Article VI: Egypt’s new dictatorship

“Article VI: The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” Read that aloud slowly, and let the words roll around your tongue as they ooze out like dark, thick molasses.

It’s the centerpiece of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s recent “Constitutional Declaration,” accruing to himself powers and authority—at least on paper—undreamt of by his autocratic predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Anyone surprised by this naked and extremely aggressive power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood was either woefully naïve or grossly misinformed about its deep-seated authoritarian orientation and agenda. It is inevitable that it will attempt, if it can, to impose a dictatorship in Egypt more oppressive and thoroughgoing than anything in the past, as the declaration demonstrates.

Brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza gave Morsi the domestic and international space to act decisively. He has proven, if nothing else, a ruthless political butcher, wasting no opportunity to bring the knife down whenever he can.

The Brotherhood is trying to mollify Egyptians with two extremely unconvincing sleights of hand.

First, attention is being directed to other, far more specific, articles. Some measures will be popular, such as replacing the widely reviled prosecutor-general and reopening or retrying cases involving abuses by members of the former regime despite the double jeopardy involved.

More alarm was caused by Article II, which makes all of Morsi’s decisions since he took office “final and binding.” It forbids any form of judicial review or legal challenge, including retroactively annulling any rulings already issued against them.

It is Article VI, however, that really establishes a new and unprecedentedly arbitrary dictatorship in Egypt, giving Morsi virtually unfettered powers. It’s hard to imagine any executive action or decree whatsoever that couldn’t be justified as “protecting the country and the goals of the revolution.” At least in his own opinion, and that’s the only one that counts, because, remember, his decisions are not subject to any checks, balances, lawsuits or other form of challenge whatsoever.

His word, quite literally, is law. In Egypt now, at least according to his declaration, there is no recourse at all.

The second sleight-of-hand the Brotherhood is using to try to mollify Egyptians is the idea that this is all simply “temporary,” to be rescinded once there is a new Constitution in place and a new parliament elected. CK MacLeod reminded me of Carl Schmitt’s observation that emergency decrees or temporary suspensions of the law are often the norm in political modernity, not the exception. Hitler, for example, never rescinded the Weimar Republic Constitution. He merely suspended it every four years following the Reichstag fire, until the Soviet army overran Berlin.

It’s an apt point. Almost every autocratic Arab state has used “temporary” or “emergency” laws to justify dictatorial rule and human rights abuses. Israel, too, relies on “emergency” laws promulgated by the British mandatory authorities in 1945, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories. So why should Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt be any different? The tediously predictable answer is, left on its own, it won’t be. It will be, if anything, more oppressive than the (also “temporary”) nationalist one-party dictatorship that preceded it.

Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood will not relinquish these unprecedented dictatorial powers unless they are forced to. Even then, they will cling onto as much as possible. It’s going to be up to the Egyptian opposition to unite and force their hands. It will be very difficult — but the way things are going not impossible and possibly even not neccessary — for Morsi’s government to block new parliamentary and presidential elections supposed to take place in the foreseeable future.

If the Egyptian people are to avoid new and even worse dictatorship than they just overthrew, they must avoid political domination by the Muslim Brotherhood. But in order to achieve that, the opposition is going to have to unite and provide an alternative which they can support, not a morass of bickering.

The government and the Brotherhood have reacted to the protests against the declaration with a combination of violence and nonchalance. They clearly think this is a temporary storm they can weather, with the already secured support of their Salafist “frienemies.” In terms of the fundamental state stability, they’re probably right. Street protests probably won’t be enough at this stage to undo the damage.

Protests and criticism at all levels, and as much litigation as possible, should be focused on discrediting or even undoing Morsi’s declaration of dictatorship. But real hopes for Egyptian democracy in the long run depend on removing from power, presumably by the ballot box, the person and party brazen, power-mad and tyrannical enough to promulgate Article VI.

Assuming, of course, that there ever is another election in Egypt.