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Egypt leader’s power play shows how messy revolutions can be

Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s move to exempt his edicts from judicial review shows revolutions are very rarely tidy affairs. Genuinely democratic outcomes are only one — and not their most likely — outcome.

If it was intended as an act of sneaky rat cunning — first get elected and then seize total power — Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s edicts last Thursday which have thrown the country into turmoil were both painfully transparent as well as being a high-risk gamble.

Exempting presidential decrees from judicial review fundamentally challenges the idea of separation of powers, which is critical to democratic functioning, is on the face of it an anti-democratic act. However, Egypt’s judiciary remains that which was appointed by previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and there was real concern that it could, with the stroke of a pen, roll back the revolution.

The judiciary’s hobbling of Egypt’s parliament showed it is certainly not averse to wielding its power in overtly political ways.

So, it may be that Morsi is indeed trying to protect the gains made by the revolution by checking a powerful Mubarak-inspired institution. But it also may be, as many Egyptians patently believe, that this is the start of the Muslim Brotherhood’s much-feared seizure of permanent power.

Revolutions are very rarely tidy affairs and genuinely democratic outcomes are only one — and not their most likely — outcome. When revolutionary forces, invariably coming from a range of perspectives, manage to topple a much hated dictator, their subsequent goals usually include limiting or keeping out competitors from the new and still evolving power structure.

More moderate groups may be more comfortable with a plural political framework, in which no one has or is seen to have a monopoly on wisdom in shaping the new political environment. But revolutionary groups are usually long on zeal and short on tolerance, so post-revolutionary tensions are standard and clashes are common.

The concern with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was given a democratic majority, is that it holds a view that it indeed has a monopoly on wisdom. How could it not, when it has a direct line to God, who they believe ensures that their decisions cannot be in error.

Given there are a number of God-related monopolies of wisdom, this implies that none actually has such a monopoly. The answer, then, is that other Gods are false idols, etc, and claims made on their behalf are necessarily incorrect. The problem is, this cuts both ways.

Egyptians not committed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of God’s wisdom are particularly sceptical of Morsi’s longer term intent. Many are also impatient for positive economic change, the demand for which underwrote the revolution in the first place.

But the aspirations that drove Mubarak from power, as they have been elsewhere, were very far ahead of any capacity to deliver on them. Post-revolutionary environments very often reflect reduced state capacity before improvement; the gap between aspiration and capacity usually increases before it decreases.

One common answer to consequent popular frustrations and protests is to limit the scope for dissent by closing the political space, to return to authoritarianism; a sort of guaranteeing freedom by denying it.

Revolutions are always messy and Egypt’s is no different. The military remains in the wings, ready to claim back power should civilian politics fail.

Morsi’s limits on the Mubarak-era judiciary are claimed only as a temporary measure until the new constitution is developed, which may be true. His motives may, however, also be less benign.

What the world, and many Egyptians, hope for Egypt may still eventuate. But we should not be surprised if the outcome is less than, or quite different to, what we like to think of as “democracy”.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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