Morsi's Power Grab, Egypt's Constitutional Crisis

Egypt's president Mohamed Morsi issued a decree giving himself near absolute power. Protests followed, and Morsi walked back slightly on his claim to absolute authority. NPR's Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel explains the evolving political challenges of Egypt's post-Mubarak era.

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Last week, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi received plaudits from around the world after he brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Then a day later he issued a decree, giving him near-absolute power. After some times of violent protests and a visit from outraged judges, the president backed off a bit, but many worry that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood will now dictate Egypt's new constitution and that the revolution just created one strong man for another.

NPR Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel joins us now from Cairo. Thanks very much for being with us today.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And the opposition to Morsi called for big demonstrations today in Tahrir Square. What happened?

FADEL: Well, actually, it was quite a few people on the square. The entire square was filled with maybe hundreds of thousands of people, which is actually quite unusual when the Brotherhood is - or the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which Muhammad Morsi comes from, is not involved in protests. And they were saying we don't want these dictatorial decrees. We want an independent judiciary. We want oversight over our president. And, in fact, he really didn't back down yesterday. He basically issued an (unintelligible) of decrees he says will remain unchanged and continue to have no oversight over many of his decisions.

CONAN: Some judges had called for a judges' strike, effectively. Is that going to happen?

FADEL: Actually, it's - in the beginning it didn't look like it was really going to go anywhere. But more than 90 percent of courts have suspended operations now in Egypt, which will paralyze about 20 million cases. This is a nation of 80 million people, so really paralyzing the judicial system. The court system may put some pressure on the president to change the decrees he issued, which essentially, as I said, nullified the judiciary.

CONAN: And so the political situation comes after a lot of the secular parties and some minority groups had walked out of the assembly that was trying to write the constitution.

FADEL: Right. It's been a hard battle to write this constitution. When you talk to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, allies of the president, Muhammad Morsi, they say listen, we are elected. Our president is elected, the parliament was elected, the constituent assembly was chosen with a popular mandate, and the courts keep getting in our way. And they say in order to allow for this constitution to be completed, we had to cut out the courts. Right before the president issued these decrees, as you said, minorities, liberals, about a quarter of the constituent assembly walked out in protest, saying it's an Islamist-dominated body, which it is, and we don't agree with what's being put into the draft constitution. It limits women's rights, minority rights, and they take issue with that.

CONAN: The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists, say the liberals, the secularists and the minorities were dragging their feet, trying to run out the clock on the constitution.

FADEL: Yes. They feel that - they actually really feel that members of former President Hosni Mubarak's regime are actively trying to undermine political stability in Egypt through the court system. They say that the liberals, the secularists, are manipulating the court system to try to truncate the process and get in the way - sorry, not truncate, but get in the way of the process and really go against what was the popular will. In the end, the parliament - 70 percent of the parliament was Islamist due to popular vote. So they say this is the way forward and remnants of the old regime, as they say, are the ones now protesting, are the ones against Morsi's decrees.

CONAN: Well, they have a point, certainly, in the case of the judiciary.

FADEL: Yes. I mean, when you look at the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is the court they take issue with the most, it is all Mubarak-era judges. And when you speak to people, many people are actually quite conflicted.

This is an exceptional decree. It's - it is - if you look at it for face value, it is wholly undemocratic. But they say this is the only way to cut out institutions that are undermining us and get to a point of political stability because every time we take one step forward, it's 10 steps back with this court.

CONAN: There is a - after so long under dictatorship, and it was certainly not just Mr. Mubarak but his predecessors all the way back through Nasser and before it had a king and, well, effective British rule before that, there's been one person in charge of Egypt for a very long time.

FADEL: Yes. And, you know, people wanted that to change. And one of the things we heard a lot of in Tahrir Square today is we didn't oust Mubarak to get an Islamist dictator - oust a secular dictator to get an Islamist dictator. And Morsi was elected, but the idea is to have a democratic process. One of the complaints also about the draft constitution is it gives too much power to the president. And now people are saying, we want to be represented; all of Egypt, not just the Muslim Brotherhood.

CONAN: Is there any indication that at this point, the president and the Muslim Brotherhood will reconsider?

FADEL: So far we're not seeing indications of that. Of course, as you mentioned, yesterday, the president's spokesman kind of came out and tried to explain the decrees. One of the decrees basically said, any law or decision I make from now until the constitution is written or a parliament is in place has - there is no way to challenge it in courts. He said, actually that's limited to sovereign act. What sovereign acts mean, though, is so vague and unclear. And it really didn't appease his opposition.

And so far, we're really not seeing them back off. In fact, when we called members of the Muslim Brotherhood, allies of the president today, they said, yes, the numbers are big out and square, but we canceled our protest to make sure there was no bloodshed. And we believe those are all supporters or in cahoots with members of the former regime.

CONAN: They did cancel what was, I guess, a counter-demonstration, and there could have been a serious situation had that gone ahead.

