Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi can at least get a prize for brazenness. Just last Wednesday he was being praised by the Obama administration for his “practical” role in working out a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. “This was somebody focused on solving problems,” a “senior administration official” admiringly told the New York Times.
The very next day, Thursday, Morsi engaged in a different kind of “problem solving”—taking steps to steamroll the opposition and move a big step closer to totalitarian rule for himself and his Muslim Brotherhood.
A decree issued by Morsi on that day shields his decisions from judicial review and effectively puts him beyond the law. It gives the same kind of protection to the lower house of parliament—which is dominated by Islamists who are writing Egypt’s new constitution and had been facing legal challenges; and similarly insulates the Islamist-controlled upper house of parliament.
Morsi also ordered retrials of officials from the previous Mubarak regime who were charged with violence in putting down the 2011 Tahrir Square-centered rebellion—including the 84-year-old Mubarak himself, even though he was already sentenced to life in prison.
Since Egyptians learned of the decree on Friday morning, the country has erupted in a way not seen since the 2011 revolt itself.
On Friday violent protests rocked Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez. By Saturday Egypt’s judicial establishment was in an uproar. Reuters reported that “the Judges’ Club, a body representing judges across Egypt, called for a strike during a meeting interrupted with chants demanding the ‘downfall of the regime’ – the rallying cry in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year….”
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called Morsi a “dictator impos[ing] the most oppressive, abhorrent measures” and said he was “waiting to see, I hope soon, a very strong statement of condemnation by the U.S., by Europe and by everybody who really cares about human dignity.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did come through with a statement. Far from condemning Morsi so soon after Washington had elevated him to statesman, it called for “a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights, and the rule of law consistent with Egypt’s international commitments”—in other words, replete with the very delusions that had led the administration to view the Muslim Brotherhood as a democratic force in the first place.
Things were no quieter on Sunday. Egypt’s stock market plunged by almost 10 percent—the worst since the heyday of the anti-Mubarak uprising in February last year. AP reported that
hundreds of protesters clashed with police in…Tahrir Square, marking the third day of violence sparked by…Morsi’s decision to grant himself extensive new powers…. Riot police used tear gas as protesters hurled rocks toward them in the center of the square….
With both opposition groups and the Muslim Brotherhood calling for massive rallies on Tuesday, a situation that could spin out of control, a clearly alarmed Morsi backtracked somewhat, issuing a statement that last week’s decree was of a “temporary nature” and “not meant to concentrate powers,” claiming a commitment to an “inclusive democratic dialogue.”
The next few days will tell whether, despite Morsi’s effort to calm the storm, Egypt is on the brink of a revolt somewhat analogous to the abortive 2009 revolt against the Islamist regime in Tehran. At that time President Barack Obama committed one of the gravest failures of his first term by not backing the antiregime forces. Considering how politically invested Washington is in Morsi and the Brotherhood, there is not much ground for optimism—should a comparable situation take shape—this time around either.
Still, whatever the degree of Western support or lack of support, those still hoping for a Middle East not entirely swept away by radicalism can only be encouraged by the powerful anti-Morsi, anti-Brotherhood winds now blowing in Egypt.
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