Egypt’s President Grants Himself Dictatorial Powers

Just five months after assuming office as the first elected leader of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi has begun to show signs of the same authoritarianism that Tahrir Square protesters were trying to get rid of nearly two years ago:

CAIRO — With a constitutional assembly on the brink of collapse and protesters battling the police in the streets over the slow pace of change, President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree on Thursday granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt‘s revolution, and used his new authority to order the retrial of Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. 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. But the unexpected breadth of the powers he seized raised immediate fears that he might become a new strongman. Seldom in history has a postrevolutionary leader amassed so much personal power only to relinquish it swiftly.

“An absolute presidential tyranny,” Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of the dissolved Parliament and prominent political scientist, 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.”

Mr. Morsi issued the decree at a high point in his five-month-old presidency, when he was basking in praise from the White House and around the world for his central role in negotiating a cease-fire that the previous night had stopped the fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

But his political opponents immediately called for demonstrations on Friday to protest his new powers. “Passing a revolutionary demand within a package of autocratic decisions is a setback for the revolution,” Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a more liberal former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former presidential candidate, wrote online. And the chief of the Supreme Constitutional Court indicated that it did not accept the decree.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said, “We are seeking more information about President Morsi’s decisions and declarations today, which have raised concerns.”

Mr. Morsi’s advisers portrayed the decree as an attempt to cut through the deadlock that has stalled Egypt’s convoluted political transition more than 20 months after President Mubarak’s ouster. Mr. Morsi’s more political opponents and the holdover judicial system, they argued, were sabotaging the transition to thwart the Islamist majority.

The liberal and secular opposition has repeatedly threatened to boycott the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly. (It is led by Mr. Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Members were picked by Parliament, where Islamists won a nearly three-quarters majority.) And as the assembly nears a deadline set under an earlier interim transition plan, most secular members and the representatives of the Coptic Church have walked out, costing it up to a quarter of its 100 members and much of its legitimacy.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Constitutional Court — which Mr. Mubarak had tried to stack with loyalists and where a few judges openly fear Islamists — is poised to issue a decision that could dissolve the current assembly and require a new one. Another high court already dissolved an earlier assembly and, on the eve of Mr. Morsi’s election in June, the Constitutional Court also dissolved Parliament, in each case citing technical issues of eligibility.

After the dissolution of Parliament, leaders of the council of generals who had ruled since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster seized all legislative power and control of the budget.

But in August, Mr. Morsi won the backing of many other generals and officers for a decree that returned the army to its barracks and left him in sole control of the government, with executive and legislative authority.

Thursday’s decree frees Mr. Morsi, his decrees and the constitutional assembly from judicial oversight as well.

In a television interview, Mr. Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, stressed that the expanded powers would last only until the ratification of a new constitution in a few months, calling the decree “an attempt to end the transitional period as soon as possible.”

Pardon me, and apparently many of Morsi’s political opponents, for being skeptical about that last part. Powers like this, once assumed, are seldom surrendered, and this is just the latest example of Morsi concentrating power in his hands. There are reports this morning of protests in Cairo and other major cities by people who are beginning to realize that they may have replaced one dictator with another. How far Morsi is able to get with this will depend, in the end, on the Egyptian people and the military.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    The Muslim Brotherhood has overplayed its hand..

  2. Various actions of the military post-Mubarak to this (and several actions in between) can all be linked to the improper sequencing of the transition, i.e., the lack of constitutional order to structure and contain the process.

    Granted: a new constitution might not have been able to actually successfully function, but at the moment they are playing the game without any rules.

  3. Hang on, let me go get my suprised face.

  4. bandit says:

    Now the Dems can crank up the excuse machine for another tyrant.

  5. Tillman says:

    Morsi seems to be banking on the goodwill he’s gotten from brokering peace between the Gazans and Israelis.

    Who knows, he could turn out to be another Cincinnatus. I’m not betting on it though.

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: This is going to be the real test whether Egypt follows a Turkish model of forcing secularism on the government by military power. I doubt very seriously Morsi’s government will have any more luck controlling popular protests than Mubarak did, given the revolution was driven by secularists then as well.

  7. @Ben Wolf:

    Morsi said in a speech today that Allah decreed that he be the leader of Egypt. I think the odds of Egypt staying secular for very long are pretty low.

  8. @Tillman:

    Based on what I’ve been reading, Obama and Clinton deserve far more credit for negotiating the cease fire than Morsi.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I agree, but I think that path leads to civil war and can’t see the military letting the situation deteriorate to that point.

  10. Whitfield says:

    Are we still sending aid to this country? If so, suspend it until the Joker resigns or forms a democratic government.

  11. @Whitfield:

    Are we still sending aid to this country? If so, suspend it until the Joker resigns or forms a democratic government.

    Our payments are required by the Camp David Accords. Are you saying you wish to abrogate the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel?

  12. Whitfield says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Maybe we need to review these treaties and agreements from time to time. Things change.

  13. An Interested Party says:

    Our payments are required by the Camp David Accords. Are you saying you wish to abrogate the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel?

    Maybe we need to review these treaties and agreements from time to time. Things change.

    Well, if we abrogated that treaty, not only could we suspend payments to Egypt, but also to Israel…I wonder how the settlement of the West Bank by Israelis would go without U.S. money flowing into Israel’s coffers…

  14. Craigo says:

    We may not be able to easily suspend our aid, but the IMF can put some strings on the 4 or 5 billion they conveniently promised to Morsi a few days before he pulled this stunt.