Presidential power and the Muslim Brotherhood
Newly elected President Mohammed Mursi of Egpyt has surprised many onlookers by forcing the exit of two of Egypt’s most powerful generals this week. In the interim period between Mubarak leaving office and Mursi’s recent assumption of office, not only did the army keep control but they wrote the new constitution, giving the institution huge amounts of power.
The move can be seen in tandem with Mursi’s decision to annul a constitutional amendment made by the army which increased the power of the military even more, to the extent that the army, not the President, would have the power to assemble Parliament. At the time of the election, it seemed as though whoever triumphed would ultimately be a puppet for a regime led by military generals; so far, Mursi has done nothing to suggest that this is what he will be.
Some of the reaction to this has been hostile; there are fears that Mursi is attempting to consolidate all political power in Egypt for himself, and that this could be the start of a power grab resulting in another Egyptian dictatorship. It is difficult to say what will materialise at this stage, but the simple act of seizing an element of power from the army should not lead one to assume the worst.
For one thing, it was completely unsustainable for the Egyptian army to continue to have as much constitutional power, and contain as many influential personnel as it did before this move. Fears about Mursi consolidating power should at least be prefaced by the fact that he has the electoral support of the nation. The army, on the other hand, appeared to want to keep the power it had assumed in a period of crisis indefinitely. Mursi has done nothing anti-democratic in weakening a potentially autocratic institution.
Indeed, the very fact that such a move can spark fears of dictatorship seems strange. Mursi may be strengthening his own position, but he is also strengthening democracy in Egypt by doing so. So why is he seen as a threat?
Firstly, it is perhaps only sensible for a nation, after 30 years of being ruled by one man, to be suspicious of anyone who wishes to take office upon his departure. There are more than enough examples of a despot being replaced by another despot across Africa for this to always be a worry. Egypt has never been ruled democratically before, so many inside Egypt may wonder whether Mursi is not simply using democratic mechanisms to entrench himself in the political system. In this sense, the fear is understandable.
Secondly, and more significantly, is the fact that Mohammed Mursi is a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, which was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood that is sparking concerns that Mursi is attempting to consolidate power against possible opponents more than anything else.
Admittedly, the name does not help; one could be forgiven for thinking that the Muslim Brotherhood chose its name specifically to frighten the American right. In reality it is obviously not so scary. The Muslim Brotherhood is simply a political group doing what political groups do – try to achieve power.
The most basic tenets of democracy should be remembered here – Egypt voted for Mursi, so he should be able to rule as he likes within certain obvious limits. As the first democratically elected President in Egypt’s history, Mursi will inevitably have to make fairly large changes to the institutional dynamics, especially if we remember that the document was initially drafted by the army. It is too early in his Presidency to be able to tell how Mursi intends to govern; we should give him time to prove what he is about.
The name ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ may conjure up images of a political system in the Iranian or Saudi-Arabian mould, especially when used alongside the adjective ‘Islamist’. Egypt could not become another Saudi Arabia – the culture shock from a 30 year period of secular rule would be too harsh for it to last. It is likely that Egypt will now be more openly Islamic than previously. However one feels about religious influence on the state or about Islam as a religion, one should realise that a nation which is both 90% Muslim and democratic is almost inevitably going to see a cross-over between those two realms.
At this stage, President Mursi should be viewed as a man with a very difficult job who has made an excellent start. He has essentially managed to assert his regime against the political influence of the military, and entrenched democracy in doing so. So far, he has done nothing to suspect he will be a radical. We can only hope that it is his actions that dictate his reputation abroad, rather than the name of the group which supports him.