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.