FADEL: They canceled their protest in the capital, but we did see pretty large protest in support of the Muslim Brotherhood outside of the capital. So in the capital, the only people we saw in the streets today were, as I said, opponents of Mohammed Morsi. And many of the people we spoke to today were from the - I would describe the political, secular, liberal elite of the country. Of course, it was a cross-section. There were hundreds of thousands of people out there, but it didn't seem to be all of Egypt. And it's really on - it really feels that the nation is very divided about what to do and how to react to Morsi's decree. Some people do support them.

CONAN: And so where do we go from here? One of the things that happened after the decree was issued is the stock market plunged.

FADEL: Well, at this point, we'll have to see. I mean, these huge numbers came out tonight. It's unclear if the president will have a new reaction to this, but in their mind, they have to push forward. They're going to get a constitution out even if it does lack some legitimacy internationally and domestically because of what's happened with these decrees, because of the walkouts that have come out.

And a lot of his political opponents, people that were unable, you know, Mohammed Morsi was elected also very - by a very slim margin of the population. So you're seeing former presidential candidates like Amr Moussa, once the foreign minister here, once the head of the Arab League, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate. Those people are really capitalizing on this real anger towards Mohammed Morsi and possibly rejuvenating their political careers. So we'll really have to see. We're seeing a very divided nation, and many people are very worried about what will happen next.

CONAN: There is, as you mentioned, it is an Islamist victory in those elections, but it was not just the Muslim Brotherhood. A big fraction of that was Salafis, who are even more extreme.

FADEL: Yeah. The Muslim Brotherhood sort of propagate themselves as moderate Islamist, the open Islamist. And the Salafis are much more literal in their interpretation of Islam; very, very conservative. And so far we're seeing them, at least in this moment, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood on this decision. This is a decision, they say, that will get the constitution through, that will give us the parliament with legislative powers.

One thing we can't forget is what - Mohammed Morsi was quite powerful already. When he ousted the military leaders and took legislative power from them because there was no parliament and they had it, he became both the president and the parliament. So now, he's both the president and the parliament, and nothing he decides can technically be challenged in court. It'll have to remain to be seen if the idea that he talks about, the sovereign acts he decides are not challengeable, if there is a difference between a sovereign act and another act. Again, the legal language is so vague that people don't trust him, don't trust the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another issue a lot of people point out is that the Muslim Brotherhood has made many promises over this transitional period that they didn't keep. They said, we'd only run for about 30 percent of the parliament seats. They ran for much more. And they won about almost 50 percent of that parliament that's now dissolved. They said, we don't want to run for president. We don't want to run the country. And not only did they break that promise, but they ran two candidates. And one of them is now president.

So people say, OK, he says we'll take - I'm taking this power temporarily, don't worry, I just need to get things back on track. But they say, how can we know? How can we trust him that he'll really return these powers to other branches so he will have checked power again? There will be checks and balances.

CONAN: You mentioned his removal of the military leadership that had taken over after Mr. Mubarak was removed from power. They, in fact, removed Mr. Mubarak from power. What about the army?

FADEL: Well, at this point, they are really not in the picture of this fight. They're behind the scenes. As you mentioned, by a similar decree in August, he made quite a wildly popular move and ousted the top generals, forced them into retirement and did a shakeup of the leadership. In exchange, most likely, they got promises about the economic privileges that they have, and they've been largely quiet on this issue.

CONAN: So as - if the Islamists, if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis end up writing the constitution, if the liberals, the seculars, as you call them, and the minorities, the Copts, for example, don't participate, will there be any functional difference if the president gets powers through a constitutional process?

FADEL: Well, that remains to be seen. We don't have a constitution right now. They would like to model it off - when you talk to the Muslim Brotherhood, they would like to model it off the French system where the president does have broad power as well as a parliament. The bigger issue is that most people aren't thinking about the constitution. They're thinking about very basic things. There's a problem with the economy. There's high unemployment.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a horrific bus accident with a train in which children were killed, and they're saying, get past this stuff, this stuff that won't affect my life so you can reform the transportation ministry, the interior ministry, deal with our economy. And I think a lot of people think that way. And so when they see Morsi making a decision that he says will put the country on a path of progress, allow him to make the reforms that he's promised and never delivered, it's kind of a popular decision among some people.

CONAN: And he came at - it came at a popular moment, when he was perhaps at a height after reaching that cease-fire agreement.

FADEL: Internationally at least, it came at a very, very crucial moment. He was getting international accolades from the United States, from the West. People saying he really showed that he's an international player, a true broker for peace. And so actually, what's very funny is a lot of opponents to Morsi say, well, the U.S. is just going to allow him to do this to railroad democracy because now they see him as a partner in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

CONAN: Interesting. Leila Fadel, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

FADEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Leila Fadel is NPR's Cairo bureau chief, with us on the line from there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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