‘Arab Spring’ nations take next halting steps towards democracy

July 10, 2012

Hamza Hendawi and Maggie Michael, Associated Press and City Room

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Intriguing developments are afoot in North Africa’s newest democracies. Recently elected Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi has defied the army and the courts by asking parliament to reconvene. In Libya, voters surprised many by choosing a more open, secular government over Islamist rivals.

Egypt's legislature convenes despite court ruling 

Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament opened a new front in the country's leadership showdowns Tuesday by meeting in defiance of orders that disbanded the chamber and brought President Mohammed Morsi in conflict with both the powerful military and the highest court.

The session was brief — lasting just five minutes — and suggested that lawmakers sought more of a symbolic stance rather than a full-scale backlash against rulings that invalidated the chamber over apparent irregularities in Egypt's first elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak 17 months ago.

 

Tuesday on Worldview: Middle East expert Juan Cole breaks down the latest political developments in Egypt and Libya. 

But it further nudged Egypt deeper into a potential power struggle between Morsi and military chiefs, who have vowed to uphold the judicial ruling that led to parliament being dissolved last month.

For the moment, all sides appear to be moving with some caution in acknowledgment of Egypt's volatile backdrop: The military with the power to clamp down on dissent but without widespread support on the streets where Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is strong.

Security forces made no attempt to block lawmakers as they arrived at the parliament building in central Cairo.

The crisis atmosphere has grown steadily since Morsi issued an order Sunday to reconvene the 508-seat legislature. His executive order said it was revoking the military's June 15 order to disband the chamber based on the previous ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

The court said a third of the chamber's members were elected illegally by allowing candidates from political parties to contest seats set aside for independent candidates. The court was expected to rule later Tuesday on three cases questioning the legality of the president's order. A lower court also looking into complaints against Morsi's order postponed its decision until July 17.

Morsi's presidential decree also called for new parliamentary elections after a new constitution is adopted, which is not expected before the end of the year. In effect, it puts the current parliament in a sort of caretaker status — raising further speculation that Morsi could be buying time with the current defiance.

The dispute over the fate of parliament has divided the nation just as Egyptians hoped for a semblance of stability after the tumult since the Arab Spring ouster of Mubarak. Egypt has seen a dramatic surge in crime, deadly street protests, a faltering economy and seemingly non-stop strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.

Morsi is Egypt's first democratically elected president. Unlike his four predecessors, he does not have a military background and is not the supreme commander of the armed forces. Under a "constitutional declaration" issued by the military on June 17, Morsi cannot declare war or order troops on the streets in the case of a domestic crisis without prior agreement from the military.

Libyan election hints at blow to Islamists 

Libya's first nationwide elections in nearly five decades brought hints Sunday of an Arab Spring precedent: Western-leaning parties making strides over Islamist rivals hoping to follow the same paths to power as in neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.

While final results from Saturday's parliamentary election could still be days away under a two-tier selection system, unofficial and partial counts from Libya's biggest cities suggested liberal factions were leading the Muslim Brotherhood and allies in a possible first major setback to their political surge following last year's uprisings.

If the Libyan trend holds — which is still far from certain — it would challenge the narrative of rising Islamist power since the fall of Western-allied regimes from Tunis to Cairo. It also could display the different political dynamics in Libya, where tribal loyalties run deep and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood at times cooperated with the rule of Moammar Gadhafi.

"Anyone with past ties with old regime is hated, even despised," said Fathi al-Fadhali, a pro-Islamist Libyan political analyst who lived in exile for 30 years. "Any political names associated with the regime are immediately politically burnt by that association."

Ultimately, the 200-seat parliament will face the task of forming a government — which could become tests of strength for Islamists and secular forces over questions such as women's rights, the extent of traditional Islamic law and relations with the U.S. and other Western nations that helped bring down Gadhafi.

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Libyans on the vote, calling it "another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the people of Libya and the candidates who "contested the election in a peaceful, democratic spirit," according to his spokesman.

Now, the ballots have to be portioned out according to two categories: Eighty seats are set aside for party lists, and the remaining 120 for individual independent candidates.

Unlike Egypt — where the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as an alternative to Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule — its brethren in Libya must confront a reputation as compromisers with Gadhafi. A former rebel commander, Fadllah Haroun, called it "their black past."

Gadhafi's powerful son, Seif al-Islam, forged deals with the Muslim Brotherhood and allies in efforts to pave the way for his eventual rule. He released more than 150 Islamist political prisoners starting in 2003 and offered others positions in his various media outlets and foundations.

Because of such ties, the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the first Libyan opposition conference in London in 2005 that called for overthrowing Gadhafi's regime at a time Libya was mending its relations with the West.