With his country torn by factionalism and threatening to split at the seams, a newly elected chief executive set himself above the system’s checks and balances, claiming vast powers that he promised to use for the nation’s preservation.
President Abraham Lincoln did it more than 150 years ago and is remembered as a hero. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi did it last week and is being denounced as a would-be tyrant. Lincoln received the same condemnation in his own time. Whether Morsi’s reputation will recover as fully as Lincoln’s did depends on many events that have yet to happen.
The parallels between Lincoln and Morsi came to mind last weekend after I saw Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” Daniel Day-Lewis creates a magnificent portrayal of the 16th president in the final months of his life, as he balances the conflicting goals of ending the Civil War quickly and using the war’s ongoing carnage as a political lever to pass a constitutional amendment that would ban slavery forever.
Lincoln ultimately concluded that ending slavery was worth the tangible price of patronage jobs for defeated congressmen and the less tangible, yet much greater, price of the additional misery that resulted from prolonging the war through the winter of 1865. In reaching this decision, Lincoln came a long way from his position at the war’s outset, in which he would have been content to let slavery persist in some form across much of the nation if it would have prevented the South from seeking to secede.
Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union by any means necessary once war broke out. Within weeks, he suspended the right of habeas corpus - the ability of judges to review whether a person is held in custody legally - in the crucial border state of Maryland, and in the northwestern territories. The following year, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus nationwide. He did this without approval from Congress, although the constitutional provision permitting habeas corpus to be suspended in time of rebellion is listed among the powers of the legislature, rather than of the executive.
Lincoln also authorized military custody and trials of “all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of United States.”
When Chief Justice Roger Taney (sitting as a circuit judge, as was then the custom) ordered the government to produce a Confederate-sympathizing Marylander, John Merryman, who had been confined at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Lincoln and the Army ignored Taney’s order. Lincoln was denounced as a tyrant in his own time, by Northern as well as Southern opponents. But he had the benefit of strong popular backing amid a war that, initially, did not go well for the Union, rallying Northerners to their own defense. He won the war, abolished slavery (which was already as anachronistic as it was incompatible with the country’s democratic ideals), and died a martyr’s death. All these facts assured Lincoln’s place in America’s pantheon of heroes.
Morsi may see himself in Lincolnesque terms. A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed for decades under a series of autocratic secular governments, Morsi is the first Egyptian president to be elected in a reasonably open and fair popular vote. A solid majority of Egyptians backed Islamist candidates and parties in the first election after the 2011 fall of former strongman Hosni Mubarak. Yet a judiciary consisting largely of Mubarak appointees suspended the elected Parliament and a convention that was called to draft a new constitution.
A second convention was close to completing its work when Morsi announced that he would rule by decree, without any avenue for judicial review, until the new constitution came into force. Morsi maintains that he acted to prevent the anti-Islamist judiciary from nullifying the second constitutional assembly and sending the process back to square one.
Though Morsi may have expected strong public backing, given the Islamists’ robust electoral showing, his decree provoked a sharp backlash from the judiciary and from secular Egyptians who were not happy about the Islamists’ political strength. Three of Morsi’s top aides resigned, his own justice minister called for Morsi’s decree to be scaled back, and the judiciary threatened a nationwide strike.
Such a backlash may have been inevitable in a country which has been governed for the last six decades by “presidents” who entrenched themselves as pharaohs for life. Lincoln’s actions might have provoked speeches and leaflets in protest, but Lincoln never had to deal with opponents with access to Facebook and Twitter.
For Lincoln, the end ultimately justified the means, and the end he brought was a good one apart from his own untimely demise. Perhaps Morsi does hope to become Egypt’s next Mubarak, but there is also a decent chance that he, like Lincoln, believes he is acting in the best interest of his nation.
Morsi and Lincoln each came to power at a historic turning point for their countries. Each chose to wield his power as forcefully as he could muster.
Watch “Lincoln” for what it tells us about our own past. Watch Egypt for what it tells us about leaders who might try to be Lincoln in our present.