Well before Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi issued his presidential decree to override the judiciary, Egypt was polarized between (albeit a generalization) lslamists and liberals/secularists. Although the president won through a free and fair electoral process back in June, this president already had a thin margin of support — he won only on a second round, and with only 51 percent of the popular vote. In the first round of presidential voting, Morsi’s support was even thinner. It could be interpreted, then, that the country remains deeply committed to liberal — and, arguably, secular — principles. The fact is, though, that the Morsi government was democratically elected, and democracy is about a free and fair process, not about achieving one’s preferred outcome.
The Egyptian president had a legislature that was also democratically elected in a free and fair process. This legislature was overwhelmingly composed of Islamists — both members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafists’ Noor Party. Under orders of the military, the judiciary suspended the legislature and argued that the legislature had no right to sit without a constitution in place.
Nevermind the absurdity of the judiciary ruling taking place a year after the legislature was elected. The truth is, the judiciary was stacked with Mubarak-era cronies that not only distrusted the Islamists, but also feared that the legislature would continue the witch-hunt against Mubarak cronies and turn their eyes toward the inefficient and corrupt judiciary. Morsi has also promised to retry the Mubarak-era cronies and those found to be innocent of killing revolutionary protesters in 2011. This offended the judiciary further, but garnered support among Islamists.
Undeterred, when Morsi was elected without a sitting legislature, he set out to create a constituent assembly that mirrored the ideological leanings of the sacked legislature to get on with the business of writing a constitution. Again, Morsi played by the rules and tasked the assembly with finalizing a constitution so that a new legislature could be elected into power next spring.
The judiciary again threatened to dissolve the constituent assembly because it was comprised of too many Islamists — even though the Freedom and Justice Party constituted only 40 per cent of the assembly. This takes us to the current presidential decree, which strips the judiciary of power to undermine the authority of the constituent assembly. The president has argued that this measure is temporary, and will only be in place until February, when the constituent assembly will finish its task, and when there will be a general referendum on the draft constitution.
Herein lies the problem: the judiciary does not trust the Morsi government — or the Islamists, for that matter. Secularists and liberals, including many judges and lawyers, fear that the Morsi government will not give up power in February. Moreover, the quality of debate in the legislature and the constituent assembly is indeed on the border of ridiculous, and is unattractive to most liberal and secular Egyptians.
Understandably, there is fear that the Islamists will want to take their new consolidated power to put some archaic ideas and laws into the constitution. Hence, liberals and secularists have supported the judiciary in its threat to suspend the constituent assembly, and have taken great issue and sought to protest against Morsi’s consolidation of power. This is where we are today.
Morsi is not right to usurp the judiciary, and his opponents do not have the right to usurp the general will by suspending the constituent assembly. Morsi may have felt justified to challenge the corrupted judiciary, but again, democracy is about a free and fair process, not about achieving one’s preferred outcome.