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Protests Erupt in Egypt as Morsi Claims Wide-Ranging Powers

Violent protests erupted in Cairo and several other large Egyptian cities today, a day after President Morsi claimed what amounts to an almost absolute set of powers. According to the first reports, offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political offshoot the Freedom and Justice Party in Cairo, Ismailia, Port Said, and Suez have been set on fire by rioters. Brotherhood supporters turned out into the streets, fighting for Morsi with rocks and fists.

It’s too early to tell how big these protests will be, and whether the Brotherhood or its critics will prevail on the streets, but in a country as volatile as Egypt today, almost anything can happen. Casualties have been reported in Cairo. People are flooding back into Tahrir Square. The only Coptic Christian in Morsi’s government resigned as a result of Morsi’s “coup.” There is talk of a million-man march of protest.

What’s going on? The Washington Post reports:

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi took extensive new powers for himself Thursday, freeing his decisions from judicial review and ordering retrials for former top officials, including ex-president Hosni Mubarak.

The decree, issued a day after Morsi won international praise for fostering a cease-fire in Gaza, appears to leave few if any checks on his power. The president said all of the decisions he has made since he took office in June — and until a new constitution is adopted and a parliament elected — were final and not subject to appeal or review. […]

“Morsi today usurped all state powers & appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh,” wrote former liberal presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei on Twitter. “A major blow to the revolution that cld have dire consequences.”

And the LA Times:

Morsi fired Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak-era holdover often criticized for not aggressively pursuing members of the old regime. The president tried to get rid of Mahmoud last month but relented, embarrassed, after an uproar from judges criticizing him for maneuvering to silence an independent judiciary.

This was a bold step by Morsi and his Muslim Brothers. Capitalizing on international praise for his important role in arranging a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, Morsi is seeking to cement the Muslim Brotherhood’s control on the government and Egypt’s political future—the constitution-writing body, dominated by Islamists, cannot be dismissed, according to the new decree.

In reality, Morsi already had largely unchecked political power since his government sidelined the army back in August. This new decree only formally establishes what were unofficially presidential powers already. But in Morsi’s actions we can see a number of political calculations: the removal of powerful remnants of the past regime, the solidification of the Brotherhood’s control over the political future of Egypt, and until the constitution is written, total control by the president over the country. Morsi appears to have calculated that the recent goodwill he received from the US and Israel will prevent international criticism of these actions.

Clearly Morsi is making a bid for great personal power. Ultimately his success or failure will hinge less on what Egypt’s largely ineffectual liberals think than on what the military decides.

Their attitudes are hard for outsiders to read. In Morsi’s favor, Egyptian generals have been comfortable with a strongly presidential republic back to Nasser’s time and the generals were less offended by Mubarak’s abuses of power than by his apparent determination to pass the presidency on to his son.

It also appears that the younger officers have been influenced by the rise of Islamic piety in Egyptian society generally, and so are less worried about the influence of religion in the state. Many may in fact prefer Morsi to Mubarak and be willing to back strong presidential power in his hands.

Many people in Egypt may also be thinking that what the country needs above all these days is a strong hand. The economy is a disaster and continued dissension and power struggles aren’t helping. Foreign investment, domestic flight capital and tourists are unlikely to return until the country stabilizes, and thousands of years of Egyptian history suggest that stability comes when the ruler is strong.

On the other hand, the Egyptian military has to be looking at what has happened in Turkey, where Islamists have largely dismantled the special position that the Turkish armed forces used to have in that republic. Morsi has what neither Mubarak nor Sadat did—a powerful base of support outside the control of the military. Some will fear a concentration of personal and institutional power in his hands, and they will have links to the business elite who also fear more sweeping changes in the status quo. The Muslim Brotherhood in recent years has been building up a powerful counter-establishment outside the formal business and political structures of the Mubarak era, and what we see now is in part a further working out of the rivalry between the old Egyptian establishment and the new one. The military, and especially the senior officers, were very comfortably plugged in to the old establishment; the Egyptian military controls chunks of the economy and will be interested, one assumes, to preserve those privileges.

The Obama administration may face some tough choices. A pragmatic working relationship with Morsi might make a lot of sense even if he turns out to be bent on establishing himself above the law, but the many Wilsonians in the administration who have supported the Arab Spring in the belief that it was a genuine democratic upsurge will be deeply disappointed. President Obama has linked himself closely to both Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Egyptian President Morsi, arguing that the embrace of democratic Islamists is a way to promote democratic change and strengthen America’s relationships in the Middle East.

But what if Erdogan and Morsi turn out not to be very democratic? Will the United States have sold out some reliable if unattractive old friends in exchange for equally unattractive new people who are also less reliable?

The Middle East continues to perplex.

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