Pressure is growing on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to walk back his sweeping assumption of new powers as he announced last week. Egyptian protesters have taken to the streets again, as they did in the #Jan. 25 revolution, calling Morsi the “new pharaoh” despite Morsi’s assurances this move is just “temporary.”
Calling someone a “pharaoh” in Egypt is not a compliment; it is a condemnation of the absolute political rule that held sway in Egypt for millennia under dynasty after dynasty of kings who were considered gods, and who oppressed the people.
Fresh off of helping to broker a “cease-fire” between Gaza and Israel, Morsi then announced he was assuming broad authority to take any steps against “threats to the revolution,” and that included immunity from judicial oversight.
Immediately, activists who had helped bring down Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time dictator, returned to the streets, fearing their fragile democracy was disappearing before their eyes. They are not wrong to fear this.
On the other hand, the immediate pushback by many Egyptians and their “unwillingness to accept Morsi’s diktat are positive signs of the vitality of Egypt’s vibrant, ornery and contentious new politics. It shows yet again that there is no going back to the old patterns of Egyptian or Arab politics,” argues Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy.
Egypt’s judges announced a plan to fight Morsi’s “power play,” calling for a strike. Lawyers have filed legal challenges. This has set up a power struggle over whether, in fact, Egypt will have a functioning democracy.
The biblical “pharaoh,” whom the book of Exodus says oppressed the Israelites, is not named in that text, but he too faced a “strike.” Before Moses led a complete walkout of the Hebrew slaves, the midwives conducted their own work action against the rule of Pharaoh. They defied pharaoh’s decree that when they attended a birth, they should kill the child if it were a boy; instead, these midwives chose to engage in a tried and true workplace strike action, a work slow-down, effectively combatting such an immoral dictate. (Exodus 1:15-20) Fighting unjust decrees by creative labor activism is a long biblical tradition.
Empires do fight back, however. The pharaoh of biblical times, exercising absolute power, then clamped down violently on the Israelite slaves, setting up the conditions for the complete walkout led by Moses.
The live risk in today’s Egypt is that Morsi really is becoming “pharaoh” and will clamp down violently on protests against his newly assumed “powers.” On the other hand, there are signs that the decree would be walked back. This week will prove pivotal for the future of Egyptian democracy.
The balance of powers in a democratic model is supposed to provide a check on the exercise of absolute rule, and provide a brake on the otherwise inevitable spiral of violence that occurs when absolute power tries to clamp down on protest by minorities; today it may be political minorities, but tomorrow could very well include religious minorities as well.
Thus, in today’s Egypt, separation of powers among government sectors is crucial for democracy to work. Egyptians are right to be concerned that this “power grab” by Morsi is a threat to their revolution and signals a return of the “pharaoh” model of absolute rule.
All the “justice” is not on one side or the other, however, as many of these judges are holdovers from the Mubarak era. Indeed, secularists and leading liberal politicians and human rights organizations that had been calling for the ouster of some of these judges found themselves suddenly on the same side as these judges in opposing Morsi’s measures.
Even though these are unlikely alliances, Egyptians must try to preserve the model of the balance of power to have a chance, going forward, that they will have a democracy long-term.
The test for democracy is often how those out of power are treated. President Obama warned about this very thing in his 2009 address at Cairo University when he said, “there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. (Applause) So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Democracy functions by protecting the rights of minorities, especially the minorities with which you most disagree, and thus enabling a political process that provides a check on any one group gaining absolute political power.
A strike by judges in Egypt would be a strike against the exercise of absolute political power, as well as, realistically, the threat to their own power. Democratic politics is never neat or easy. But the point is that absolute power will ultimately lead to oppression and even death for those out of power when they try to counter its excesses.
The Egyptian judiciary, along with secularists, human rights activists and liberal politicians, must try to prevent the consolidation of power by this current “ruler.” For millennia, the absolute power of rulers has been a disaster for Egypt.
Biblical pharaoh did not walk back his oppressive tactics; let us hope a nonviolent way can be found for President Morsi, in a new Egypt, to step back from authoritarianism.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress .