The sequence of political events in Egypt in the last two weeks has been an important step on the long road to the reconfiguration of governance and politics in the country. It has highlighted the legitimacy of several critical actors who will long remain in some form of peaceful political confrontation.
Within a matter of days we witnessed dramatic events: The elected president was declared to be Mohammad Mursi, who symbolically took the oath of office in front of a large crowd of supporters in Tahrir Square, then more formally repeated the same oath before the Constitutional Court. After that, he called the disbanded Parliament into a single brief session. Members demanded a review of Parliament’s dismissal by the Constitutional Court and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, only to have the court and SCAF affirm that the Parliament was disbanded and could not meet, which Mursi acknowledged and accepted as the law of the land.
Only a classic Egyptian comedy or drama film would have a more robust sequence of events, each worthy of the audience’s rapt attention. But this is no film. This is the extraordinary and still uplifting story of a shattered political culture that is trying to stand on its feet again, and regain simultaneously its dignity, efficacy and, most importantly, its legitimacy.
The events show again – and we should get used to this, because it will happen over and over again across the Arab world in the years ahead – that in the more normal trajectory of national development, a country establishes legitimate institutions of governance, which become more efficient over time, and finally earn a certain amount of respect and dignity because of their legitimacy and service to the citizenry. This is a luxury that most Arab countries do not have, as we witness those four countries that have started on the road to national political reconfiguration – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A fifth, Iraq, still suffers the curse and burden of having its reconfiguration process midwived by a criminal Anglo-American military invasion.
The important development in Egypt this month has been the affirmation of five key actors who now interact on the stage of national politics – the president, SCAF, Parliament, the judiciary and the public as represented by the crowd in Tahrir Square that witnessed the first presidential oath. How these five interact will continue to evolve, with each one maneuvering for advantage in the arena of public opinion, using the instruments of peaceful politics.
That these events are now taking place routinely and in a nonviolent way is a great success for the Egyptian people. They understand the historic nature of the decisions that they are taking as they wake up and rebuild after six decades of military rule.
The process is still in its early days. Many other actors remain to claim their place on this great stage, including credible political parties, civil society organizations, private sector organizations and associations of workers, students, women, farmers and others. All of these will have to be represented in the next big phase, which is selecting a commission to draft the new Constitution. Intense political negotiations and confrontations will define this endeavor, which is to be expected and welcomed, given the enormous and lasting impact of a national Constitution.
For now, we can only marvel at the manner in which those already on stage went about the process of staking out their ground, challenging the power and legitimacy of some other actors, retreating a bit when they were counter-challenged, and ultimately leaving the stage fully manned by the forces now at work.
The most important actors, in my view, are the citizens in Tahrir Square and the court system, because they represent the core elements of any credible democratic and republican system of governance. Ultimate authority is vested in the people, and the judiciary is the critical guarantor of citizen rights and the rule of law, which are the bedrock of such systems. Presidents, parliaments and military officers come and go, but citizens and the judiciary remain.
That is why it was so important and correct for Mursi to challenge SCAF by calling the disbanded Parliament into office briefly and taking his first oath in front of the citizenry; just as it was, similarly, correct for him to accept the dissolution of Parliament when the Constitutional Court reaffirmed that decision.
The president sent exactly the right messages that the Egyptian and Arab people want to hear: We seek to create systems of governance anchored in the consent and rights of citizens, guaranteed by the work of a judiciary that adheres only to the rule of law, and to no other allegiance. I suspect that the early days of July 2012 will be remembered as a moment of rebirth and reason in modern Arab history.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.