If the people lay their freedom at the foot of a ruler, they are unfit for liberty
Is revolution a sham? The present crisis in Egypt makes one wonder whether the recent revolution that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak is only a transitional stage before another dictatorship sets in. We hope it is not, because if democracy, the seeds of which were strewn over the restless socio-political fields of the Arab world by the Arab Spring, does not take root, it will drag the region back to the dark era.
History’s many a revolution that roared to victory had noble aims but ended in brutal dictatorships. The French revolution that overthrew Louis XVI was based on the hallowed ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity -- libertè, egalité and fraternitè – but within years, France was back in the hands of another dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Then take the Russian revolution – the revolution of the proletariat. It removed Tsar Nicholas, an absolute monarch like Louis XVI, but within years dictatorship set in with the leaders of the revolution not only oppressing the Russians but also the people of the republics Russia had forcibly annexed. In China, the revolution has only solidified the one-party system.
In the Middle East, too, revolutions in the past have turned into repression. These early revolutions led by military figures such as Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya generated hope in the people, but they only gave birth to corrupt political systems that denied the people a say in governance. In Iran, an Islamic revolution ousted the corrupt regime of the Shah but in its wake a theocracy has taken root.
Egyptians stand near an armoured personnel carrier (APC) deployed near the presidential palace in Cairo after five demonstrators died overnight in clashes between supporters and opponents of Islamist President Mursi yesterday. AFP.
Perhaps, the only revolution that saw progressive change over a long period was the American Revolution. It established a constitutional democracy with proper checks and balances that upheld the sovereignty of the people and the principle of separation of powers. However, of late, in the name of fighting a war on terror, the United States has chosen to ignore many of the principles laid down in the US constitution, said to be the most enlightened political document in the world. The willful violations of these principles have resulted in hundreds of terror suspects being detained without trial in Gulag-like prisons at Guantanamo Bay; US citizens being killed in targeted assassinations; the right to privacy being eroded by the Patriot Act; and international law being observed in the breach.
In general, revolutions have the tendency to veer towards dictatorship, with revolutionaries thinking, rightly or wrongly, that a little bit of disciplining or regimentation of the masses is necessary to preserve the revolution. This leads to the assertion of power by the new rulers and eventually to oppression and more oppression.
It is in this light that the ongoing protests against the new regime — after President Mursi issued a decree granting him wide-ranging new powers — find some legitimacy.
However, Mursi and his supporters say the new powers are necessary to protect the revolution.
Whatever it is, a statement made by the 19th century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, rings true in the anti-regime protests. Mill said: “A people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it.”
Most of the protesters may not have read Mill, but the flame of freedom that Mill exhorted the people to protect from great or popular leaders was evident on the Egyptian Street.
On the other hand, every revolution has its teething problems. Mursi appears to have mishandled the current crisis. He had his reasons for issuing the controversial decree. But by the time he explained his reasons, the protests had gathered the momentum necessary for a long showdown with the regime. The manner in which the final draft of the constitution was rushed through only added fuel to the protesters’ ire.
Analysts say Mursi fears that the deep state, which is linked to the old regime, is very much alive. The country’s Supreme Court is part of the deep-state. In June this year, it dissolved parliament that was elected after the revolution, and also the constitutional assembly that was set up to draft a new constitution.
The court’s decision preceded a decree issued by military ruler Mohammed Hussein Tantawi that virtually gave the military the status of a parallel government. The decree stripped the President of much of his powers even before Mursi assumed office after a presidential runoff.
Mursi, however, in a smart constitutional coup in August this year, clipped the wings of the military by sending Field Marshal Tantawi, who was made Defence Minister in the new regime, into retirement. But Mursi could not cleanse the judiciary which is filled with Mubarak-era judges. He feared the court would once again declare the second constitutional assembly null and void and thus trigger political chaos. It was to preempt this or prevent a judicial coup that Mursi, who is derided as the new Pharaoh, on November 22 issued the infamous declaration that his decisions were “final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament elected.”
As protests built up, the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly rushed through the final draft and announced it had completed the process but not before the liberals and the Coptic Christians staged a walkout.
The liberals and the Copts believe the draft constitution which is to be voted on at a referendum on December 15 will make Egypt a theocracy. The draft constitution says the principles of Shariah should be the guiding principles for Egyptian law. Even the Mubarak-era constitution had this clause. But what worries the liberals is that the draft constitution makes the al-Azhar University the consultant authority for matters relating to Islamic law. Critics say this will give the clerics a greater say in the lawmaking process.
The new constitution also gives recognition to the “true nature of the Egyptian family” and promotes its morals and values. The liberals believe this will allow the Islamists to impose their version of values on those who adopt a different lifestyle.
The draft constitution is also silent about women’s rights, raising fears among women’s rights activists of measures to deny women their due rights.
The constitution, however, grants Egypt’s Coptic minority and a handful of Jews the right to administer their affairs according to their religious laws. It also limits the president’s period in office to two four-year terms.
With referendum day drawing near, the liberals who were part and parcel of the revolution have teamed up with the supporters of the Mubarak regime. They even succeeded in laying siege to the Presidential Palace this week. But a massive counter protest by the Brotherhood supporters last week showed a major division within Egypt. On Wednesday clashes erupted between Brotherhood supporters and the protesters who had laid siege to Mursi’s official residence. Five people died, portending a prolonged confrontation between the two groups. Yesterday, tanks were deployed outside the Presidential Palace to bring the situation under control as several government figures resigned in support of the protesters.
Amidst these clashes, a constitutional crisis also looms. Under the existing constitution, the judges are the supervising authority of elections. Legally, the referendum cannot go ahead without judicial supervision. The Supreme Court judges have said they would boycott the supervision of the referendum unless Mursi rescinds his decree. Mursi has so far refused to do so. He says he will rescind the decree only after the draft constitution is approved and new elections are held under it. Mursi also believes that he has the support of lower court judges to hold the referendum. However, this remains to be seen. The recent strike called by the Supreme Court was only a partial success.
Another factor that needs attention is the possibility of a foreign hand behind the protests. The suspicion of foreign involvement gains credibility because the protesters were galvanised into action only after the Gaza crisis during which Mursi took a strong stand that forced even the Americans to come to his doorstep and bring about a ceasefire, much to the chagrin of Israel.
The task of the Islamist-rooted Mursi regime is not only to cleanse the system of the Mubarak era bureaucrats and judges who constitute the deep state or the state within state, but also to uphold democracy, the independence of the judiciary, and the spirit of the revolution. We hope Mursi won’t betray the revolution.