The day after garnering international prestige through brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt undid his reputation by granting himself far-reaching powers, essentially making himself the new dictator of Egypt. In other words, a Pharaoh.
Egypt’s president on Thursday issued constitutional amendments granting himself far-reaching powers and ordering the retrial of leaders of Hosni Mubarak’s regime for the killing of protesters in last year’s uprising.
Mohammed Morsi decreed immunity for the panel drafting a new constitution from any possible court decisions to dissolve it. He granted the same protection to the upper chamber of parliament, which is largely toothless. Both bodies are dominated by Morsi’s Islamist allies.
The Egyptian leader also decreed that all decisions he has made since taking office in June and until a new constitution is adopted are not subject to appeal in court or by any other authority, a move that places Morsi above oversight of any kind. He already has legislative powers after the powerful lower chamber was dissolved days before he took office June 30.
Morsi also on Thursday fired the country’s top prosecutor by decreeing with immediate effect that he could only stay in office for four years. Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud has been in the job for close to a decade. Morsi fired Mahmoud for the first time in October, but had to rescind his decision when he found that the powers of his office do not empower him to do so.
Opposition figure and Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei wrote on his Twitter account that “Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh. A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences.”
The body representing Egypt’s judges called on Saturday for an immediate strike in all courts and prosecutors offices in protest against President Mohamed Morsi’s decree expanding his powers.
At a meeting in Cairo, the Judges Club called on Morsi to retract the decree and to reinstate Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, the Hosni Mubarak-era prosecutor general who was sacked as part of the decision unveiled on Thursday.
Earlier on Saturday, Egypt’s highest body of judges slammed Morsi’s decision, calling the move an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary.
In a statement carried on Egypt’s official MENA news agency, the Supreme Judicial Council condemned this week’s declaration by President Mohammed Morsi placing his decrees above judicial review until a new constitution and parliament is in place, several months if not more in the future.
Meanwhile, prominent opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said there could be no dialogue with Morsi until he rescinded the “dictatorial” decree that he said gave him the powers of a pharaoh.
“There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says ‘let us split the difference’,” El Baradei said in an interview with Reuters and the Associated Press after talks with other opposition figures.
Egyptian jurists were not the only ones to protest Morsi’s move. The US and Europe both “expressed concern” (I’m sure that has him shaking in his boots) at his power-grab:
The U.S. State Department issued a statement on Friday reflecting international “concerns” over Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s recent power grab.
In a statement sent to reporters a day after Morsi granted himself far-reaching powers, including immunity from judicial oversight, the State Department called for a new Egyptian constitution with a strong system of checks and balances.
The statement read: “The decisions and declarations announced on November 22 raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community. One of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution. The current constitutional vacuum in Egypt can only be resolved by the adoption of a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights, and the rule of law consistent with Egypt’s international commitments. We call for calm and encourage all parties to work together and call for all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue.”
The European Union has echoed U.S. concerns over Morsi’s actions. In a report on Egypt’s Ahram Online, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was quoted as saying: “It is of utmost importance that democratic process be completed in accordance with the commitments undertaken by the Egyptian leadership.”
So what caused Morsi to act as he did when he did?
Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel posits that Morsi understood that the White House is detaching from the Middle East and therefore he perceived an opportunity to act:
Perhaps it should not surprise, then, that the day after the signing of the ceasefire and the heaping of American praise, Morsi issued a presidential decree declaring his decisions as president are no longer subject to judicial review until a new Egyptian constitution is adopted.
A few commentators on the American right have pointed to the embrace of Morsi and suggested it marks an Obama administration that is weak in confronting the Middle East’s Islamists.
But if weakness in the face of Islamists was the problem, it’s strange that the Obama administration, along with hundreds of American leaders from across the political spectrum, was adamant and vocal throughout the crisis in its support of Israel, and placed the onus for the violence squarely on Hamas’s shoulders.
Indeed, Obama’s embrace of Israel was so complete that Jewish Democrats went to the trouble of celebrating it in a press release that seemed to continue the bruising election spat with Jewish Republicans over which party supported Israel more.
“We are proud to see that the Obama Administration has forcefully condemned Hamas’s terrorist attacks and reiterated its support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” the National Jewish Democratic Council declared last week. “We are also deeply gratified to see that President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres conferred about the situation this afternoon — an action that is a testament to the deep strength of the US-Israel relationship.”
But the partisan repartee seemed to miss the key shift in American policy that explained both Obama’s embrace of Morsi and his unconditional support for Netanyahu.
Simply put: Obama is walking away
Boaz Bismuth in Yisrael Hayom concurs with this basic hypothesis but thinks that Morsi might have miscalculated:
During his work to help bring about a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the West got to know Dr. Mohammed Morsi. A mere 24 hours later, the West was introduced to Mr. Hyde.
