Yesterday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi raised taxes on a host of goods and services, among them alcohol, tobacco, advertising, and construction rebar. Then at around 2 a.m. today, he suspended the tax increases with a short update to his public Facebook account.
The image of President Morsi in his pajamas padding to his computer to change legislation with a few keystrokes is, in essence, what's filling Egyptian human rights activists and secular politicians with so much dread. Morsi can legislate at whim. And he's demonstrated an appetite for doing so.
Now, he and the Muslim Brotherhood that propelled him to power appear to be accommodating themselves to the authoritarian institutions that worked so well during the country's nearly 60 years of military-backed dictatorship. Concessions have been made to protect the military's autonomy and business interests, and in return Morsi appears to have secured the cooperation of the military.
One law he passed yesterday and did not rescind in a late-night bout of leader's remorse will put that cooperation to the test. The law empowers the Egyptian military to arrest civilians as deemed necessary to maintain "public order" until a referendum on a new Egyptian constitution, scheduled for Dec. 15, is finished. "Public order" offenses were a favorite method of Mubarak's police state for controlling and punishing political dissent.
A spokesman for Morsi claimed today that the powers given to the military to arrest civilians were granted upon the request of the Supreme Electoral Commission. That is unlikely to be accepted at face value by Morsi's opponents, who have been pointing out that the president and the Brothers seem quite happy to use the military to silence opposition in much the same way Mubarak used the military to silence the Brothers for decades.
Morsi's camp insists the order is temporary. And that may be so. Using the military to keep protesters away from the presidential palace or polling places will probably prove effective. And the decree won't be needed after the constitution is passed. It's a form of bridge-financing, with muscle made available in lieu of cash since the draft contains language that also allows for military trials of civilians.
That's much how Morsi's last controversial decree played out. In November, he awarded himself extraordinary powers to prevent Egypt's judiciary from dissolving the constitutional drafting committee. In the absence of judicial oversight, the draft was duly completed, in a rushed and fairly slipshod manner. The draft was handed in to Morsi, who referred it to a referendum. According to current rules in Egypt, once the draft was rubber-stamped by Morsi, the judiciary had no power to step in any more.
So when Morsi revoked that decree two days ago, in what was widely reported to be a "concession" to protesters angry over the contents of the constitution and the manner in which it was being rushed to a vote, he was simply putting down a tool that had served its purpose.
For the moment Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's get-out-the-vote machine are working toward one common goal: Getting a "yes" vote on the constitution come Dec. 15. Their public messaging is all about the wonders of democracy and how protesters are thugs seeking to deny the will of the people. An umbrella group of secular-leaning political forces, from leftists to Christians to refugees from the Mubarak regime, are organizing to oppose the vote, but superior organization has been the Brotherhood's trump card in every election since Mubarak fell, and it's hard to see the outcome being any different this time, particularly with evidence that the military is on side with the movement's plans.
The swift adaptation of the military to the Brotherhood, and vice versa, is a reminder of the resilience of authoritarian orders.
The Egyptian military hierarchy is often described as hostile to the Brothers, but that case is frequently overstated. What the Egyptian military wants is the ability to conduct its own affairs without civilian meddling, and to continue to expand a sprawling business empire that ranges from refrigerator factories to water-bottling plants to high-end condominium development. Mubarak provided that platform until he fell. Now, if the Muslim Brotherhood is offering a similar deal, who are Egypt's officers to complain?
There have been plenty of efforts to induce the military to cooperate. While two years ago Brotherhood leaders would talk about the baleful role the military played in Egyptian political life and bitterly complain about US backing for the army, the draft constitution includes protections of the military's long-established perks that seem the result of a remarkable detente between the Muslim Brotherhood and the officers.
The second sentence of the preamble to the draft hails the military's support for the January 25 revolution – a remarkable piece of historical revisionism for the beginning of a document that's supposed to undergird the building of a democratic political culture in the country. Article 197 of the draft takes control of the military's budget out of the hands of the legislature, and Article 198 says "civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the armed forces." That caveat is big enough to drive a truck through.
For Morsi and his allies, the bitterness stemming from the years many of them spent in jail and the torture some of them suffered appears to be behind them. The structures of Mubarak's Egypt are durable and intact, and if they can be turned towards securing the Brotherhood's own position and ability to further Islamicize Egypt, then they will remain.
After 80 years of setbacks, struggles, and an eventual policy of gradual and cautious movement to their ultimate goal, the Brothers are now rushing headlong into a constitution that will move Egypt in a sharply more Islamist direction.
Constitutions aren't worth much when they divide nations, but that's what is happening in Egypt now. President Morsi seems convinced he has the backing for his play to prevail and doesn't seem concerned about the damage it's doing to national cohesion.