Egypt giveth and Egypt taketh away.
Last Wednesday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was being hailed—at home and abroad—for playing a central role in bringing an uneasy truce to the Gaza Strip after six days of violence between Israel and Palestinian extremist groups. A day later, however, Morsi’s diplomatic achievement was overshadowed when the president issued a decree that endowed himself with unprecedented powers, precipitating a full-blown political crisis with angry demonstrations taking place in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Damanhur, Ismailia and other cities. Morsi may be elected, but unlike even his deposed predecessor, he is suddenly accountable to no one.
The magnitude of Morsi’s miscalculation depends on how the current spasm of unrest plays out, but the question remains what led Egypt’s new leader, who has proven to be a deft political operator until now, to make his decree. The Twittersphere has determined that this was nothing more than a power grab for an organization that has waited patiently for eight decades to control Egypt—which it was—but there is more to the story.
Looked at one way, Morsi and the Brothers clearly thought that the decree would bolster the Brotherhood’s revolutionary credibility. That sounds awfully strange given what the January 25 uprising was all about—dignity, accountability, sovereignty of the people—and the practical political effects of the declaration. Yet from the Brotherhood’s perspective, they are working to clear out the remnants of the old regime that are impeding progress. After all, not too long ago, Mubarak-era judges were the problem, not the avatars of democracy. Shielding the president and the Constituent Assembly from the machinations of hated feloul judges, who were responsible for dissolving Egypt’s first freely and fairly elected parliament, would play well in Tahrir. Wouldn’t it? The president’s powers are temporary anyway—a necessary measure to ensure that the promise of the uprising would be realized.
The problem is, the surest pathway to democratic politics is to support democracy.
No one doubted that there would be setbacks in Egypt’s transition, but Morsi and his Brothers have failed to grasp that after 60 years of suffering under strongmen, Egyptians will not tolerate authoritarian detours in the name of democracy. Wasn’t the State of Emergency temporary? Weren’t Mubarak and the National Democratic Party always employing authoritarian measures “to prepare the country for democracy”? For the Egyptians who have turned out into the streets to protest Morsi’s decree, it all seems depressingly familiar, right down to the violence the government has employed to suppress them.
This is a critical moment in Egypt’s transition; Morsi and his colleagues would do well to recognize that, rescind the decrees, and commit themselves to the democratic process. At this point, it is the only way for the Brothers to burnish their revolutionary credentials.