Morsi, Dictatorship and the Roman Republic: Turning Morsi into Cincinnatus

Nov 25

Morsi, as a result of his recent constitutional declaration, has been accused of attempting to acquire dictatorial powers.  The Roman Republic, however, instituted dictatorship as a regular constitutional tool to deal with war time emergency.  Does the Roman Republic’s institutionalization of the dictatorship provide any lessons for the current Egyptian transition?

The Roman constitution provided that during wartime emergencies, the city, which was normally governed by three consuls, could delegate power to oversee the wartime effort to a dictator, who would wield absolute power over the city’s war-making policies.  Samuel Issacharoff of New York University School of Law has written about the Roman institution of the dictator in the following terms:

In times of emergency, consuls could appoint dictators for terms of
precisely one year. The power of the dictator, however, was limited; he could
not restructure the laws of governance, nor could he limit the standing power
of the Senate or of the citizenry.

The Romans used the dictator to insure that wartime policies were not corrupted by the ambition of factions or the misguided ambition of the mob.  At the same time, the wielder of the exceptional power had to be a person different than the person who declared the emergency justifying suspension of the normal institutional exercise of public powers (in the Roman case, that meant the Senate and the Consuls).

The situation in Egypt differs somewhat from that in the Roman Republic inasmuch as the emergency in Egypt is largely a result of the absence of “laws of governance.”  I doubt that many Egyptians would disagree with President Morsi that there is a genuine emergency; however, the problem is that there is no party in Egypt right now that can credibly play the role of the Roman dictator of old: an outsider to the rough and tumble of partisan politics and thus can be trusted by all parties to wield absolute power in a neutral and dispassionate matter, exclusively for the public good.  Accordingly, when Nathan Brown suggested that Morsi may yet turn into Egypt’s Cincinnatus, he was making an allusion to the kind of heroic political character that dictatorial power requires for it to be used successfully.  Yet, the ancient Romans appointed dictators approximately 95 times during three centuries of the history of the Roman Republic, and they almost invariably observed the limitations on their appointment, i.e., they did not become lifetime dictators, but stepped down when their terms came to a conclusion.

When we compare Morsi’s decree to the Roman Republic’s institutionalized dictatorship, we detect some similarities, but more importantly, some crucial differences.  Morsi’s decree is tantalizingly short, perhaps lasting only as little as three months, but if no constitution is adopted, his term as dictator could be open-ended.  Indeed, if one were cynical, one might say that it would be in Morsi’s interest to scuttle any possible constitutional agreement since by doing so, he would maintain his position as dictator.  Whether that is true is beside the point: because it appears that it would be in his interest to do so, his opponents will no doubt assume that his motivations are not those of Cincinnatus.

The problem facing Morsi, assuming that he is genuinely a would be Cincinnatus, is how to signal credibly to a deeply divided country that not only does he not wish to be a dictator for life, but that he cannot do so?  The Romans solved that problem in advance by limiting the dictator’s term to one year, and only allowing a person outside the ordinary government to assume the post.  But Morsi is already a government insider, indeed, the President, so that option is foreclosed.

What is not foreclosed, however, is appointing an outside party to insure that his emergency powers come to an end when the constitutional crisis passes.  It is here, perhaps, that Morsi could draw on the lessons of the Roman Republic to establish a special court made up of a cross-section of political figures across the political spectrum who will have the authority to determine the end of the emergency and thus terminate the extraordinary powers granted to him under the latest decrees to take all necessary steps to defend the revolution and insulating his decisions from judicial review.  The Romans attempted to insure that the dictator would be impartial and not abuse his power by requiring that the dictator be someone different than the official or officials who declared the emergency and by limiting his term to one year.  Morsi could create the same institutional protections against abuse, or the perception of abuse of these dictatorial powers, by appointing an outside monitoring board with the power to terminate the special powers he claimed for himself pursuant to his most recent decrees.

Outlining the powers of this supervisory board, and the framework within which it will operate would not be an easy task, but it would be useful because Egypt, for so long as it remains without a constitution, is in a liminal state, existing between law and no law, so what is needed is accountability combined with flexibility and speed of decision-making.  Creating such an independent body to monitor the exercise of emergency powers, and whether the justification for the continued use  of emergency powers is warranted, would go a long way to solving the current crisis.

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