“Egypt’s justice minister said today that a resolution was ‘imminent’ to the political crisis over President Mohammed Morsi’s decision to grant himself sweeping new powers, a move that has touched off days of violent street protests,” AP reports:
But sources close to the president insist that he will not rescind his power-consolidating decree, while Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has called for a million-man march to support what’s been described as an ‘Islamist coup‘, a power-grab that many observers fear could be the precursor to a new dictatorship.
“We, as citizens, no longer have safeguards for our freedoms and rights,” Amr Hamzawy, a former member of the dissolved parliament, told CNN on Sunday.
Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt’s first elected president, portrayed his decree as an attempt to fulfill popular demands for justice and protect the transition to a constitutional democracy, The New York Times reports. But the unexpected breadth of the powers he seized raised immediate fears that he might become a new strongman. Seldom in history has a post-revolutionary leader amassed so much personal power only to relinquish it swiftly.
“An absolute presidential tyranny,” Hamzawy, a prominent political scientist and a co-founder of Egypt’s Freedom Party, wrote in an online commentary. “Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition.”
What may otherwise have been accepted as a temporary technical maneuver to facilitate the transition has proved to be a move too far in Egypt’s febrile, polarized political climate, analysts suggest.
“Morsi appears to have overlooked that Egypt is divided down the middle, with those against him convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood is using democratic means to create another authoritarian state and impose its Islamist agenda,” writes Roula Khalaf:
In the presidential election only a few months ago, many of those who voted for his opponent – Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq – were not against last year’s revolution but rather feared for its fate under a Brotherhood presidency.
Mr Morsi might not have the intention of holding on to his overwhelming powers. But he has certainly managed to feed his opponents’ worst fears.
“Distrust is one of the pillars of this crisis,” says Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in Arab politics at the University of Exeter:
For all of Mr Morsi’s promise that his actions are temporary and necessary to build a democracy, Mr Ashour notes that once you start down this path, it usually takes you to dictatorship, not democracy.
George Washington University professor Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert, wrote that the decree’s “overall message might be summed up: ‘I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still. But don’t worry – it’s just for a little while’”.
Ordinary citizens are outraged by Morsi’s moves, veteran rights activist Hisham Kassem* tells VOA.
“People are furious all over……people who are normally not politicized, but see what is coming,” said Kassem, a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy:
Kassem noted that some Egyptians are questioning the timing of Morsi’s move to grant himself sweeping new powers, following his successful effort Wednesday to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas. He points out that some analysts think the president may have felt empowered by U.S. and Western praise over his role in that conflict.
The popular pushback against Morsi’s decree by many Egyptians and their “unwillingness to accept Morsi’s diktat are positive signs of the vitality of Egypt’s vibrant, ornery and contentious new politics,” Marc Lynch writes in Foreign Policy. “It shows yet again that there is no going back to the old patterns of Egyptian or Arab politics.”
According to political scientist Rabab al Mahdi, the powers the president awarded himself are beyond what is necessary to protect nascent elected institutions from a hostile judiciary.
“The edict gives him the authority to issue any decision he deems necessary to protect the revolution, national unity and the institutions of the state,” she said. “This leads to dictatorship and it is fascist. We have now reached a turning point that will decide what political system we have for decades.”
The Obama administration should remain “flexible” and not jump to premature conclusions, says a prominent analyst.
“We should do what’s been working for two years, more or less: Speak softly, stay flexible, keep to certain minimal red lines, but otherwise understand that things will be uneven and ugly at times,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon. “I’m not sure [Morsi] made the wrong call. The real test is whether he relinquishes the extra powers down the road as promised.”
Whatever Morsi’s motivation, the effort to end any prospect of judicial challenge would remove “whatever checks and balances exist in Egypt at this point,” said Michele Dunne, a former member of the National Security Council staff under President Obama.
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Morsi has overreached, and that he did so partly on the strength of his recent diplomatic victory in Gaza,” said Dunne, now director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She noted that Morsi had previously tried and failed to confront the judiciary in a tussle over the dissolution of Egypt’s parliament.
“He has ended up having to back down, but he keeps trying,’’ said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Morsi has argued that the decree will be rescinded once a new constitution is agreed, but he will have still consolidated more power than his predecessor, says Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“By the time you get that new constitution, it will have been written by an Islamist-dominated assembly that all non-Islamists have completely abandoned, and the new parliamentary elections will likely exclude members of the former ruling party who posed the greatest threat to his authority,” Trager told CNN.
Morsi also ordered new trials and new investigations involving the deaths of protesters during last year’s pro-democracy uprising, which Trager said will “very clearly” be used to go after major figures from the former ruling party. Some of them are in fact corrupt, he said, but others may not have been.
“The premise of the president’s plan was sound. There was a need for him to get more involved in the constitutional debate and address some of the opposition’s concerns, writes Issandr El Amrani.
Where Mr Morsi overstepped is that he formally gave himself open-ended powers to make decrees that are immune from judicial oversight (therefore barring any legal recourse against them), giving himself licence to do pretty much anything else he pleases in the name of national security. ….Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation – the Muslim Brotherhood – mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse.
Some of the reasons for public mistrust of the Brotherhood can be discerned from the experience of those most familiar with the group’s true nature and inner workings:
Abd al-Galil al-Sharnubi says he can only laugh at the thought that there are people in the West who still see the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate Islamists.” Sharnubi is a journalist and a Muslim — and he was a member of the Brotherhood for 23 years. He’s been familiar with the movement since he was 14, and he says that the Brotherhood could be the kiss of death for democracy in Egypt.
Last year, Sharnubi, 38, left the Islamist organization. Since then, he tells Der Spiegel that his life has become a nightmare. “They tried to turn my family against me,” says Sharnubi. He’s sitting in a Cairo coffeehouse, keeping a careful eye on the front door: “They went to my home town and spread rumors about me, saying that I’ve become an atheist and that I drink alcohol. They told my wife that I frequent prostitutes.”
As the former editor in chief of Ikhwan Online, the brotherhood’s website, Sharnubi went public shortly after his resignation. In talk shows he warned his fellow Egyptians that the movement was undemocratic and authoritarian, and that leading Muslim Brothers were no less corrupt than politicians from the old regime.
Sharnubi barely survived such an attack on Nov. 2. Two masked men forced his car off the road and shot at him with automatic pistols until help arrived. There was never an investigation, but he says he knows who was behind the attack.
* Recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2007 award for his contribution to media freedom.