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Egyptians Debate Accountability for Democratically Elected Presidents

November 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks to Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers, who says that at the heart of the Egyptian debate about President Mohammed Morsi's sweeping new powers is whether presidential authority should be wide-ranging, or whether greater accountability measures need to be enforced.
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RAY SUAREZ: A short while ago, I spoke with Nancy Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers’ Egypt correspondent.

Nancy Youssef, let’s begin with the latest statements from President Morsi’s spokesman. It’s hard to know whether the president is backing off or simply clarifying the pronouncements he made late last week. How is it being read in Cairo?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: That’s exactly how it feels here.

After several days of protests, and tents being set up in Tahrir Square, the scene of the 18 days that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Morsi met with judicial members today. And his spokesman came out and said that he would have the final say over all sovereign matters.

But what constitutes a sovereign matter remains unclear. It seems that it could be as broad or as specific as Morsi wants. And under that agreement, he has ultimate say over those matters, and there’s nobody who can overrule his decisions.

And that could apply to things like the committee will draft the permanent constitution, among other legal battles that are coming up within the next days and weeks here in Egypt.

RAY SUAREZ: Through a couple of statements, it seems like the president is trying to protect one power more than all others. And that is to shield the constitutional court from judicial interference while it’s doing its work.

Why is that so important, to keep that constitutional council from being meddled with during this period?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, right now, the constitution is made up largely of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was his former party until he became president in June.

Secular members, Christian members, liberal members have all resigned from the committee, and the courts were expected to rule on the legality of the constitutional committee next month , because a lot of the members are made up the parliamentarians who were elected in a legislative body that has since been dissolved.

And the constitution appears to be a document that will be largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. And so that has become a key provision for everybody involved. So, that appears to be his chief reason for trying to protect that body.

What’s interesting is because he’s also in charge of the legislative, if that constitutional assembly is dissolved, it appears that he has the say over who would be on it.

I think what he’s trying to avoid is being seen as being too overt in the assembly of the constitutional assembly, so this way he has a more distant approach to it, if you will.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the president under increasing pressure over the weekend to rescind his earlier seizing of more powers as president?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Yes and no.

There were more protests, but the opposition that’s out in Tahrir Square is quite divided about what they want. Some called for him to rescind all seven point of that declaration. Some called for tweaks. Some are out there calling for something different entirely, which is police reforms.

What I think is really happening in Egypt is a debate about accountability and how much a democratically elected president should be accountable.

Morsi enjoys the support of a huge segment of this population that believes there is only one moment of accountability, on Election Day, and what Morsi does in those four years is up to Morsi.

The opponents are saying, no, he has to be accountable to the public as he’s making these major decisions. And that’s the split. The announcement today suggests that he is very confident in that former segment, the ones that think that he doesn’t have to be accountable for every decision.

There are a lot of people here who are frustrated by these protests. They see them as hindering his ability to do his job. And that’s the central debate.

And because of that, there’s an expectation here that even though this issue has been resolved, until there is a permanent constitution, there will be eruptions like this and disagreements over key decisions.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the protesters are split, and, of course, they include members of the opposition parties.

But are there also Islamists, people who would be sympathetic to the Morsi view of Egypt today that feel like this sounds too much like the man they went into the streets to oppose in the first place, Hosni Mubarak?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Absolutely.

It’s interesting when you go out to Tahrir Square the diversity of the protesters in a way we haven’t seen since February 2011, when Mubarak was toppled.

There are people who are worried because not all Islamists agree. The Salafists, for example, are quite concerned about a constitution written exclusively or largely by the Muslim Brotherhood, and some of them are part of this opposition as well.

And so there’s a whole mosaic of people out there in opposition. But that’s also complicated things because they can’t reach a consensus about what would be an acceptable outcome.

There are huge protests scheduled tomorrow throughout this country. It’s unclear whether people will come out in the kinds of numbers that we had anticipated just a few hours ago in light of this decision.

And I think that really reflects the division amongst Islamists, secularists, liberals, and Christians over what the expectations of Morsi should be and what should be an acceptable outcome in this issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Has this crisis overshadowed what might have been President Morsi’s victory lap over brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel just a few days before?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, interestingly, people here believe that one of the reasons he made this announcement here is he felt a newfound confidence and power from that announcement, and that that was the timing.

Remember, Hillary Clinton made the announcement with his foreign minister on Wednesday night. And Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, he made this announcement.

It seems that it’s hurt his standing in the international community. We heard from the State Department today that that what was happening here was — they described it as murky, for example.

But, domestically, there wasn’t as much embrace of Morsi’s role in Gaza as I think there was in the international community. People were happy that Morsi sort of reestablished Egypt’s place as an international player. But there are so many pressing domestic issues that they in a way overshadowed Gaza and his role in the negotiations.

And so, in a strange way, the feeling here is that had that not happened, perhaps he wouldn’t have made this announcement now.

RAY SUAREZ: Nancy Youssef from McClatchy Newspapers joining us from Cairo, thanks for joining us.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thanks.