The past weekend brought a landmark moment in Egypt’s history, as newly elected President Morsi offered a direct challenge to the SCAF’s power by reinstating Parliament, which was dissolved just weeks ago. On Monday, members of Parliament were able to enter the parliament building after having been blocked for nearly a month.
Morsi’s decision represents a direct challenge to the SCAF’s legitimacy and reach of power, and is reminiscent of times in American history, when, as the young country found its way, its military, courts, strong personalities, and branches of government vied for power.
In Marbury vs. Madison, the 1803 Supreme Court decision that established the principal of judicial review, a weak judiciary wrested power from the legislative branch. For the first time, the courts were able to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. Over a century later, in 1951, President Truman fired General MacArthur for making statements contradicting the administration’s policies, and the nation held its breath to see how the powerful general would react. When the decision was not overturned, Truman’s actions had firmly established the civilian President as Commander-in-Chief. In Little Rock, Arkansas, only a few years after the MacArthur firing, President Eisenhower deployed federal troops and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to protect nine black students as they entered a newly desegregated school. This decision polarized the nation again, as a President used military resources to enforce a controversial new law.
Morsi’s provocation of the SCAF was similarly deliberate. He stated that “The military wants to create a state within a state, keep legislative power and include articles in the future constitution that protects it. That won’t do: either we confront it now or we’ve failed.”
The constitutional court has said that its ruling dissolving Parliament will be upheld, causing additional confusion. The SCAF, which held an emergency meeting after Morsi’s declaration, has not yet commented. It is worth pointing out that some analysts believe the SCAF must have known the announcement was coming, as they would never tolerate such an open and unexpected challenge to their authority.
Whatever the outcome, this situation will help to define the future of governance in Egypt, just as landmark moments like Marbury vs Madison, the MacArthur firing, and the Little Rock 9 did in the US. This is where precedent will be established, and where the public will gain meaningful and actionable insight into the role of the military in this new democracy.
Only time will tell what precedent this event will set, and what the ultimate outcome will be for Egypt’s power structure. But, given the chaos and uncertainty that faces Egypt’s democracy, one can’t help but think of Winston Churchill’s famous musing: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.”
In post-Mubarak Egypt, this seems all too appropriate.