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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Egypt’s Generals: “Boundary Issues”

In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, John Acton (1834-1902) wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This line could be applied to Egypt’s ruling generals both just before and after the presidential election in June 2012.
Days before the election—perhaps in anticipation of a victory by the opposition party—the generals and their allies in the court dissolved the legislature, which after the legislative election had been controlled by the opposition. As if this affront to democracy was not enough, the generals announced that they, rather than the opposition party’s presidential victor, who had received 51.7% of the vote, would appoint the president’s chief of staff. In a sense, this affront is more shocking than the generals' dissolution of the legislature or emasculation of the powers of the presidency because of the sheer presumptuousness in appointing someone else's chief of staff. That is generally recognized as an internal matter to a president.
The generals are like a roommate who thinks nothing of moving one’s personal toiletries in the bathroom (such things are generally known to be personal) or taking and eating one's food from the refrigerator. In other words, the generals had what can be called “boundary issues.” Days after the election, the Generals’ strategy was clear: “Say one thing and do another.” General Assar claimed in a news conference days after the election, “we will give the president of the republic his complete powers.” And yet, the New York Times reported soon thereafter that under the generals' plan, Morsi, the new president, would "assume an office stripped of almost all authority." For example, the new president would not have jurisdiction over the military or its budget, not to mention even his own chief of staff . The aggrandizing generals preserved “broad powers for themselves over matters including defense, national security and perhaps some broad economic issues,” according to Mona el-Ghobashy, an Egyptian political scientist.
What the Egyptians needed was a Teddy Roosevelt of sorts: a man of the bully pulpit who was not afraid to go up against the monopoly trusts of his day (which is why New York bosses had gotten him out of the governorship and into the "safe" (i.e., vacuous) vice presidency). Weeks after being elected, Morsi showed TR-like guts in recalling the parliament that the top generals had dissolved. “He has been waiting to make a decision to prove he is president of a republic,” Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights lawyer, observed.
Lest Morsi be accused of ignoring the ruling of an admittedly-politicized constitutional court, Eid adds that the president’s decree “abolishes an executive order, and it is not related to the constitutional court. It negates the decision of the military council.” He added, “If the choice is between the decree of an elected president and a military council with questionable legitimacy, then we choose the elected president.” Adding to its legitimacy vis à vis the court, Morsi’s decree came with a time limit: the Parliament could serve only until a new constitution could be completed, followed by fresh legislative elections within 60 days. Even though this caveat acknowledged the court’s demand for a new Parliament, the decree nonetheless instantly prompted the generals to call an "emergency meeting" to “discuss the situation.”
Morsi deserves considerable credit for doing what he could rightly have expected to result in opposition (and even an attack) from the generals’ council, whose continued authority was questionable at best, given the generals’ pledge on assuming power to dissolve their council upon the inauguration of the president. The entitlement presumed by the “emergency meeting” is itself pathological, as the response assumes a sort of default authority, which could only be artificial. At the very least, the response evinces an obsessive-compulsive sort of  “control issues.”
I would not blame Morsi one bit were he afraid of the generals as he stepped off the reservation. Regarding the generals’ psychology, to gut an office of power is an underhanded (not to mention selfish) way of not recognizing the democratic legitimacy of an election that does not go one’s way. That is to say, the childishness evinces a selfishness that does not play well with others. To presume the authority to appoint someone else's chief of staff is beyond bad table manners; it is low class and even passive aggressive. The move is essentially a coup by pen, even if it is tacitly backed up by the threat of guns. Apparently it is difficult for some to let go of power even as promised, especially when that power is absolute. I don't foresee the generals playing well with Morsi, as his democratic legitimacy means that their continued grasp on power was something considerably less than absolute, at least in terms of legitimacy.
The lesson for us as a species is perhaps the following: a people should be very careful in deciding who is to hold “the precious ring” even just temporarily, as a caretaker, for, as Lord Acton wrote, the allure of the ring is strangely much more nepharious than meets the eye. Furthermore, this case demonstrates just how important it is for a government to have a constitution. The competing claims of Morsi, the court, and the generals’ council could find no common basis without one. Put another way, how could the constitutional court have a basis of legitimacy in interpreting a constitution without one? Without a constitution, Morsi was free to negate the court’s usurpation. Even were a constitution extant, it would be beyond the reach of the judiciary to declare another branch null and void. Most crucially, a constitution maintains and protects the viability itself of the basic institutions of government—this is the basic constitutional function that is up for grabs in the absence of a constitution. 


David Kirkpatrick, “After Victory, Egypt Islamists Seek to ChallengeMilitary,” The New York Times, June 18, 2012.

David Kirkpatrick, "Morsi Is Winner of Egyptian Presidency," The New York Times, June 24, 2012.

Hamza Hendawi, "Morsi Orders Dissolved Parliament Return, Defies Military Leaders," The Huffington Post, July 8, 2012.

Kareen Fahim and Mayy El Sheikh, “Egypt’s President Orders Return ofParliament,” The New York Times, July 8, 2012.