Is democracy in Egypt over before it started? Skeptics abroad and protesters in Egypt think so after President Mohamed Mursi’s unilateral decree that his decisions are not subject to judicial review by the nation’s constitutional court.
The fears are exaggerated — this is not the scene in the movie where the democratically elected Islamic leader reveals himself as a religious dictator. Mursi overreached in his decree and explained it poorly. Yet he did it in the service of preserving electoral democracy. And he has reportedly taken a first step to repair the damage: agreeing to limit the scale of the decree to “sovereign matters,” such as protecting the assembly now writing Egypt’s constitution.
The concerns of Egyptian and foreign secularists are understandable. Democracy means more than just elections. Those elected by the people must adhere to constitutional procedures, not take the fact of their election as a mandate to govern without restraint. When Mursi stated that he would not be bound by the decisions of the constitutional court because “God and the people” had chosen him, he sounded disturbingly like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — or like a fascist dictator.
Yet, despite appearances, Mursi’s decree does not represent the “one man, one vote, one time” scenario many consider inevitable when an Islamist party comes to power through democracy. One must consider the full context of Egypt’s tumultuous, ongoing revolution — and the highly questionable role Egypt’s constitutional court has played in it.