Is Morsi Just a New Brand of Autocrat For Egypt?

Alaa al-Aswany offers a critique of Egyptian President Morsi’s recent moves. He applauds Morsi’s dismissal of Field Marshal Tantawi, but fears a changing of the guard when it comes to autocratic decision-making. He denounces the preservation of the Information Ministry, and Morsi’s control over the constitutional committee.

al-monitor Retired former Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi shakes the hand with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi after receives a medal at the Presidential Palace in Cairo Aug. 14, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout.

Topics covered

tantawi, scaf, muslim brotherhood, muslim, morsi, media, freedom of the press, egypt, dismissal

Aug 26, 2012

If you supported and participated in the Egyptian revolution, or even if you simply understood its cause, then President Morsi's latest decisions will doubtless have left you pleased. Despite all of the old regime's attempts to stifle the revolution, the people were able to bring a duly elected civilian president into office for the first time in 60 years. This elected president was, in turn, able to satisfy a principal demand of the revolution. Namely, to bring the military's rule over the country to an end by dismissing Field Marshal Tantawi and Gen. Anan, and by annulling the Complimentary Constitutional Declaration. Morsi has now become an elected president, as much in fact as in theory, one who possesses all the power and authority needed to establish a second republic in Egypt. Moreover, he is now able to begin building the very democratic state that thousands of wounded and martyred Egyptians dreamed of.

President Morsi's decisions elicited joy from all who witnessed them. However, for many, a sense of fear also prevailed. Many Egyptians wondered: “Should we be happy that the military rule, whose downfall we have demanded for so long finally, after so much effort, been toppled? Or should we be worried because the Muslim Brotherhood had effectively been empowered to seize control of the Egyptian state?” In a way, these fears are legitimate, and they can be summed up as follows:

First: Despite the fact that he was legitimately elected, President Morsi is nevertheless a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The concerns swirling around that organization as a whole, including the ambiguous nature of its behavior, organizational structure, and sources of funding also bear upon him as an individual. The Muslim Brotherhood is neither registered nor licensed, and its massive budget is not subject to any form of oversight by the Central Auditing Organization. I believe that the president must persuade or compel the Brotherhood's leaders to open their organization's black box, document its current state of affairs, and consent to subject it to governmental oversight. This would go a long way toward allaying the fears and concerns of millions of Egyptians.

Second: By annulling the Complimentary Constitutional Declaration, President Morsi gave himself the right to form a new constitutional committee should any obstacle arise — for whatever reason — effectively preventing it from completing its work. This right which the president has accorded to himself is undemocratic and unacceptable; the constitutional committee must represent the will of the people, not the desires of the president (even if he was legitimately elected). We expected President Morsi to return this right to the people, the true holders of authority, since it is their right to choose a constitutional committee in free elections. We also expected him to fulfill his promise and reform the current committee so that the Islamist movement may not exert control and direct the committee's activities in accordance only with its own ideology.

Third: It is known throughout the world that ministries of information are failed tools of oppression that exist only under totalitarian regimes. Only despotic regimes seek to manipulate public opinion by founding ministries of information tasked with spoon-feeding the masses [with] lies meant to glorify the tyrant and justify his every action, no matter what crimes he perpetrates. The revolution demanded the dissolution of the Ministry of Information and the creation of a Supreme Media Council to monitor professional standards in the media. Yet, lo and behold, we find out now that the president preserved the Ministry of Information, installing a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood at its head.

The only explanation is that the president in reality merely sought to tame the media, not liberate it. His Excellency the Minister of Information began his work as if he were the head of the security services, launching a campaign scrutinizing the statements of some broadcasters who work for privately owned TV channels. He then proceeded to issue an administrative edict on behalf of the government closing the Al-Faraeen TV station.

Of course, I cannot defend Al-Faraeen's perverse media coverage. Tawfiq Okasha, the channel's owner, used it to assail and slander most of the figures associated with the revolution, myself among them. I even lodged a complaint with the prosecutor-general against the insults which Okasha leveled against me during his program. However, the complaint was received months ago, and, as usual, nothing came of it.

No doubt Okasha and those like him deserve to be held legally accountable for their actions. In a democracy, however, TV channels are not closed by arbitrary administrative edicts, but rather by uncontestable judicial rulings. If today we accept the closing of Al-Faraeen by administrative order, then any channel that chances to anger President Morsi in the future may likewise be closed. Furthermore, Okasha is not the only person who launches attacks and levels slanderous insults on the air. There is an individual like Okasha named Sheikh Khalid Abdallah, who is affiliated with to the Islamist movement and appears on the Al-Nas Channel. He levels slanderous and libelous insults against anyone who happens to hold an opinion that differs from his own. I was also targeted by him, and so, again, I filed a complaint with the prosecutor-general. As before, nothing came of the complaint. And so the question arises: Is Okasha being charged because of his disreputable activity in the media and his unjustified attacks on the people in general, or because these attacks were directed at President Morsi? If it is the former, then Abdallah must also be held accountable, for his transgressions are no less dangerous than those of Okasha. But if the latter is the case, then we must be wary of the dangers posed by a president who can have his government punish and malign his opponents while at the same time allow those from the Islamic movement free rein to commit similar acts without fear of punishment.

