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Egypt: The Rule of the Brotherhood

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian soldiers observing evening prayers beside graffiti commemorating Gaber Salah (known as ‘Gika’ or ‘Jika,’ a sixteen-year-old activist killed during clashes with security forces in late November), before a rally protesting President Mohamed Morsi’s draft constitution, Cairo, December 11, 2012

Just ahead of that protest, Morsi, in a constitutional decree, gave himself sweeping new executive powers.* He said he did so with the intent of securing a “democratic transition” that seemed—in his view—under threat of being obstructed by the judicial bodies of the old regime in collusion with other forces. He made this declaration hours after he had been lavishly praised for mediating the Gaza cease-fire. (Hillary Clinton commended his “responsibility” and “personal leadership”). But it also came just days before the Supreme Constitutional Court was set to rule on the legitimacy of both the Islamist-dominated house of parliament and the Constitutional Assembly, from which the non-Islamists were withdrawing. It seemed almost certain that the high court would annul both. Morsi’s decree had the effect of preempting those decisions—ensuring that even if the court moved to dissolve them, he could overrule it.

Morsi’s seven-point decree had been composed with some sensitivity to the concerns of the secular opposition. It called for a reinvestigation

in the cases of the murder, the attempted murder, and the wounding of protesters, as well as the crimes of terror committed against the revolutionaries by anyone who held a political or executive position under the former regime.

The decree also gave the president direct control over the government’s chief prosecutor. Morsi had fired the Mubarak-appointed chief prosecutor on October 11 and he could now choose his replacement, who would have a fixed four-year term. The controversial Article V gave Morsi even more powers than Mubarak ever had on paper. It was slipped, it appeared, into an otherwise “revolutionary” declaration, and stated simply, “No judicial body can dissolve the Shura Council [the upper house of Egyptian Parliament] or the Constituent Assembly.” The decree went on to say, “The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”

A good many members of Morsi’s circle of advisers were quick to resign in protest against this decree. They expressed their “shock,” “frustration,” and “disappointment” in reaction both to the document itself and the fact that they hadn’t been consulted. Morsi’s vice-president—the former judge Mahmoud Mekki—said that the president “did not consult me” before announcing his decree to the public. The Supreme Judicial Council—the country’s highest body of judges—called the decree an “unprecedented assault.”

On November 23, members of the opposition—many of whom had voted for Morsi against Shafik—formed the National Salvation Front (NSF), headed by Mohamed ElBaradei. The Front included the splintered factions of the liberal and secular opposition, including Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahy. That day, newspapers wrote that the “true colors” of the Brotherhood has been revealed, and they deplored “Morsi’s power grab.”

Rather than try to pacify such critics, the president announced that a draft constitution would be ready within two days, on November 29—before the Constitutional Court could annul the Islamist-dominated assembly as undemocratic. The remaining members of the assembly convened, and in a seventeen-hour televised session that began at 2:40 PM on Thursday and ended at 6:40 AM Friday, the 236 articles of the draft constitution were reviewed, revised, and voted on.

In the scramble to finish before the next working day—before there was time for the assembly to be dissolved or Morsi’s decree to be rescinded or the presidency to fall—the head of the Constitutional Assembly, Hossam al-Ghiriyani, an Islamist and career judge, impatiently pushed the members to finish, haranguing them for arguing over some of the clauses.

In one incident, which friends and I watched in a combination of horror and amazement, sixteen members of the assembly voted against a draft article, meaning it would need to be discussed. Al-Ghiriyani, flustered, said he would take a vote count again, otherwise they would be there until the morning, wasting time. The assembly voted again; this time only four members objected. The article was passed, wording unchanged. In the session’s final hours, several articles were hastily added to resolve lingering issues or disputes or requests. The resulting document was presented to the president on December 1, and the date of a referendum was set for two weeks later. At dawn on the morning of December 2—the day the Supreme Constitutional Court was to rule on the Constitutional Assembly—Islamists surrounded the court as a precautionary measure, refusing to let any of the judges in.

The Islamists’ TV channels and press called the completion of the draft constitution an “achievement,” “historic,” “an occasion,” “another step toward achieving the goals of the revolution.” The independent and opposition press described it as “an Islamist coup.” Morsi was cast both as a pawn of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and as a knowing player in their game.


When tens and then hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest against Morsi and his decree and the draft constitution that followed, many wondered if he had learned from Mubarak’s mistakes and would yield to the pressure and demands of the people. By early December, there were tens of thousands of protesters surrounding the presidential palace, forcing him, on the evening of December 4, to flee from a back door. The next day, at a meeting of the National Salvation Front, a roomful of several hundred listened to ElBaradei. He spoke out against “the dictatorship” the country was witnessing, and he demanded that the country’s Islamist leaders respond to the people. It was the first time since the eighteen days of the uprising that I had seen the “opposition” to the regime (this time Morsi’s regime in the place of Mubarak’s) expressing a clear, uncomplicated, unwavering conviction about the necessity of working together to bring an end to authoritarian rule. That evening, the word “Morsilini”—a take on Mussolini—was used several times.

That afternoon, when clashes broke out between Morsi’s supporters (aka Moristas) and the anti-Morsi camp, both video and much other evidence pointed clearly to Morsi’s allies as the main instigators of the violence. The president’s office remained silent. Instead, the Brotherhood spoke out—against the violence, against infiltrators, and against those trying to provoke unrest in the country. When he finally spoke, Morsi borrowed from the Brotherhood’s rhetoric. He blamed the violence on, among others, paid thugs and people trying to stir chaos and dissent: the standard regime line that was familiar from Mubarak’s days. He made no mention of the fact that his supporters—as videos revealed—had been the instigators of the attacks or had taken part in them.

Morsi seemed, in fact, somewhat oblivious to the extent of the brutality of his allies. At least seven people were killed; many were beaten and some were tortured. There were gory threats from Islamists. (I was threatened with having my throat slit.) Morsi spoke less as a president that day, and more from the vantage point of a Muslim Brother defending his own. The street protests against him grew in size but this did not faze him.


When Morsi took office last summer, the big question on people’s minds was whether he would be able to separate himself from the Brotherhood, the group that had authorized, guided, and financed his presidential campaign. Aside from his symbolic act of resignation from his post in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could a longtime member of a secret fraternity distance himself from the control of the Guidance Bureau without being kicked out or defamed in the way that Morsi’s Islamic rival Aboul Fotouh had been the summer before?

By this winter, the public seemed to accept the fact that there was no alternative to Morsi’s Brotherhood running the show. As a source close to the Brotherhood’s leaders told me, “Morsi is simply overseeing the presidential portfolio on behalf of the Supreme Guide’s Office, and so in negotiating with him you are simply speaking to a messenger.” For many, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for all its defects, seemed to be the lesser of two evils. In the lead-up to the referendum, as political tensions were high and protests continued, talk of a civil war seemed to be everywhere. I kept hearing, repeatedly, people “pray” for an intervention by the army.

On December 11, I went to a local sporting club where retired ministers and officials are often found around the pool. A former Interior Ministry chief warned a circle of keen listeners—of whom my father was one—that the Interior Ministry could no longer contain the situation and that the army would be forced to intervene. I was told later that the interior minister had met with the defense minister and told him as much. That afternoon, the army made its appearance, putting out a call and invitation on Facebook to hold a meeting for a “national dialogue” the following day. The president’s office reacted, saying the invitation was a rumor. The army responded that the president would be attending. The president’s office said he wouldn’t. The army responded by changing the wording—they were inviting Morsi to a “humanitarian dialogue” and “luncheon.” Eventually the president’s office said Morsi would be attending “given that the invitation had come upon counsel from him.” Politics would not be discussed, and lunch would be served.

The next afternoon, the meeting was canceled. The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood had intervened. For him, it was not tolerable that the armed forces should be seen as capable of gathering together all factions, including the president, in a national dialogue, while the president himself had utterly failed to do the same. At the state TV and radio building that day, a reporter told me that the media’s hands were increasingly tied:

It’s no different from when Mubarak was in power. The red lines of what we can say and can’t say are being redrawn. Instead of Mubarak, now it’s Morsi. We know that it was the Supreme Guide who gave orders for the lunch to be canceled. We know there is a tension between the army and Brotherhood, but we can’t say that.

A few weeks later, after the second round of the referendum took place on December 22, and the constitution was approved, the Supreme Elections Committee refused to say that there were elections violations that warranted investigation. The committee dismissed 15,000 reported violations. The referendum—in which there was a turnout of just 30 percent in a vote that gave 64 percent approval to Morsi’s constitution—was declared by the committee to be “impartial and fair.” It was not until five days after Morsi had signed the new constitution, putting it into effect, that it was reported that the elections committee was “beginning” inquiry into the 15,000 reports of fraud.

Morsi, it seemed clear, had passed the constitution that the Islamists had wanted. He then handpicked the outstanding ninety members of the Shura Council—the upper house of parliament—who were given legislative powers until a new parliament would be elected. Although he promised that his choices would be “representative,” the majority, again, were Islamists. The public was now used to this. “We got rid of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), and replaced it with the Brotherhood,” Ibrahim Eissa wrote in the newspaper El-Tahir.

  1. *

    My recent piece for the NYRblog, “ Egypt: Whose Constitution?,” January 3, 2013, discusses these and other events leading up to the referendum. 

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