What, then, can the White House do now? It can criticize the good doctor, and hope for the best. The White House doesn’t want any shake-ups, and has made this clear to the Egyptian military. Sometimes the ultimate value is democracy, other times it is stability and maintaining vital interests.
On Tuesday, however, everyone will meet once again at Tahrir Square in Cairo. On one side, the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi; on the other side, all the rest.
The clashes that have erupted in Egypt this time are about power, legitimacy and vision. The president’s secular and liberal rivals, namely Mohammed El-Baradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahy, have a problem: Morsi’s legitimacy comes from the people following democratic elections and a tailwind from the White House, which Mubarak lacked. What Morsi doesn’t have, however, is the Tahrir legacy. The Muslim Brotherhood benefited from the chaos.
This is the reason that Morsi chose on Thursday to wrap his unacceptable presidential decrees in logical decisions.
The firing of the attorney-general, one of Mubarak’s people, and the decision to reopen cases for those suspected of killing protesters, is not a problem. The problem is with the extra decrees that position Morsi above the law.
Was it worth it for Morsi – the “pragmatist,” the “fighter for peace,” the “statesman” – to spoil, in one day, all the superlatives that were showered on him on Wednesday? For his part, the answer is yes, because his main interest is to protect the constitutional draft committee, which will shape the new Egypt.
Egypt’s constitutional draft committee has no Coptic representatives, nor does it have anyone from the April 6 Youth Movement, the young people who started the revolution to unseat Mubarak.
Morsi miscalculated the public’s outrage and the judiciary system’s resentment that his anti-democratic decrees would cause. In cities like Alexandria, Ismailia, and Port Said, Muslim Brotherhood offices were vandalized.
On the other hand, it is possible that Morsi has received an insurance policy allowing him to act precisely according to what was expected of him – as the “new pharaoh dictator.”
White House officials have apparently internalized that an Islamic dictator has replaced a secular dictator in Egypt. Perhaps it is because of this that U.S. criticism of Morsi this weekend came from the State Department and not the White House.
Elder of Ziyon has a roundup of all the protests taking place across Egypt, and he also points us to Barry Rubin’s excellent analysis of President Morsi’s move, the timing, and international reaction. Some excerpts:
The timing of this takeover is ironic since it coincides with an all-time high for the Obama administration’s regard for Egypt, following that regime’s brokering of an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, including a continuous insistence from the U.S. government and mass media that the Brotherhood was now moderate and pro-democratic. In a normal universe, a U.S. president would be furious at Egypt for being made to look foolish after lavishing so much praise on Egypt and its insistence that the Brotherhood was moderate and democratic. Of course, that will not happen with this administration.
It is true that Mursi acted “pragmatically” on the ceasefire issue. But what does that mean? He took into account his own regime interests and didn’t just howl “Alahu Akhbar!” repeatedly.
But the main problems Mursi is focused on is how to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power, how to get lots of money from the West, and how to make Egypt into a radical Islamist state. Enforcing quiet in the Gaza Strip right now is part of that effort.
Being the main sponsor of Hamas, a terrorist group, used to be called “state sponsorship of terrorism,” now it is to be admired as being, in the New York Times formulation, Hamas’s “most important international ally.” Another interesting parallel is that Hamas, like the fellow Brotherhood branch in Egypt, won an election and then seized power completely. Things in Egypt have not yet gone that far, but Mursi has taken a big step in that direction.
At home, it has taken only a few weeks for Mursi to return to dictatorship. The decree comes as secular-minded groups demonstrate in the Tahrir Square area while the Islamists call for suppressing them.
Mursi’s offensive seeks to give him the power to purge existing institutions and put supporters in control.
Perhaps the highest priority is to take over the court system by appointing Islamist judges.
The other key institutions are the armed forces, where top generals have already resigned, and the religious establishment. While the chiefs of Egypt’s religious system, including the powerful mosque-university al-Azhar, are hardly liberal, they are also not systematic Islamists or Brotherhood supporters. Once such people are replaced with loyalists, the Brotherhood will have the power to define Islam itself.
The Egyptian regime’s cooperation on a Gaza ceasefire, then, was in large part intended to defuse any reaction against its movement toward dictatorship at home. It is doubtful, for example, that the Obama administration will condemn the new decree giving Mursi total power in the country. And Egypt will get almost $10 billion in aid from the United States, European Union, and International Monetary Fund, even as it becomes a repressive, Islamist state.
Morsi’s moves and Egypt’s actions now seem a bit clearer in the light of what Barry Rubin writes. What still remains a mystery is why Israel acceded to Egypt being the peace-broker between itself and Hamas.