There'll be no return of the pharaohs

The recent events in Egypt are unlikely to be a sign of a return to authoritarian rule. Indeed, Egyptians will likely be on the street for a time to come as the country ekes towards a constitutional consensus.

You might have watched recent events in Egypt and wondered whether there had ever been a revolution. When a ceasefire needed to be brokered between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas in order to end the latest war in Gaza, President Mohamed Morsi proved to be as reliable as Hosni Mubarak. He then proceeded to declare himself absolute ruler, concentrating powers in his hands even more firmly than his ousted predecessor.

Fortunately, however, there was indeed a revolution in Egypt last year. And one of the results of that upheaval is that people have learnt the road to Tahrir Square.

So when their newly elected president issued a decree giving him overwhelming powers and immunising his decisions from legal challenge, the people marched back to the centre of their earlier revolt. Flooding Tahrir on Tuesday, the protesters replayed those scenes that mesmerised the west last year when the most populous and most important Arab nation shed the 30-year legacy of the Mubarak era – only with some key differences. The chants of "the people want the fall of the regime” were replaced with "the people want the fall of Morsi”.

The message from Tahrir this week was simple: however much Egyptians long for stability and for an end to the rollercoaster ride of political transition, they will not stand for a return to autocratic rule. Even if the uproar subsides as the president rushes to offer concessions, Mr Morsi has been warned.

This may be unwelcome outside the country. The attitude in many western capitals is that Egypt is a pillar of stability that cannot be allowed to fall apart at a time of heightened volatility in the Middle East – even if it is ruled by Islamists. This sentiment has been reinforced by Cairo's successful brokering of the Gaza ceasefire.

Mr Morsi did not intend to restore a dictatorship. The objective of the constitutional declaration was to speed up political transition – though with results that would suit him and his Muslim Brotherhood party, the country’s largest political organisation.

Having successfully sidelined the generals who tried to hold on to power after the revolution, Mr Morsi was seeking to neutralise the judicial establishment. In particular, he aimed to curb a constitutional court controlled by former regime judges and committed anti-Islamists. Those judges had ruled to dissolve Egypt's new freely elected parliament, in which Islamists hold a majority. It was possible – perhaps even probable – that the court would also move to declare the panel drafting a new constitution illegal.

But while many Egyptians agreed that the court’s first move was unfair, liberals favoured the dissolution of a constitutional panel dominated by Islamists. The Brotherhood, stuck between the more radical Salafis and the weaker liberals, maintains that the panel is representative of Egyptian society. Non-Islamists, however, rightly point out that consensus, not majority rule, should apply when it comes to laying new foundations for the state.

But the liberals were too divided and disorganised to mobilise public sentiment on the constitution. Calls for demonstrations over a controversial article on women’s rights were largely ignored.

It has been much easier to galvanise public fury over an apparent power grab by Mr Morsi. Indeed, a combination of liberal parties, former regime loyalists and youth groups have seized the chance to demand mass protests. To their delight, they found that the courts and many judges were on their side.

It has had an effect. The day after protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Mr Morsi seemed to have realised that his attempt to neutralise a hostile constitutional court had only inflamed passions and deepened divisions. His move was backfiring, offering a gift to the liberals.

The constitutional panel on Thursday suddenly declared their work done and that the resulting document can now be put to a vote. This means a referendum on the constitution will be held in a few weeks and then followed by new parliamentary elections. Mr Morsi’s decree will therefore soon become a moot point.

Will this new gambit work? It is too late in the day for containment of the crisis. Rushing the constitution could well exacerbate the stand-off, even if the president wins the referendum. With new elections coming up, Mr Morsi’s opponents will seek to convert public discontent into electoral advantage. Likewise, Islamists will begin to mobilise on the streets and demonstrate their own, possibly much larger, popular power.

Egypt is undoubtedly in for tougher times. But not every aspect of the unrest should be perceived as a catastrophe. As worrying as it is, this round of turmoil also tells us that Egyptians have drawn a line under their authoritarian past. No leader, whether Islamist or non-Islamist, should dare to rule them unchallenged.

Copyright The Financial Times 2012.

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