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Morsi’s Unavoidable Purges

Protests spread out across Egypt on Friday, sometimes flaring into violence, over Mohammed Morsi’s bold move on Thursday. The FT relays some of the frustration among the protesters:

“We did not overthrow Hosni Mubarak to replace him with another dictator,” said Fatma Mussallam, a development expert and one of tens of thousands of protesters who filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to voice their fury.

“What does he mean when he says he will take any decision to protect the revolution? Should we not hold him accountable? Is he the only wise person in the country, and 85m Egyptians do not count?”

While Morsi is being criticized in and out of Egypt for his assumption of dictatorial powers, it’s worth noting that his plans to bypass Egypt’s judicial system are grounded in a reality: Egypt’s judges were handpicked by the thoroughly corrupt Mubarak regime and did the old dictator’s bidding without protest for many years. Neither the judges as a group nor the judiciary as an institution are entitled to any particular respect.

This is an example of a problem that many revolutionary regimes face around the world. Do you allow the judicial lapdogs of the old dictator to act as umpires in the new regime, or do you destroy all the institutions of society and try to rebuild everything from scratch? Do you allow yourself to be bound by corrupt judges defending privileges of the old regime, or do you cast down the legal system and cast off the restraint of the laws?

Neither alternative is a good one and this is one of the reasons why most revolutions end in disappointment and new dictatorship.

Morsi is right that the judicial system often acts to protect the interests of the Mubarak power elite, and right too to hold the system in deep contempt. But his critics and opponents are right to warn that his action paves the way for dictatorship and opens the doors to widespread abuse of powers.

For now, the conflict over Morsi’s power divides Egyptian society between those who don’t want an Islamic revolution and those who do. Left to itself, the judiciary will check and limit any moves toward a serious reconstruction of the state. Around the judiciary, contemptible as it is in itself, rally Egypt’s Christians, liberals, secularists, old regime beneficiaries and all those who think an Islamic revolution is a bad idea. They are nothing like a majority in Egypt today and without support from the armed forces they would seem to have little hope of wresting more than symbolic concessions from the government.

The dominant fact in Egypt remains that neither Morsi nor anybody else has a realistic plan to make the country more prosperous anytime soon. That reality seems to favor a combination of Islamist policy and rhetoric with strong arm governance: the Islamism keeps people happy and inspired, may produce certain local reforms and improvements and gives them grounds however illusory to hope for some kind of overall amelioration of conditions, while the strong arm ensures that disappointment doesn’t lead to a new round of revolution.

The secular, Mubarak era courts get in Morsi’s way at every turn until he masters or replaces them. As it is, they sympathize with the opposition and will oppose his efforts to crack down on his opponents, and their secular structure and organization is a barrier to the Islamization of public life with which he hopes to satisfy his allies. A fight between Morsi and the courts was bound to come; having it now may help distract his Islamist allies from his failure to do anything dramatic to support their embattled allies in Gaza.

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