Viewpoint: Egypt's generational challenge

Egyptian protesters Supporters of Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi protest outside a top Egyptian court

The consolidation of power by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is another stumbling block for the new government. But building a true democracy takes time, says former US Assistant Secretary of State PJ Crowley.

Events in Egypt over the past two weeks underscore how truly hard its transition will be from dictatorship to something that resembles democracy.

But the sum of Egypt's missteps, protests, institutional collisions, rushed writings and unmet aspirations could still amount to progress. It is much too early in a generational challenge, ugly as it appears, to make a definitive judgment on the players or the process.

Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns, addressing a Washington conference on challenges likely to shape international affairs in the coming years, cautioned that: "History rarely moves in straight lines." This certainly will be true about Egypt.

Hitler and Caligula?

Fresh off a significant diplomatic achievement helping to guarantee a ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi issued an ill-timed and ill-defined decree that claimed sweeping executive powers free of effective oversight. His spokesman later clarified that the decree only applied to "sovereign matters".

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Morsi is acting like the rookie politician he is: a statesman one minute, an overreaching party boss the next, finding it difficult to balance competing constituencies”

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But by then, all of Egypt's political players, some impelled by democratic motives and others less so, were activated. The secular opposition, those primarily responsible for the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, is re-energised and (at least temporarily) united. Having rid the country of one dictator, they see the decree and the rushed process to produce a new constitution as the makings of another form of tyranny.

In Tahrir Square Friday night, one protester reportedly compared President Morsi to Hitler and Caligula. And he was a justice. President Morsi met with senior jurists earlier in the week, and had seemingly acceded to broad judicial review.

As the week progressed, justices at multiple levels both protested and went on strike.

Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court suspended operations yesterday. Protesters interfered with a hearing intended to consider the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly that presented a new draft constitution to President Morsi on Saturday. A national referendum on the new constitution has at least been scheduled for 15 December.

An effective (but not all-powerful) executive, something the military attempted to limit in advance of elections earlier this year, is vital to Egypt's democratic transition.

Egypt's courts can serve as a meaningful check and balance of executive power, although the high court damaged its reputation by dissolving a new lower house of parliament formed earlier this year, broadly viewed as free and fair.

The obvious sweet spot is for President Morsi to rescind his decree in light of the completion of the draft constitution and affirm the principle of judicial review of executive decisions.

In turn, the high court can review what has taken place, issue an opinion on its concerns regarding the new constitution and the drafting process, but allow the referendum to move ahead. This could have the same historic effect as Marbury v Madison had on US governance.

Constitutional hodgepodge

Is this crisis the work of a budding dictator? No. President Morsi is acting like the rookie politician he is: a statesman one minute, an overreaching party boss the next, finding it difficult to balance competing constituencies.

Tents in Tahrir Square Protesters against Morsi set up tents in Tahrir square

Is President Morsi a democrat? No, at least not by western standards. The decree is as much about the Muslim Brotherhood and its predilection for centralisation than it is about President Morsi.

But if President Morsi is to be successful, he will need to get better at balancing the needs of competing political constituencies, ironically something he and his government appeared to accomplish during the delicate negotiations over Gaza.

True democracy ultimately rests on constitutions, not elections. Egypt's progress towards effective governance - and a civil society - will depend more on the inclusiveness and tolerance enshrined in the constitution than restrictions and duration of President Morsi's decree.

The draft constitution is a hodgepodge, arguably better than its predecessor but short of the ideal most hoped for.

With critical sections regarding basic freedoms - speech, religion, assembly and equality - vague in some places, contradictory in others and very much up for interpretation throughout, the courts will play a critical role in defining future rights and responsibilities within Egyptian civil society.

The draft does establish term limits and strengthens the role of parliament. It also inhibits genuine civilian control of the military, which is probably a fight for another day, perhaps another generation.

Strategic patience

The military envisioned a figurehead president with limited powers. President Morsi in his early months is proving to be anything but.

At the same time, the military - the strongest institution in Egyptian society and no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood - can be a secular counterweight against political excess, at least for now. Think Turkey.

More from PJ Crowley

To many democracy experts, Egypt is better off with a constitution than without one. As with the US Constitution, it can be improved over time.

Some commentators have expressed concern about the "quiet" reaction from the United States, but at this point, Washington has established the right tone.

Immediately after the decree, the United States released a statement cautioning against power "overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution" while advocating for "a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights, and the rule of law."

Some members of Congress have threatened to withhold aid.

While Washington has leverage, both bilateral and multilateral, nothing will help Egypt move towards democracy more than economic recovery and reform that creates jobs and opportunity.

Given back-to-back crises regarding Gaza and Egypt's new constitution, the case for aid is only made more urgent.

Rather than reacting to every twist and turn, the United States can help by exercising strategic patience (hardly an American strength) staying focused on the long term and helping Egypt avoid any, well, steep cliffs.

PJ Crowley is a former US assistant secretary of state and now a professor of practice and fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at The George Washington University.

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