On Friday the Egyptian president unilaterally assumed broad new powers, abrogating unto himself the authority to run his country of 91 million people virtually unchecked until a new constitution is signed by the Egyptian Assembly.
Morsi also ordered that that the Assembly, dominated by Islamists and now at work on the new constitution, could not be dissolved by legal challenges — effectively invalidating the judiciary. Morsi’s decree dismisses Egypt’s Prosecutor General, the head of the judiciary.
“I am for all Egyptians. I will not be biased against any son of Egypt,” Morsi said to an overflow crowd outside the presidential palace on Friday. “I have said before and I repeat again that I would never use the legislation against individuals, parties, men, women or Muslims or Christians for personal gains or to settle scores. ...”
Khaled El-Gindy, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, told CNN that Morsi has taken “full executive and legislative authority, and he has effectively neutralized the third branch of government, which is the judiciary.
“They are now unable to challenge any of his decisions. This is far more sweeping than anything the previous military rulers had done, or that [former president Hosni] Mubarak himself had done.”
But in the short term, it’s fallen on deaf ears; protests are growing right now throughout Egypt, with some violent clashes between police and pro- and anti-Morsi protesters reported in Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, Suez and in Cairo, whose Tahrir Square looked in news video last night eerily similar to the way it looked less than a year ago, when pro-democracy protesters rallied there against Mubarak.
According to CNN, anti-Morsi protesters have been shouting denunciations of Morsi's tactic as “birth of a new pharaoh!” Al Jazeera reports that offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization Morsi used as a springboard to the presidency, have been attacked in at least five cities.
And some hours ago, Al Jazeera reported that Morsi’s presidential aide has resigned.
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ALL IN ALL, it’s a stunningly wrong move by Morsi, president of Egypt since June and a man who just days ago was lionized by opinion leaders and analysts in the region, and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for his masterful role in achieving the truce in Gaza.
“One of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution,” said Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, in a statement.
Beyond Nuland’s focus on Egyptian domestic politics, this complicates things immensely for the Gaza truce. Morsi had pledged to use his influence with Hamas to help keep things calm in Gaza. Now, as Morsai navigates the fallout from an astonishing unforced error, he’ll be distracted from his leading role in the Gaza situation. Whatever leverage he has with Hamas may be diluted by the new domestic unrest in his own house, and of his own making.
Frankly, as a growing number of protesters at home call for his ouster (with the same energy and passion they used to gain the removal of Hosni Mubarak less than five tender months ago), Morsi may be perceived as having no political leverage outside Egypt at all.
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MORSI’S GAMBIT has also aroused worries over possible human rights violations. “We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” Rupert Colville said at the UN in Geneva, as reported by Al Jazeera. “We also fear this could lead to a very volatile situation over the next few days, starting today in fact.”
For one scholar, it’s not necessarily what Morsi did, it’s the way he did it. “The problem is not about the content of the decisions itself, but about the way it was taken,” Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Al Jazeera.
“This is a dangerous situation for the whole country. It is very confusing, because we don't know if we are in the presence of a constitutional declaration, or of a law, or of just administrative degrees.”
There’s been some thought that the protests unfolding may be a temporary thing, a flashpoint with no depth to it, and consistent with previous outbursts by conflicting secular and Islamist camps. El-Gindy begs to differ.
“This time, though, I think there’s something a little bit different in that they are speaking in a much more unified voice. The non-Islamist opposition, for the first time in a very long time, is at least reading from the same sheet of music.”
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BUT WHETHER the reaction to Morsi’s decree is something spasmodic or proof of a deeper, more panoramic frustration with his style of reform almost doesn’t matter. The optics, regionally and internationally, couldn’t be much worse right now.
It’s all riding on how well Morsi makes his play to the Egyptian street. His thunderous speech outside the presidential palace on Friday — with crowds closer to the palace than is usually allowed — showed he still commands a populist touch. Morsi finds himself required now to be as skillful in dancing with his adversaries at home as he was last week as a go-between for Israel and Hamas. Absent that skill, he may well have rendered himself toothless as a symbol of emerging 21st-century Middle Eastern democracy — and done it literally overnight.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Morsi’s bid to consolidate power, however well-intentioned, sets the stage for a rash of unintended consequences. There may be no worst vacuum than the one you make for yourself.
Image credits: Morsi as pharaoh poster: Al Jazeera. Morsi speaks: via PBS Newshour. Street fire: AP/Amira Mortada, El Shorouk. Protesters bottom: Screengrab from The Telegraph (UK)