Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has worked out a compromise with his judiciary in which he has carefully defined the limits of a decree that he issued last week. The decree, which sparked violent protests in Cairo and elsewhere, seemed to give Mr Morsi sweeping powers to override the judiciary and other institutions of government. For the naysayers, these past few days of mayhem are further evidence that Egypt’s experiment in democracy is doomed. But a more positive way to see this is that each of these conflicts between institutions of government and political groups is slowly but surely helping define and limit the nature of Egypt’s executive power. The first and, arguably, most important step towards burying the country’s tradition of despotic rule.
The present political contretemps in Cairo is of interest to the world because Egypt is traditionally the intellectual leader of West Asia. The establishment of a stable democracy along the Nile will be a defining moment in the spread of representative government throughout the Arab Muslim world. The transition has been troubled with bursts of protests, a constituent assembly that is showing no signs of completing its work, and regular power struggles between the presidency and other arms of the government. It may be more useful to see what Egypt is undergoing as a compressed political revolution. Where other countries have taken decades to put together a democratic regime, this country plans to do it in a few years. Already, the military has accepted civilian oversight. The presidency and the judiciary have roughly defined the limits of each other’s authority. All Egyptian parties seem to have accepted that legitimacy is gained through the ballot box. Most of these proposals are less about ideology than preserving autonomy. This doesn’t mean that there are no reasons to be worried. The draft text has lines about declaring Sunni Islam the official religion, a special status for the Sharia and some versions seem to exempt the presidency and military from parliamentary oversight.
But the willingness of Egyptians to throw stones over presidential notifications and the willingness of Mr Morsi to seek compromises are, in two different ways, signs that the democratisation process is moving forward. There is, at present, no reason to presume Egypt will become either autocratic or theocratic, or both.