By: Karen Shen, intern and student at Northwestern
On Friday, November 1st, Dr. David Faris joined us at the Niagara Foundation to discuss a topic that was about as dreary as the weather that day. The political and social conditions in Egypt have proven to be troublesome and complex; a proper conversation about these issues is long overdue. The Niagara Forums are the place for distinguished speakers to do such things like spotlight trends, analyze important issues, exchange ideas, and participate in productive interactions that promote innovative global and public policy solutions. With this purpose in mind, Dr. Faris gave the audience an overview of circumstances in Egypt in the last three years. In light of the events of this past summer, he also wanted to take a thematic look at a few important aspects that led Egypt astray by tracing the roots of the crisis back through the immediate post-transition period.
Dr. Faris explained that after President Mubarak was removed from power in February of 2011, a body called the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took executive control of Egypt. Over the next year, three devastating mistakes led to the conflict that came to a head this past summer and effectively ended Morsi’s presidency.
The first mistake was the council’s approach toward fixing the constitution. Early on, the council had intended to amend the existing constitution in a temporary fashion, which would then be permanently revised by a committee appointed by an elected parliament. What ultimately happened, according to Dr. Faris, was “a sort of political cart before the constitutional horse” situation. In the parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood did much better than was even expected and in a coalition with the more conservative Al-Nour Party, they controlled 70% of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament in the first half of 2012. This created an almost “instant crisis” according to Dr. Faris, as the political Islamists who took power clearly intended to appoint their allies to the constitution writing committee in order to take the Egyptian constitution and politics in an Islamist direction.
This setup did not last for long, though, leading to the second blow to the new Egyptian political structure. Even before the election of Morsi, the newly elected Parliament was dissolved by a court order on the grounds of a legal technicality where “candidates [had been] allowed to compete for seats from political parties that were reserved for independent candidates.” Deprived of the lower half of Parliament right before the election of the new President, Egypt found itself in an incredibly vulnerable position. As if that weren’t enough, Morsi ended up taking office with no concrete definition of his powers as president, a yet to be drafted constitution and no legislative check on his authority. And since Morsi had no lawmaking body or legal partner to rule with, politics in Egypt became more contentious.
During the presidential elections that put Morsi in power, secular liberals supported Morsi because they didn’t want Shafik (who was seen as the representative of the Mubarak regime) to come to power. These secular liberals did not necessarily support Morsi’s agenda. In fact, after Morsi took office in June 2012, many of these previous supporters soon came to realize that Morsi’s campaign promises about fairness in the selection of the constitution writing committee were not going to reach fruition. Morsi wound up granting himself additional powers to govern Egypt in the “absence of legislative partnership.” This third mistake, as Dr. Faris reiterated, turned out to be the last straw for the Egyptian public and led to the massive demonstrations that essentially sent Egypt back to the days of the Mubarak regime.
Dr. Faris then went on to recap the uprisings in Egypt, from the December 5th violence against Egyptian protesters to the spring 2013 developments that culminated in this past summer’s massive street campaigns calling for Morsi’s resignation. “Morsi, to his enduring discredit, really never engaged with these opposition forces. His line was consistently until the end…that he was legitimately elected by the people of Egypt and that he has no right or obligation to negotiate with the street campaign.” Morsi had tried to ride his “democratic legitimacy” all the way to the finish line. As the large protests by the Egyptian people continued, the army decided to give Morsi an ultimatum that if he did not diffuse the crisis within forty eight hours they would step in. Referencing a Reuters’ account of the final hours of the Morsi regime, Dr. Faris related that the desperate president had contacted as many generals in the army as he could with the hopes of receiving some confirmation of loyalty among them in the event of a military coup. “The answer was basically ‘no’.”
Currently, Morsi is facing trial that began on November 4th. According to Dr. Faris, the trial is not just about the killing of the protesters in the December 5th uprising, but more about Egypt’s military elite trying “to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood, that is to get rid of its entire senior leadership.” Dr. Faris asserts that, as a result of the events of the past year, political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood have lost a lot of support and legitimacy for the right to govern the country of Egypt.
A larger problem existing in Egypt right now is that of the “deep state,” a term many scholars use to describe the nexus of elites and politically powerful individuals that wield power in Egypt behind the scenes. This “deep state” goes largely unaccountable and fundamentally prevents the restoration of civilian control in the Egyptian government. “The process of large portions of the Egyptian economy and then the ultimate direction of the Egyptian state being controlled by these elites is really destructive.” As important as the constitution is, if the “deep state” remains untouched a new constitution wouldn’t do much good. In addition to the problem of the “deep state,” the appointment of governors by the President rather than through regional elections creates an over-centralization in Cairo. Faris believes that when the President of the Republic holds this much control over politics in the provinces, opportunities for political parties who are underrepresented in national politics to press demands on the state and government go away.
What does Dr. Faris recommend to the Committee of Fifty, who are currently amending the Egyptian constitution? He discusses the need for a “purer form of parliamentary rule,” one that does not eliminate the position of the President, but introduces the President as a ceremonial figure or non-partisan symbol for the state. In addition, Dr. Faris recommends a prime minister coming out the Parliament that would act as the governing authority and that the Parliament, Ceremonial President and regional governors are all directly elected. “I don’t think all is lost based on the things that have happened over the summer. I do think that there is an opportunity to move towards a more inclusive process.” This process, in Dr. Faris’ ideal world, would consist of integrating supporters of the Brotherhood back into normal politics without simply eliminating them, writing a new constitution that does away with the problems of existing one, stopping the various forces that attack protesters during public demonstrations, and empowering legislative institutions to challenge military dominance and role in the economy.
Dr. Faris joked that although the Committee of Fifty are probably not interested in his suggestions, he agreed to email them later. The Consul General of Egypt, who attended the event, later assured Dr. Faris that the Committee of Fifty was indeed considering all of the suggestions he had outlined in the forum.