“I am the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, clothed in immense power!” one can imagine Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi thinking after his jaw-dropping power grab these last few days.
Of course this is parody of the words roared by President Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s stunning film, Lincoln, as the 16th American President ground down by a four-year, bloody civil war spent the entirety of his political capital procuring Constitutionally-based freedom for millions of American slaves.
At this point, we really don’t know if President Morsi is actually planning to install himself as what Nobel Laureate Mohamed El Baradei has called a “new pharaoh” — or whether he has committed to an inclusive democratic vision for Egypt which he believes requires extraordinary measures, much like Abraham Lincoln took while manipulating pols of his day procuring votes through patronage and threat.
The fact is that while Morsi has declared himself, at least for the moment, the maker of law, the implementer of law, and the overseer of himself who makes the law, his rhetoric is highly inclusive. He has frustrated many in the Muslim Brotherhood by not moving to establish more of a theocratic state and not moving against other of the newly established political parties and movements in the country. At a public level, Morsi says he is acting on behalf of all Egyptians — not just those who are tied to the Brothers.
Morsi states that he is moving to reduce the authority and influence of those loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak — and that first the army and then the courts have been havens for protectors of the old regime’s interests.
Is Morsi the kind of leader who will aggrandize total power and then liberalize like a George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? Or is he more like a Lee Kuan Yew who can build a state and the facade of a democratic system while holding tightly to power for decades in all ways that matter?
We don’t know the answer yet. But for those surprised by Morsi’s moves — as the State Department reportedly was after having just secured his pivotal support on a Gaza-Israel truce — only naivete would lead one to believe that a healthy, balanced, checks-and-balance democracy would immediately succeed the kind of autocracy Mubarak mastered.
Despite the claims in the media today that Egypt’s judiciary was fairly independent and respected, the fact is that the system — all parts of it, including the judiciary — were ruthlessly managed and sculpted by forces that stewarded Mubarak’s interests and power.
There were no checks and balances in Egypt during Mubarak; nor during de facto head of state General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi’s short reign; and for the time being, there will be no checks and balances during Mohammed Morsi’s tenure — at least not in this phase.
Given the conditions of Egypt’s rotten political culture that are turbulent and unstable, it seems ridiculous to think that an Egyptian leader — whether religious or devoutly secular, whether a man or a woman — would automatically and successfully move the Egyptian political architecture into one based on checks and balance statecraft.
This doesn’t mean that the protests against Morsi in Tahrir Square are wrong or illegitimate. They are in fact vital in the absence of other political checks on Morsi. Note this excellent survey of the scene by David Rohde titled “Morsi’s All Wrong Power Grab.”
In a political system that has not been forged over decades and centuries of Constitutional battle about the rights and prerogatives of branches of government, perhaps the people must rise in such a delicate time to empower other branches of government, while communicating what they believe to be the limits of Egyptian presidential powers.
In other words, this conflict was inevitable: a new President whose party had been suborned and abused by the previous political order, mistrustful of institutions derived from that preceding era, is working to sweep aside those institutions and the people in them like any powerful executive would.
In a system of checks and balances, other parts of the political order rise to challenge the executive, vigorously defending their own turf and legitimacy.
The people must allow both sides, or all three or four or five, sides in the institutional square-off to ultimately win, so that institutions are balanced each other not because they want to be but because there is no choice.
That is the strength and delicacy of democracy — and Egypt is not nearly there yet.
The United States is in the proverbial glass house on this one as its own demonstration of a system of checks and balances is at a darker stage at the moment, when parties seem to relish strangling the interests of the state and the people rather than compromising across political lines. The world today sees a victorious American President styied almost immediately by challenges to his choice (Susan Rice) for Secretary of State as well as what looks to be a high-stakes game of brinksmanship over a tax and spending deal, or alternatively framed, an ideological train wreck going over what has become called “the fiscal cliff.”
The US does have an active and vigorous system of checks and balances which can paralyze and stifle progress at times — while at others, enabling enormous leaps forward as reminded by the Spielberg film’s depiction of Lincoln ruthlessly securing passage of the slavery-banning 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
There have been numerous other times in US history when a US President or other Congressional leaders spent a vast amount of capital defying what many believed to be the immutable laws of political gravity as they then saw them. Universal suffrage was achieved this way. The nation’s bipartisan commitment to advanced national security science and technology spending the same. Civil rights and voting rights for African Americans achieved. Educational fairness for women. Don’t ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal. Major health policy reform during President Obama’s last term. The passage of controversial nuclear arms reduction treaties. The list is longer than many might expect — but each of these battles was extraordinarily difficult.
Those working hard to secure democracy by putting their jobs, reputations, and sometimes lives on the line — particularly as we saw and continue to see in Tahrir Square — know how hard it is to really achieve. The bottom line is that democratic practice depends on institutions evolving side by side, each challenging over and over again the rights and prerogatives, and terms of authority of each other in front of the public eye.
Egyptian President Morsi today says that he is committed to democracy and the rights of all Egyptians. He very well could be a power-hungry liar deceiving the nation as many other heads of state have done in the past. On the other hand, he may be telling the truth.
The public’s interests are not well served by giving Morsi the benefit of the doubt. The public should protest and should remind him from whence power in the nation is really derived. People should demand their rights; should demand a non-corrupt and fair judiciary; an impartial police and security apparatus. But these things will not happen because Morsi is a benign or generous leader or has a vision of how to fairly evolve and develop the power of other branches of government not under his control.
These judges and their institutions; and then legislators; and perhaps generals must engage and secure their place in the democratic government equation.
Indeed for Morsi to become a great leader and deliver on democracy and the successful transition from a dark era to a better one for Egypt, he needs to continue to challenge other weak or rotten sectors of society and should at the same time welcome the institutional battles that will ultimately limit his power.
This is what the people need to focus on and deliver. Revolution is always difficult. But knocking a leader from power is fundamentally a binary process — a zero or a one. But it is the combination of impulses, competition for power in government, and a more nuanced, and complex balancing of institutionalized political equities that ultimately delivers democracy to a people.
After President Barack Obama’s 2008 election when he was propelled to massive victory in part by standing as a refreshing foil to what many perceived to be the power-usurping White House of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney, I asked former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta what powers he thought an Obama White House would forfeit back. Podesta candidly and honestly replied, “Very few, if any.”
This is the reality of executives that run governments everywhere. Their job is not to balance the various powers of government as a goal unto itself. They tend to want to be monarchs, achieving their vision as they see it for the benefit of the nation — or all too often for themselves personally or the clans they represent.
Those who want to build democracy must shore up the other branches of government — generals who will secure the interests of the military, smart policy-practitioning legislators who will protect their institutional power, judges unafraid of other branches of government. These conflicting corners is how democracy is ultimately forged — and leaders like Morsi if they are true to their democratic rhetoric will both wince at the costs that come from other power centers and welcome their engagement.
— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons