The World from Berlin Egypt's Democracy at Stake

The fight for power in Egypt is heating up as President Mohammed Morsi struggles to counter the influence of the remnants of the pre-revolutionary regime. Now, as Mubarak-era judges go on strike, German comentators say the path to democracy appears even rockier.


The past few weeks have seen Egypt's Arab Spring revolution in crisis: demonstrations supporting and opposing President Mohammed Morsi, threats of invalidating the assembly that drafted the new constitution, a declaration by the president of being above judicial review and now an open-ended strike by the country's judiciary. The success of the country struggling to establish a new democracy has long been in doubt.

Courts led by judges appointed during the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak had previously dissolved the bodies of lawmakers elected by the people. The leaders of the new guard were thus understandably concerned that the Supreme Constitutional Court would invalidate the Islamist-controlled assembly that drafted a new constitution for the country. Such an action would have set the revolution back significantly.

President Morsi sought to counteract the Mubarak-era judges by declaring his actions above judicial review. His opponents saw that as a step toward dictatorship. To his supporters, it was a justified move against an anti-democratic judiciary.

Morsi pledged to relinquish his above-the-courts status if Egyptian voters approve the draft constitution in a referendum on Dec. 15. However his opponents, who include more reform-minded secularists and members of the Coptic minority, are not entirely comfortable with that constitution, which maintains Islam as the main source for all legislation. Tens of thousands protested against President Morsi and the constitution over the weekend in Cairo, and are vowing to continue their actions.

Amidst all this turmoil, pro-Morsi protesters gathered outside the Constitutional Court and blocked the judges from entering. The judges responded by going on strike and refusing to supervise the Dec. 15 referendum.

The German media on Monday emphasized the high stakes in Egypt, and said that while the Muslim Brotherhood's undermining of the pre-revolutionary judiciary is understandable, so are the protests against the Brotherhood's own actions.

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Egypt lies on the fault line of two continents, not just geologically, and the European coast is not far away either. What moves Egypt today moves the region tomorrow, and the shockwaves could very well spark fear and terror among the Europeans. The future of Egypt will indicate for the whole of the Islamic world whether democracy and a Koran-based life can be reconciled.

"The German foreign minister, who has to dedicate more and more of his time to the Middle East, expressed his concerns in strong words. There is a threat, he says, of 'a division of society,' code for continuing revolution and probable violence. The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, threatened an end of economic and political cooperation -- as if Brussels had another Egypt on reserve.

"Indeed, Europeans must be extremely cautious with unsolicited advice. The material hardships that fuelled the uprising against Mubarak are still there. Lack of work, frustration and the bluntness of the regime are all strong forces for lasting unrest."

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The mass protests against the most recent actions of President Mohammed Morsi are fuelled by frustration and fear among non-Islamists. … The fronts appear to be unalterable: Islamist political circles here, secular reformers and members of religious minorities there.

"Morsi, who wants to be the president of all Egyptians, feels unjustly attacked. The old regime was trying, with the aid of Mubarak-era judges, to stop the revolution, whose free elections pitted disadvantaged groups against the ultimate winners. And Morsi has retreated to the old conspiracy theory that foreign powers are behind the protests.

"This doesn't amount to a counter-revolution. Rather Egyptians are expressing their deep mistrust of the authorities, who never treated them as responsible citizens. In return, the president has neglected to put the people at ease, to tell them that the new constitution protects new freedoms that did not exist before, and that his absolute power would only last until the ratification of the constitution, which will be voted on on December 15. A bit more skillfulness on his part and Egyptians would surely have let these two weeks go by without protest."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Judges are obliged to be independent. Risking one's life is not part of the job description. Thus it is understandable that Egypt's constitutional court judges withheld a decision on the sharply criticized course of action taken by President Mohammed Morsi while an angry mob roared. Morsi's thugs, who had gathered in front of the Cairo court, had threatened to set the building on fire. The president's Muslim Brotherhood could hardly show less respect for the judiciary.

"After the democratic victory of Egypt's Islamist president, the international community greeted him with openness. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is arrogating the right to greet the judges, disliked by Morsi, with the methods of the street, all the while praising it as democratic volition.

"It's true: A likely majority stands behind the 'constitutional decree' of the president; and the Mubarak-era judges have no doubt pursued a policy of obstruction. But all of that cannot justify tearing down the institutional pillars of the state and legitimizing it with a referendum as 'democratic.'"

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Of the three scenarios how Egypt could develop after Mubarak, one is losing meaning: The rebellion through the institutions of the old regime, whose lives the new power holders are making difficult, is weakening. Most Egyptians have accepted that the once-hated police are hardly to be found on the streets, and that crime is on the rise. And many Egyptians are viewing the strike by the Mubarak-era constitutional judges, who have placed hurdles in the path of the new power holders, more as a point scored for Morsi than as a moral statement by the court.

"The old institutions will not give up their resistance any time soon. In the foreground now lie the two other scenarios: The Muslim Brotherhood not touching the old regime, but rather occupying it with its own followers, or allowing a controlled opening to take place. Morsi claims to be following the latter. But the evidence suggests the first scenario is more likely."

-- Andrew Bowen


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