Egypt's muddled transition from dictatorship to democracy has entered a dangerous phase.
The president and his Islamist supporters arrayed against the rest and each side claiming to be the true defender of democracy and the revolution.
President Mohamed Morsi said his controversial decree (euphemistically called "constitutional declaration"), which vastly expands his powers, is only a provisional measure to defend the revolution and ensure a swift passage to democracy. And a presidential spokesperson has now said that only decisions related to "sovereign matters" will be protected from judicial review. He may be sincere. But exceptional temporary measures in Egypt have a history of becoming permanent.
Back in 1954, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the military coup that overthrew the monarchy, abolished all political parties in order to fight the "reactionary forces" of the ancient regime. To this day, Egypt is still struggling to extricate itself from his legacy of an all-powerful president who rules by decrees with the help of a secret police.
Back then, the judiciary, as is the case today, played a crucial role. The midwives of Nasser's dictatorship were some of Egypt's finest legal minds who had lost faith in the old ruling elite. Political expediency superseded lofty legal and constitutional principles and justice itself became the first victim of revolutionary justice.
Today, the judiciary is divided between those who support Morsi's swift justice and those who say they are fighting for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The problem is that some of the latter, especially the leadership of the Judges Club, had for years been loyal servants of Mubarak and never stood up to him.
Morsi and his supporters may be right in suspecting that old-regime stalwarts within the administration are trying to thwart a transition to democracy. But they are equally guilty of pursuing a narrow Islamist agenda. The decision to protect the controversial constituent assembly – packed with Islamists and their supporters – from any legal challenge seems to provide evidence for that. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies believe they are entitled to draft a Constitution to their liking, ignoring many well-founded legal and political arguments that such an important document should not be written by the winners of an election, but by representatives of a broad spectrum of Egyptian society.
The Constitutional Court is due to issue its verdict on the legality of the assembly next month and it was widely expected to dissolve the panel drafting the new Constitution because many of its members were drawn from a Parliament that had been dissolved. This would have been the second time the constituent assembly was dissolved because of disputes over the criteria of selecting its members.
Who is to blame for this mess? A muddled road map for transition was laid down by the military council that ruled Egypt after the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011. Instead of starting by laying down new rules for the game by drafting the Constitution first, it rushed into a parliamentary election based on a faulty electoral law. The law was subsequently challenged and the Islamist-dominated Parliament was dissolved.
The Muslim Brotherhood also bears part of the blame because it supported that road map, thinking it would enable the Brotherhood to take power quickly. Things did not turn out that way. And when existing laws stood in its way, it decided to change the rules to its advantage.
The scene is now set for a mighty confrontation as more and more judges and politicians line up against Morsi and his party. In fact, Morsi has succeeded in something no one else has: unifying the fractious liberal and leftist groups.
But failure to reach a compromise could plunge Egypt further into political chaos. The judges have said they will go on strike to bring the legal system to a halt until Morsi backs down. With both sides sending their supporters into the streets, the fear is that it could turn very nasty, though optimists believe Egypt has always pulled back from the brink. Let us hope they are right.
Egypt's muddled transition is proving to be a steep learning curve, if not a precipice. The fear of impending chaos has once again raised the spectre of "the saviour leader". Old-regime supporters as well as conservative forces within the army and the security establishment believe Egypt is not ready for democracy and can be ruled only by an iron fist. They are watching with glee as political crises unfold in quick succession. They are now praying for a strong man to emerge to prevent a descent into anarchy. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Magdi Abdelhadi is a freelance writer and broadcaster and former Arab affairs analyst for the BBC