Morsi takes on Egypt's military

Was the new Egyptian president neutered before he even entered office?

After a quiet opening fortnight, Mohamed Morsi's presidency has taken a confrontational turn.

Two decrees in the space of a week have boosted the newly elected president's credentials as an adversary of Egypt's junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The first launched a new investigation into the deaths of protesters in the wake of the January revolution. If allowed to conduct its business unimpeded, this could prove damning for individuals within the military’s command structure. The second, meanwhile, called for the reinstatement of the country's newly elected parliament, a body that had been dissolved by the military on the eve of the presidential vote. 



Some believed Morsi’s influence had been neutered before he had even entered office. Despite assuming the trappings of power, he faces significant limitations on his ability to act.

The military-led transition that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak saw a series of political maneuverings that cast doubt on the likelihood of an election taking place at all.

The SCAF had continuously reshaped the contours of the electoral race, aided by a proactive judiciary that disqualified three front-running candidates and declared that the law governing last year’s parliamentary elections was unconstitutional. Weeks of political and legal uncertainty were then compounded as the polls closed on June 18: an eleventh hour decree by the junta reclaimed key executive powers for itself, notably reserving the right to oversee the writing of a new constitution if existing drafters fail to perform adequately.

Furthermore, the military-drafted budget that came into force on Morsi’s first day in office leaves little room for new policies. Almost eighty percent of spending has already been allotted to subsidies, public sector salaries, and debt repayment, leaving only a small tranche with which to fulfill campaign promises on improved public services.

Yet despite these constraints, Morsi has now fired his opening salvos across the bows of SCAF authority. In calling for the reinstatement of the Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament, he is openly defying the generals. According to constitutional expert Dr Nathan Brown, this represents ‘a serious confrontation. This is an attempt to roll back the clock, but this time with the presidency in [Brotherhood] hands and with the SCAF fully committed to its June supplementary constitutional declaration.’

Nevertheless, the move may be less radical than it first appears. Morsi’s decree rejects the SCAF’s most recent political manipulations, but at this stage continues to comply with aspects of the political roadmap put forward by the junta in June. This emphasised the temporary nature of Egypt’s parliament, declaring that: "elections will take place one month from the day the new constitution is approved by national referendum."

In addition, the scope of Morsi’s latest decree remains limited. In targeting the SCAF’s dissolution of parliament, he has avoided the potential for a bolder challenge against the legal ruling which made this possible in the first place. This suggests that the move is more symbolic than it is motivated by a genuine belief that he holds the power to reinstate parliament.

After weeks of debate over the potential shape of a Morsi presidency, its contours are beginning to emerge. His approach to the parliamentary issue reveals a pragmatic attitude to challenging the military, testing the waters without disrupting them altogether.

The inevitable upshot of this opening gambit will be a revived debate over the parliament’s dissolution, pushing the issue back into the open and eliciting a greater degree of clarity over its future. A smart move, it seems, and one that appears to have knocked the usually confident SCAF off-kilter. The junta’s reaction will reveal much about where power really lies in the new Egypt.

 

Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi. Photograph: Getty Images
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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue