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Nov 27, 2012 | 20:48 GMT

Egypt: The Significance of Morsi's Decrees

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

At least 100,000 people gathered Nov. 27 in Egypt's Tahrir Square, some of them clashing with police, Fox News and AP reported. Poitical turmoil will likely continue in Egypt in response to executive decrees issued Nov. 22 by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The decrees grant the president absolute power, including immunity from legal rulings. Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, including members of the judiciary, have used legal suits as their main vehicle for challenging the Islamist movement and Morsi.

Egypt is now in the beginning of the process of redefining itself as an Islamist country. The Islamist-led government wants to neutralize the judiciary as a necessary step in consolidating its power within the country. It needs to shut down legal challenges so that the Muslim Brotherhood can work on regaining control of the parliament (which was dissolved by a Supreme Court ruling in June) and position Brotherhood members within the country's civil service and state agencies and institutions as quickly as possible. With the Brotherhood moving to entrench itself within the state bureaucracy, unrest will likely persist, potentially creating an opening for the military to reassert itself.

Morsi's recent decrees block legal challenges to all of his presidential declarations, including any laws he has ratified since becoming president in June. In short, the decrees remove all checks and balances in the political system, placing the executive above both the judiciary and the legislature in Egypt. The decrees also extend by two months the mandate for the constituent assembly charged with drafting a new constitution and forbid any judicial body from dissolving or otherwise challenging the assembly or the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament), both of which are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a speech Nov. 23, Morsi said the Supreme Constitutional Court, which was set to rule on the legality of the constituent assembly in December, had already decided to dissolve the body. The assembly was due to complete its mandate by mid-December but a series of delays had held up the process. Just last week, several assembly members resigned, citing disagreements with the Islamists. The extension of the body's mandate and forbiddance of its dissolution ensure that a constitution will eventually be drafted; this is key because legislative polls cannot be held until a constitution is approved by national referendum.

Morsi also removed Prosecutor General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, a key opponent and lifetime appointee from the Mubarak era who Morsi tried and failed to remove in October. In his place Morsi appointed Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah, a former deputy head of the Court of Cassation, and limited the term of office to four years. However, Mahmoud has refused to step down even though Abdallah has been sworn in, and it is unclear who is serving as prosecutor general in Egypt at the moment.

Locator Map - Egypt

Responses to the Decrees

Morsi's decrees unified the political opposition (secularists, Nasserites, liberals, youth groups and others), which thus far has been unable to seriously challenge the Brotherhood — either in the last parliamentary polls or in the constituent assembly. Several smaller parties have now formed the National Front to compete against the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in next year's legislative elections. The new group represents only a small — albeit typically upper-middle class — segment of society. It is also internally divided and includes an array of ideologies and agendas. It remains to be seen whether the opposition can hold together and form a large enough faction to actually challenge the Brotherhood, but at this stage its chances appear limited. 

Though internally divided, the judiciary has been the primary obstacle to the Brotherhood's efforts to consolidate its hold on Egypt's political system. A large number of judges in several cities have come out against Morsi's assumption of supreme power. Already judges across Egypt are on strike, and more are expected to join this week. The powerful Judges Club has warned that it will boycott the constitutional referendum, essentially withholding legal oversight of polling stations and thus delegitimizing the outcome. Meanwhile, a Cairo administrative court has set a hearing for Dec. 4 to challenge Morsi's decrees, and the Supreme Judicial Council, which met with Morsi on Nov. 26 to discuss a compromise, has announced that no agreement was reached and warned that the crisis is not over.  

So far Morsi has refused to back down. Stratfor has received indications that Morsi is unlikely to waver because he feels that he has the support of the Egyptian military and, given his role in mediating the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, of Washington — at least for the time being. Morsi's stance could change if the protests escalate further.

Infiltrating the State Bureaucracy

Morsi has used the turmoil to further the Brotherhood's second objective: entrenching the Islamist movement's power and installing Brotherhood members in key state institutions and civil service roles. On Nov. 24, with everyone focused on the protests in Tahrir Square and the attacks on Freedom and Justice Party offices, the president quietly ratified a law put forward by Manpower and Immigration Minister Khaled al-Azhari that grants the government the power to appoint members to the country's largest trade union, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. The union represents 2.5 million workers and is an umbrella organization for more than two dozen unions in Egypt. It is a powerful labor body with an important role in business and the Egyptian economy; it is also a bastion of the banned National Democratic Party that was previously led by ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The conflict is far from over. The Tahrir protests reflect only one aspect of a much larger power struggle. As the Brotherhood, with Morsi's help, entrenches itself within the Egyptian bureaucracy, it will trigger pushback from across the political spectrum. For the Brotherhood, timing is of the essence. Already constituent assembly head Hossam el-Gheriani has warned that time is running out for the drafting of the constitution and that the continual walkouts by members threaten the process. 

At this juncture, the protests are unlikely to escalate into a national crisis that could unseat the president, but if they get out of control or continue uninterrupted for weeks they could affect his hold on power. The fight between the Brotherhood and its opponents — especially those members of the Mubarak-era regime within state institutions and the civil service — will continue to fuel unrest. The current protests have led to clashes with the police — though they did not prevent the attacks on Freedom and Justice Party offices — and Stratfor sources suggest that the political opposition wants to escalate the conflict to force the military to step in. The military has so far stayed out of the conflict, but wider violence and unrest could open some room for the military to re-enter the contest, and that — along with the judiciary's countermove — is what matters now.

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