Those living in the comfort and safety of Western democracies cannot easily understand the situation in Egypt. Talking in absolutes, and making statements such as “it’s wrong for the military to oust a democratically-elected president,” seem completely disconnected from reality.
Whilst one can agree in principle that a nation’s military should not interfere in its politics, there are many details to consider when examining what has happened in Egypt. For instance, what do you do if your democratically-elected president behaves undemocratically?
Most Westerners would not be able to answer this question because it is something they are not used to, or because the political systems they live in seem to always have the ability to self-correct.
For example, in an established democracy such as the United Kingdom, a home secretary might be forced to resign over the simplest signs of misuse of power. This happened to David Blunkett in 2005, when it became public that he fast-tracked a visa application for his ex-lover’s nanny.
Serious matters such as interfering with the judiciary are almost unthinkable, and if a prime minister or president is found to have committed a violation of their oath or the constitution, the system has a way to both impeach them and hold them accountable.
The Nixon example
Former U.S. President Richard Nixon and his ousted Egyptian counterpart Muhammad Mursi may not have much in common at first glance, but during their periods in office they both clashed with the judiciary, and this ultimately led to their downfalls.
The key difference in the actions taken to remove them is that the United States enjoys a long-established and complex political structure, the judiciary is strong and independent, and the Senate could force Nixon’s resignation.
Mursi, on the other hand, radically extended his powers and blurred the boundaries between juridical and executive bodies with his controversial decree of Nov. 22 last year. This effectively closed any channels through which to challenge him. International democracy organization Freedom House described this as a “major challenge to constituted legal authority in Egypt and a dangerous step towards authoritarian rule.”
Conflict arose between Nixon and the judiciary as the investigation into the Watergate scandal continued, and the involvement of his re-election campaign team in unlawful spying and sabotage became clear. Nixon refused requests by Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox for tapes made in the Oval Office.
His attempt to dismiss Cox was blocked by two other members of the judiciary, Attorney-General Elliott Richardson and Deputy Attorney-General William Ruckelshaus, who resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order.
Mursi also had prolonged conflicts with the judiciary. On Nov. 22, he sacked public prosecutor Abdel-Maguid Mahmud as part of his decree that limited judicial terms to four years, extended the president’s powers beyond judicial review, and fixed a date for a referendum on the constitution.
Mahmud was replaced by Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah. An Egyptian court, believing Mursi’s actions to be unlawful, demanded the repeal of the decree and the reinstatement of Mahmud. Not only had Mursi overstepped the mark in firing him, but he also challenged legal bodies by fixing the date for the referendum and protecting the Constituent Assembly from dissolution, bypassing the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Mursi was not just challenging the judiciary like Nixon by denying access to documents and firing the Watergate special prosecutor – he was undermining the very structures protecting the independence of the judiciary, and acting outside his jurisdiction as the executive.
Where the difference lies
Both leaders are seen by their respective judiciaries and the opposition as having acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally. The text of Nixon’s impeachment labels his actions a “violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Mursi was not only obstructing judicial process, but also changing the constitution and radically extending his powers. The leader of the opposition National Salvation Front, Mohamed al-Baradei, said Mursi’s decree and insistence on a referendum on the constitution “in an explosive, polarized, chaotic and lawless environment is leading the country to the brink.”
International observers also condemned Mursi’s actions. He “is returning to the type of authoritarian rule the Egyptian people fought so hard to remove in 2011,” said Freedom House President David J. Kramer.
In Nixon’s case, he acted unlawfully by authorizing spying and then undermining the judiciary by refusing to cooperate with investigations. Similarly to Mursi’s resistance to criticism, during the Watergate scandal there were signs that Nixon would try to cling to power. His attorneys argued that he had “executive privilege,” and therefore could not be brought to justice.
Nixon showed no remorse, nor any intention of stepping down, in his Nov. 1973 press conference in which he famously denied being a “crook.” His speechwriter Ray Price had even written a speech in case the president decided to refuse the offer of resignation.
In the American system, though, Nixon could not have been able to cling on. He was offered the unprecedented and unconstitutional offer of resignation to avoid facing impeachment, which the Senate had suggested would be forthcoming. For Nixon, the threat of impeachment was enough to force his resignation because the judiciary was independent.
Cox wrote that the judiciary “has no power to enforce decrees against the President,” but unlike Egypt, the judiciary is supported by the power of the Senate and the strong respect for the rule of law in a long-established democracy such as the United States.
While the Nixon affair was unprecedented, as was the response to it, it was possible to remove a president accused of acting unconstitutionally and of violating the rule of law without using force because of the strength of the legal and political systems. There was a due process which could be followed.
In Egypt, there is no such due process. The confusion between different bodies, Mursi’s extension of his powers, his supporters’ intimidation of judges, and the fragility of a one-year-old democracy made military intervention, which would be unthinkable in the United States, a more legitimate option.
Given the political reality, while Egyptians should by no means support the army or the interim government unquestioningly, something had to be done for a country whose powers of restricting the executive were gradually being eroded. “Neither laws nor institutions will solve every problem,” wrote Cox.
In Egypt, where decades of dictatorship have limited the powers of the judiciary, and a post-revolution government seemed to have had no more regard for due process than its predecessor, this is even more valid. Given all this, as well as the collapsing economy, the people of Egypt revolted once again, and the military stood by them. The army’s only fault is that it did not put enough effort into building its case and publicizing it.
Nevertheless, the military establishment cannot and should not be allowed to be the sole guarantor of checks and balances in the country. The only way for the newly-born Egyptian democracy to thrive and become a model for the rest of the region is to have a true, effective and respected separation of powers.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.
*Faith Barker contributed with the research for this article.