For Egypt’s Sake, Morsi Must Slow Down

Last year’s revolution is in danger of being destroyed by poor judgment, power grabs, and violence.

In this Friday, July 13, 2012 photo, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi holds a joint news conference with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, unseen, at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt.
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When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office and succeeded by the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, it was described as the democratic election of a totalitarian government. President Morsi, former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, didn't take long to validate that assessment. The decree he sprung on the world on November 22, violently convulsing Egypt again, gave him near-absolute power in a prospective new constitution.

The draft constitution itself has been denounced by the "National Salvation Front" opposition as imposing a more Islamic system on Egypt. It does, in one article, say "citizens are equal before the law and equal in rights and obligations without discrimination" but, worryingly, it includes no explicit guarantees of equal rights for women as well as men, and minorities, or of respect for international rights treaties. The comparable article in the old constitution called for women's "equal status with men in the fields of political, social, cultural and economic life" though adding "without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence." And the draft would grant any winning party, almost inevitably the Muslim Brotherhood, powers equal to those of the fallen Mubarak regime.

[Read more from Mort Zuckerman in U.S. News Weekly.]

It enshrines Islamic law (sharia) even more strongly than previously and would impose a specific body, Al-Azhar, a thousand-year-old Islamic university, as the sole authority to interpret sharia without concern for how this interpretation might be balanced against competing legal structures. Given the rapidity with which the Islamist parties pushed through the new draft, in an overnight session November 30 boycotted by the opposition, it is not surprising that the president and Islamists, who include extremist Salafists, rejected the appeals to scrap or at least postpone the referendum and parliamentary elections which commenced last Saturday, December 15.

The president said he is trying to safeguard the revolution that deposed Mubarak. But he outraged many of his supporters, never mind his opponents, with his attempt to have a second revolution all for himself. His November decree excluded judicial review of his actions. It was a descent—this time in forbidding Islamic garb—to create a form of veiled dictatorship not unlike the Mubarak regime, whose "emergency powers" lasted for three decades.

The grab for supreme power has angered disparate groups, from human rights activists to Christian Copts to Mubarak supporters, all of whom shared the view that Egypt's first democratically elected president had drastically overstepped his authority in pursuit of his presidential ambitions. Morsi's precipitate action, which came soon after his intervention to end the conflict in Gaza, has put his exhausted people on the brink of prolonged civil strife.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

He has since rescinded most of his attempt to keep the courts from adjudicating actions in light of the constitution, but has continued to reject postponing the vote and elections, which means Egypt's experiment with democracy looks headed toward failure. As one of the critics put it, "He said he was the president of Egypt, but the truth is he's the president for the Muslim Brotherhood."

By rushing through his constitution, Morsi has virtually guaranteed that it will lack legitimacy. Many of the Assembly's members, including all of the Christians and women, resigned in protest at its domination by Islamists and the granting to the new Egyptian president of powers so reminiscent of those of his predecessor. The result is a bitterly divided nation, with huge crowds protesting against the man they now condemn as a new dictator.

The hostile reaction to this new proposed constitutional process provoked an unanticipated depth of mistrust. Once again thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, with violent clashes at the presidential palace between the opposition and the pro-Morsi groups in the Alliance of the Islamic Forces. Opposition campers in Tahrir Square, a scene of jubilation last year, were attacked, and shots were fired. The Muslim Brotherhood tried to discredit the protesters as remnants of the old regime and thugs. But the public felt that Morsi's party did not have a mandate to rule with little regard for those who might disagree.