A decree from President Mohamed Morsi is sending shock waves across Egypt, driving hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on Friday back to Tahrir Square and other protest points across the country.
In a decision seen as disturbingly reminiscent of Egypt’s former status quo, Morsi issued a decree Thursday exempting all decisions made since he took office from legal challenge until a new parliament is elected. He also sacked the prosecutor general, an unpopular figure with many Egyptians, for failing to issue harsher sentences against Mubarak regime officials. Morsi also declared that the courts cannot dissolve the committee that is writing the country’s new constitution.
Crowds of protesters greeted the decree on Friday with chants of “Wake up, Morsi, it’s your last day,” and a familiar call from the earliest days of the revolution, “The people want the fall of the regime!” Secular leaders including Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and Mohamed ElBaradei, once political opponents, marched arm in arm in solidarity through the throngs. A Photoshopped image circulated on Facebook of Morsi in a Nazi uniform, raising his hand over the caption “Heil Morsi,” suggesting what protesters see as his desire to create a totalitarian state.
Demonstrations turned violent in a number of cities, including Cairo and Alexandria, and casualties were reported in al-Mahalla, Assiut, and Suez, where shouting matches between pro-and anti-Morsi protesters quickly escalated into clashes. Morsi opponents torched local branches of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi is a loyalist.
The latest upheaval threatens the very concept of reform in a region hungry for change. In the five months since a majority of Egyptian voters just barely elected their first post-revolution president, the Arab world’s most populous nation has been forced to come to terms with a transition seemingly running amok. In some ways, change has come quickly since the revolution’s beginning nearly two years ago. A civilian, Islamist president is in office, two firsts for this ancient society. Voters elected a new parliament, and then that parliament was dissolved. Military generals sought to thwart the transition, and then the generals were dismissed. State media, once gagged by Hosni Mubarak, found its voice—and then lost it once again.
Supporters of Morsi’s new decree say it is geared to speed up the stalled transition, which has been slowed by legal and bureaucratic obstacles. But his opponents insist the decision signals a return to autocracy and underscores the dangers of electing a president before a new constitution is written and ratified.
“Egyptians do want to see fair trials involving former regime defendants, and the declaration is specific on their being retried, and he has increased pensions and compensation for revolution-related victims,” noted Mirette Mabrouk, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “He has, however, succeeded in doing what two years of post-revolution opportunity has not: Egypt’s opposition are finally united—against the declaration.”
The decree is “a major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences,” ElBaradei, a former presidential candidate and one-time head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wrote on Twitter. Morsi “usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh.”
Speaking to a crowd of predominantly Islamist supporters outside the Presidential Palace after Friday prayers, Morsi said he stands with his supporters, as well as with his opponents. “I will not be biased toward one group against the other,” he said, standing before the group of cheering spectators. “My goal is stability, self-sufficiency for the people and the country, and a democratic power transition.”
In August, Morsi came through on one of his initial promises as president, sacking the head of the military—Egypt’s de facto ruler through the transition period—and several key members of the distrusted Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Days before the presidential election, the top generals had issued a decree dissolving the country’s Islamist-dominated parliament, a move many described as a “soft coup.”
“This could speed up the inevitable, which seems to be a showdown between the [Muslim] Brotherhood and their detractors,” said Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at the National Defense University. “Surely, many of the regular folks find this sort of behavior déjà vu all over again. However, not even Mubarak would have pulled this sort of stunt.”
The decree comes just after Morsi earned his first stripes as a regional power player on Wednesday, mediating a truce between Israel and Hamas following eight days of deadly cross-border fighting. The ceasefire calls for Israel to lift its naval blockade of Gaza and open all border crossings, with Hamas agreeing to end the smuggling of weapons and ammunition from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into Gaza.
Morsi “might have been banking on the success of his intervention in Gaza to quell anger and worry, but it is unlikely to work,” said Mabrouk. “What Morsi has done is set himself above any other institution in the country. No one knows what havoc the struggle between the executive and judiciary might wreak, but it’s potentially worrying.”