Fourth: in every democratic system, the media devotes itself to criticizing the head of state. But the law does not punish anyone for leveling such criticism, no matter how harsh or excessive it might be. In such democratic systems, slander and libel laws do not tolerate attacks against average citizens, but permit attacks against ministers and heads of state without reservation. In other words, if you were to libel your neighbor or co-worker as a liar or a thief, they could pursue legal action and win a court ruling against you. On the other hand, if you were to write in a newspaper that the president of the republic was a liar and thief, then the law protects you from any punishment. This is because criticism of the president, even harsh criticism, is nevertheless intended to serve the public interest.

The well-known French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, which has been published every Wednesday since 1915, lampoons the French president and high-ranking officials by means of biting sarcasm and comical caricatures. The average citizen would never consent to being treated this way, yet the public official must do so. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), former president of the United States, gave expression to this sentiment when one of his cabinet secretaries came to him complaining about the harsh attacks leveled against him by the press. Smiling, he replied sardonically, "Those who work in the kitchen can't complain about how hot the stove is." [The well-known version of the saying is typically attributed to President Truman.]

Roosevelt's point was that enduring harsh and hurtful criticism is one of those duties that goes part and parcel with holding public office in a democracy. Indeed, this is the kind of democracy that we want to foster in Egypt. Yet, unfortunately, we were surprised to see the government confiscate a recent edition of the Al-Dustour newspaper and put its editor-in-chief on trial on charges that he had insulted the president, in addition to the usual trumped-up charges such as 'inciting sectarian strife' and 'incitement' in general. Charges like these might be leveled against anyone who displeases President Morsi. I hope that this president will refrain from prosecuting journalists, so that the Egyptian people may be convinced that he truly desires to build an authentic democracy.

Fifth: Most state-owned newspapers in Egypt are corrupted and failed institutions, both in terms of management and journalistic integrity. They are all funded by the hundreds of millions of Egyptian pounds pilfered from the Egyptian people. By law, it is the Shura Council which owns these journalistic institutions. It used to appoint their chief editors with support from the security services, and the result was that most of these editors rivaled the president himself in their hypocrisy. At the same time, many journalists grew accustomed to selling out their journalistic integrity and playing ball with the state’s security services as a means of securing promotions, regardless of their qualifications.

After the revolution, journalists demanded an end to the Shura Council’s ownership of these journalistic bodies, so that they might become fully independent from the state. Sound and comprehensive proposals were prepared in order to advance and promote the independence of national periodicals. Yet again we were surprised to see the Shura Council (in which the majority of seats are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood) rush to announce that there would be a contest to select new chief editors. This contest, along with the committee that oversaw it, stirred many objections and raised many questions.

The results of the competition were announced, and new editors-in-chief were appointed for all of the national newspapers, and some of the individuals who won positions in this competition did indeed possess the requisite qualifications: men such as professors Sulaiman Qanawi and Thuna Abu al-Hamid, among others. However, our grievances here are not directed toward individuals, but rather toward the regime that preserved the Shura Council and its control over the editors. No matter how qualified one of these new editors may be, it cannot be forgotten that his appointment came only after receiving the consent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the Shura Council. It also cannot be forgotten that this editor could lose his position at any moment should he oppose the Brotherhood. As a result, he will naturally be cautious about broaching any subject concerning the Brotherhood or the Islamists. Thus we see that, far from satisfying the aims of the revolution to establish a respectable and independent press by liberating journalistic institutions from the control of the Shura Council, the Muslim Brotherhood only abolished the security services’ control over these institutions to impose its own control through the vehicle of the Shura Council.

In the face of all of these troubling facts, the same question arises once again: Are we really dealing with a president determined to dismantle the machinery of tyranny and return power to its legitimate owner, the Egyptian people? Or are we dealing with a president who is merely subverting this mechanism to serve his own interests, stripping power from the military in order to vest it in the Brotherhood? If this president’s plan is to spread the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over every facet of the Egyptian state, then it is a plan doomed to failure. And that is simply because the people will stoutly resist any such a plan; will never allow it to succeed.

The people that defied Mubarak’s rule, toppled his regime, and prosecuted him in court will never allow Egypt to be transformed into a state of the Muslim Brotherhood. If the president really wants to eliminate dictatorship and establish true democracy, he must rectify all of these troubling errors. It is through deeds that he must affirm that he is the president of all Egyptians. He must release all of the currently imprisoned revolutionaries just as he released the imprisoned Islamists.

Were it not for the sacrifices of the youths of the revolution now in the Al-Harbi Prison, Morsi would never have set foot in the presidential palace. He must make good on his promises to reassure the Copts and appoint them to legitimate and influential posts, to prove that he respects the principle of equality among citizens. He must make good on his promises to alter the composition of the constitutional committee so that it truly represents all sectors of society, without being dominated by the Islamist movement. Should this committee stumble, the president must reconstitute it by holding free elections, not by choosing its new members at his own discretion.

President Morsi must be congratulated for his courageous decision to end military rule. However, we still await other decisions on his part, decisions that will prove to us that he is the president of all Egyptians and that he truly wants to eliminate the military’s dictatorship without simply replacing it with a religious dictatorship. We await decisions that will create a true democratic regime that will bring Egypt the future it deserves. Democracy is the solution.

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