The climate is tense throughout Egyptian towns and cities. President Muhammad Mursi’s surprise edicts sheltering his executive decisions from oversight and challenge have rocked the nation, pitting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend.
In the eyes of many, the president, who just last week was basking in glory for mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, has gone from hero to zero. Three of his presidential advisers have quit. His own justice minister says he “has reservations” about the decree and complains he wasn’t consulted. Judges, prosecutors, lawyers and journalists are incensed, characterizing the edicts as an attack on the judiciary and “naked aggressions against general freedoms and the rule of law,” threatening to strike unless they are rescinded.
Ideologically disparate opposition parties have been cemented into one bloc called the National Salvation Front by former presidential rivals Mohammed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. ElBaradei warns Mursi to make a speedy U-turn else risk a military takeover. “Million Man” anti-Mursi protests and MB organized counter demonstrations too place Tuesday. The bourse has spoken too; almost 10 percent was wiped off share values on Sunday, the worst drop since it reopened following the Jan. 25 revolution.
Surprisingly, Ahmed Fahmi, chairman of Parliament’s Upper House and an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party, condemned the declaration as having “severely divided the nation” and called upon Mursi to end the crisis. That may be easier said than done now that the president, who was on the point of being recognized as a safe pair of hands, is being criticized by his opponents on the street shouting the familiar refrain “Erhal” (Go!). Why did he do it when he had worked so hard to accrue personal credibility and show that he was, indeed, a president for all Egyptians, regardless of their political and religious beliefs?
In less than six months, Egypt’s new president—the MB’s second choice when its first was deemed non-eligible to run for office—proved he was no “spare” and was internationally acclaimed as a pragmatic statesman. He courted moderate Arab states, was diplomatic when dealing with Western powers and cooled his former fiery rhetoric against Israel. He did the impossible when he wrested control of the armed forces by retiring its chiefs, effectively converting Egypt from a virtual military state into one ruled by a civilian government giving a hefty boost to the country’s fledgling democracy.
His handling of attacks by extremists in the Sinai Peninsula was decisive yet tempered with wisdom and reason. He stood firmly against the Assad regime on Iranian soil, angering his hosts. He was slowly putting the economy back on track—too slowly for some—with the help of aid and loans and defended his application for an IMF loan from Islamists who termed it un-Islamic. Mursi has the potential to be great; he even succeeded in garnering the grudging admiration of diehard skeptics. He could have shown the international community that it had nothing to fear from an Islamist leader in the way the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done. So, what possessed him to throw all that away? That’s the 64 million dollar question Egyptians are pondering today.
Mursi’s position is this. He says his aim is the defense of the revolution’s principles. He insists the expansion of his powers is temporary, set to expire in two months. He says he was compelled to take the action he did to end the impasse among squabbling members of the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. The problem is most liberals and Copts have quit the assembly to protest its domination by Islamists. Mursi also wishes to override a decision by the Egyptian Supreme Judicial Council who ordered the dissolution of Parliament’s elected Lower House (also Islamist dominated), calling the vote unconstitutional; he wants to see Parliament up-and-running.
And to sweeten the pill for great swathes of the country, angered at what they consider to be light sentences handed down to members of Mubarak’s former regime, he sacked the top prosecutor, replaced him with someone more malleable, and ordered re-trials. But for most, that pill wasn’t sweet enough. Revenge may be sweet but sweeter still is the guardianship of democracy for which the blood of Egypt’s youth was spilled. The danger is that if protests turn violent and security forces respond with a heavy hand causing death or injury, Mursi’s moral high ground over his predecessor, suspected of ordering the killing of demonstrators, will dissolve.
Clearly, President Mursi has failed to understand that the placement of the country in the hands of one man is the very antithesis of everything democracy stands for. At the core of any true democratic system is a separation of powers and an independent judiciary. That said it’s not difficult to understand how a leader with a firm belief he has right on his side and he alone knows what’s best for his people could succumb to temptation. George W. Bush once said “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier.” But no democratically-elected president or prime minister anywhere on the planet can wake up one day and decide to be a temporary dictator for the sake of expediency, not even for a day, let alone for months or years. There has to be consultation, discussion, transparency and numerous checks-and-balances for without them a country would be a democracy in name only.
On the streets, in cafes and on Arabic channel talk shows, Mursi’s motives are being debated. Conspiracy theories, some wilder than others, are coming fast and furious. Mursi received the green light from Obama to make these moves as part of the Gaza deal goes one. The Rais wants the authority to turn part of Sinai over to the Palestinians for a state or to the Americans to set up military bases goes another. Liberals are also suspicious that Mursi wants to influence the new constitution’s statutes so that Egypt becomes a de facto Islamist state.
It’s far more likely that President Mursi, bolstered by national and international acclaim, failed to correctly judge the public pulse. He has made a mistake. Sticking to his guns will only compound it. He is softening his stance, saying his open for dialogue, and may be willing to affix an addendum, a two-month time limit, to his edicts. But, this time there will be no U-turning, he says. If that’s so, then the Egyptian people and their elected leader must brace themselves to pay the price.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.