We are used to hearing about new problems emerging every day in the Middle East. The topic refuses to drop off the global agenda. While a civil war is going on in Syria, another is brewing in Iraq between the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmargas in northern Iraq. Israel
and Hamas in Gaza just agreed to a precarious cease-fire after much bloodshed, while Jordan and Egypt have been rocked with public demonstrations. Egypt’s latest crisis emerged as President Mohamed Morsi announced a new constitutional decree on Nov. 22, right after he won international praise for his successful mediation role in the cease-fire between Israel
and Hamas. Protestors rushed to Tahrir Square in Cairo to denounce what they perceive as Morsi’s Mubarak-ization.
The controversial decree provides Morsi with immunity on any decisions or laws he enacts until a new Constitution and Parliament is in place. It also extends the deadline for the constituent assembly, dominated by Islamists. In addition, he ordered renewed investigations into the deaths of protesters during the Egyptian Spring. Although Morsi seems to believe that the sweeping powers he has granted himself will provide stability for the country during its transition to a functioning democracy, the latest decree raised doubts about his intentions, as he has now put himself beyond the reach of the judiciary after successfully gaining widespread executive and legislative powers.
Morsi’s backers argue that the decree was timely and necessary since he continues to face numerous obstacles that have been thrown his way by the remnants of the former regime, such as its move to dissolve the post-revolutionary Parliament, block his appointments to significant posts and disband the first constituent assembly. While the criticisms over the structure of the new constituent assembly are mounting, Morsi gave it a lifeline and much-needed protection with his new decree in an attempt to provide it a secure working environment to deliver a new Constitution, paving the way for fundamental freedoms and democracy. The move, however, is a dangerous test of Morsi’s credentials.
While he seemed to be trying to break the deadlock the country has been experiencing, his move increased the polarization between Islamists and all other groups. Even within the Muslim Brotherhood, angry accusations have been hurled at him, with some accusing him of having become the new dictator of Egypt.
Internationally, too, criticism is mounting. The U.S. State Department, for example, soon after praising him for his role in brokering the Israeli-Hamas cease-fire, voiced its concerns strongly, reminding him that “one of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person.”
He has proven so far to be an adept political dealer, both nationally and internationally. However, this time his legitimacy is being tested, as the new decree is a clear denial of democratic credentials. He might have found that the obstructions of the old regime suffocated the fledging democracy, but he could have tried other options, such as enacting judicial reforms, holding intensive consultations with other parties or integrating different view holders into the decision-making system.
Morsi, however, chose a dangerous and slippery alternative. He is asking everybody to trust him and his intentions. This sounds less convincing to the streets with each passing day. He should know better that, as a president who derives his legitimacy mostly from the streets, he cannot afford to lose their support and confront mounting opposition in the streets, as the Hosni Mubarak regime used to do. The latest Carnegie Endowment report, using Turkish as an example, warned him of one of the pitfalls he is facing: taking on the habits and mindsets of the very people and institutions he is struggling against.