20 June 2012

ThinkAfricaPress

Egypt: Military Coup By Law

Cairo — SCAF's declarations granting itself sweeping legislative and constitutional powers have been met with outrage.

Political and legal drama in Egypt has escalated in the past week as the military dealt a number of blows to the democratic process in the form of court decisions and constitutional amendments.

The latest and most blatant of these is the Constitutional Declaration, issued on June 17, which grants the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) legislative powers as well as greater control over the constitution-drafting process. Lawyers and activists were left to grapple with the legality and implications of what many now describe as a coup d'état.

The first moves

The military made its first move on June 13 by issuing Decree No. 4991, which grants the military power to arrest civilians for an extensive list of crimes, including acts disrupting traffic and public protest. A coalition of human rights groups and activists described it as "a legal shield for army intervention in the daily life of Egyptians".

The second move came on June 14, two days before the final round of the presidential elections, as the Supreme Constitutional Court announced its verdict on two major decisions. The first concerned the Political Isolation Law whose goal is to deny political rights to persons associated with Mubarak's former regime. The court declared the law unconstitutional, allowing Ahmed Shafiq, who was Hosni Mubarak's interim Prime Minister in 2011, to run in the final round of the elections. As a candidate supported by SCAF, the political ramifications of the decision were inescapable.

The second decision claimed the parliamentary elections for the Lower House last year had been unconstitutional as party members had been allowed to contest the one third of seats reserved for independent candidates. This thus called for parliament to be dissolved until fresh elections.

Is there a parliament?

Debate is still ongoing on whether or not there is now a functioning parliament. The Constitutional Court judgment declared that one third of parliamentarians were illegal, but doubt remains as to whether this requires the complete or partial dissolution of parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood was eager to contest this decision as their Freedom and Justice Party have a strong majority within the current parliament. In a statement on June 18, they highlight that: "(m)embers of parliament were elected by 30 million voters, in ... free and fair elections based on that law ... at a cost of 2 billion Egyptian pounds." They also claim that a referendum is required to dissolve parliament, as was the case when parliament was dissolved in 1971 and 1990.

Whatever the legal disputes, in practical terms, SCAF have claimed full legislative power until a new parliament is re-elected, a process which they will also now largely control.

Consolidating power

The dissolution of parliament has had the knock-on effect of threatening the already fraught constitutional drafting process. The Constituent Assembly - tasked with writing the new constitution - was elected and disbanded already earlier this year and the new assembly had been approved by parliament just the day before the Constitutional Court judgement.

SCAF has provided this new assembly one week to reach agreement. Louisa Lovelock, from UK-based think tank Chatham House, told Think Africa Press that this requires some deeply divided political and social groups to unite in a very short space of time. If this ultimatum for an agreement is not met, SCAF threatens to take control of selecting the assembly to draft the new constitution. And even if the assembly manages to reach a consensus, the new Constitutional Declaration assures SCAF considerable control over the final constitution.

The declaration unashamedly confers broad powers including supervision and intervention in drafting the constitution and full legislative power until a new parliament is elected. Sohair Riad at the Cairo Institute of Human Rights, comments that this declaration marks a "military coup completed".

Previous debate concerning the Constituent Assembly focused on the capacity of elected members to represent the full spectrum of Egyptian society. These were the debates of a new democracy. Now focus is on how to resist complete military control of the drafting process.

Voting continues

Throughout this legal drama, the presidential elections continued. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi claims to have won, although Shafiq's camp insists the result is too close to call yet - official results are due tomorrow.

However, in a context where there may be no parliament and no constitution in place, the result may well be of decreasing importance. As Riad notes, whoever wins the election may have little real authority.

Abel Ramadan, Lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Lawyer, however, disagrees with this assessment and says that victory for Mursi could offer "a strong weapon if used smartly and wisely". Ramadan thinks victory for the Muslim Brotherhood could provoke a change in power structure which would render the Constitutional Declaration a lesser obstacle.

Activists fighting back

Egypt's activists are also not yet defeated. Karim Abdelrady, a lawyer for the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, told Think Africa Press: "we will use political pressure to force SCAF to take back these steps."

Activists are maintaining popular mobilisation in the form of protest and thousands gathered this week in Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest against the Constitutional Declaration. Others are seeking to challenge the military's actions through the courts. Lawyer Ali Dergham filed a case against the military council's leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to "cancel the Constitutional Declaration and consider it null and void". Another court case has been brought to challenge the legality of Decree No. 4991.

This week's events suggest that Egypt's new democracy has not quite shaken off its old regime habits. Lovelock notes that "each case is ambiguous, but it is not the individual decisions, but the body of decisions which points towards an ideological trend". This trend suggests a clear shape of military power, which the procedures of court rulings and Constitutional Declarations only thinly veil.

Catriona Knapman is a researcher and writer focusing on human rights and socioeconomic issues. Her professional experience spans a number of international organisations and continents. She is currently based in Cairo. She also blogs at Writing on Rights.

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