura, the upper House of Parliament — also controlled by Brotherhood allies.
In other words, there is little in Tuesday’s developments that will reassure those worried that the corrupt authoritarianism of the Mubarak era is over. Indeed, Egypt’s tragedy is twofold. First, it was the last bastion of hope when the fabled Arab Spring for democracy across North Africa faded into the winter of hopeless discontent. Second, Mr Morsi’s election in June ended a year of military rule and his early sidelining of the generals raised anticipation that he had an instinct for democracy that belied his Brotherhood antecedents. Since then, however, he has systematically belied all expectations by packing the Constituent Assembly with Islamic hardliners, and following it up with the oldest trick in the dictatorial book: leveraging a successful brokering of a deal between Israel and Gaza to consolidate his hold with his Constitutional Declaration.
It is easy to see why Egyptians are uneasy. After all, Mr Mubarak’s dictatorship was the result of an emergency decree. Second, the country derives a significant part of its revenues from tourism, and the untrammelled rule of a fundamentalist party is unlikely to raise confidence on this score. Mr Morsi was widely considered to represent the Brotherhood’s more liberal, progressive face — until last week. In the absence of any truly representative institutions, the clear capitulation of the judiciary yesterday is something Egyptians should worry about. They have the example of Iran not very far away to remind them of the perils of being ruled by elected proxies for fundamental forces.