President consolidates powers
By abrogating the 17 June supplementary Constitutional Declaration, the president concentrates sweeping powers in his hands, Gamal Essam El-Din
President Mohamed Mursi's decision to send minister of defence Hussein Tantawi and chief of the military staff Sami Anan into retirement might have hogged the headlines but it was the abrogation of the 17 June supplementary Constitutional Declaration that is really big news.
For the first time since the 1952 coup the army has been stripped of any political role. And courtesy of a new Constitutional Declaration in which Mursi granted himself all the powers listed in Article 56 of the 30 March 2011 Constitutional Declaration, he now wields full legislative and executive authority.
Mursi can legislate, approve or veto policy and budget decisions, appoint -- and dismiss -- the prime minister and cabinet, senior civil servants, military personnel and diplomats.
More controversially, Mursi has given himself the right to appoint a new constituent assembly, "should future developments prevent the current assembly from carrying out its responsibilities" -- ie draft a new constitution on time.
Should the existing assembly be dissolved by judicial order -- which could well happen in September -- it is Mursi who will appoint its replacement.
Mursi has become Egypt's absolute ruler, enjoying dictatorial powers that surpass those of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had ruled Egypt since Mubarak's ouster, repeatedly said it would cede complete powers to a new president only after a constitution was in force," says Tagammu Party chairman Rifaat El-Said. "Now it is clear this was a false promise. SCAF has rolled over easily and allowed Mursi to concentrate power in his hands."
"The decisions of 12 August make Mursi the new pharaoh of Egypt," says Salah Eissa, editor of the weekly Al-Qahira. "After ridding Egypt of a military dictatorship, we are about to see it replaced by an Islamist one."
Constitutional expert Shawqi El-Sayed argues that Mursi's decisions mean he has broken his 30 June constitutional oath: "When he took the oath," says El-Sayed," he swore that he would uphold the 17 June supplementary Constitutional Declaration."
Speculation is rife that Mursi made his move after consulting with at least some elements within the military, and that the process is part of a safe exit strategy for Egypt's transitional military rulers.
Mursi's actions drew praise from the Muslim Brotherhood, in whose ranks Mursi served for 30 years.
"Egypt now has a single president rather than a presidency with two heads," said Saad El-Husseini, former Brotherhood MP. "This is a turning point in Egypt's history. For the first time in 60 years a civilian president is in complete control, even over the army."
The contentious changes introduced by SCAF on 17 June gave it legislative authority and the right to decide all issues related to the Armed Forces.
SCAF issued the declaration three days after parliament was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) on 14 June.
At the time SCAF's generals argued the declaration was necessary to avoid a legislative vacuum.
"The 17 supplementary June Declaration seeks to uphold the principle of the separation of powers and ensure that authority is not concentrated in a single pair of hands," said SCAF member Mohamed El-Assar. Under Mursi's changes, El-Assar is now assistant minister of defence.
Brotherhood officials insist Mursi will give up all legislative power once a new constitution is written. "This will be completed in three or four months, after which we will have full separation of powers," says El-Husseini.
Such promises are not enough to reassure El-Said. "These immense powers are especially dangerous. I am not alone in believing Mursi will seek to use them to turn the Muslim Brotherhood into a state within a state," he says.
"It's clear to everyone how the Brotherhood is now pushing its militias into the streets to intimidate any kind of opposition to Mursi and his policies. Already newspapers and satellite channels have been closed and there is a concerted campaign to terrorise the media."
The amendment granting Mursi the right to select members of the constituent assembly should the existing assembly be dissolved has caused the greatest concern among secular forces, some of whom have raised the chilling spectre of an emerging Islamist state that enjoys military backing.
Any hopes that the current assembly would be dissolved by judicial order next month and then replaced by a more balanced body have been dashed. "If Mursi is the one entrusted with selecting its replacement," says Eissa, "I can guarantee it will be dominated by Islamists."
During his presidential election, Mursi vowed that he would do his best to appoint a new constituent assembly that "represents all factions of Egyptian society" and "after consulting with political forces".
"This never happened," says Eissa. "Even the National Front, which supported Mursi on 22 June, has said he has failed to keep his promises." Article 60 of the 17 June supplementary declaration had included the provision that if the president, SCAF's chairman, the supreme council of the judiciary, the prime minister or a fifth of the members of the constituent assembly objected to any article of the draft constitution on the grounds that it contradicted with the goals of the 25th January Revolution, then the article would be referred back and reconsidered.
"But Mursi is very unlikely to object to any articles from the Islamist-dominated assembly," says Eissa.
Article 60 also stipulated that the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) would have the final say on articles contained within the constitution and that its orders would be final and binding.
It is this clause, together with the fate of the People's Assembly dissolved by the SCC on 14 June, that will most likely form the centerpiece of Mursi's next showdown.
Few commentators doubt that it will be with the court.