Fresh off his negotiation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last week, Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi seized nearly dictatorial power at home and sent his political opposition into a frenzy. Before the pundits could finish cranking out their editorials lauding President Morsi as Sadat with more street clout, he engineered yet another strategic power grab with a simple, clear message: Morsi makes the rules.
For many Egyptians, last Thursday’s brash announcement on state TV must have felt like a Mubarak throwback. President Morsi proclaimed through a spokesman that the judicial system cannot review or overturn any of his decrees since June 30 — at least until the constitution is finished. He also dismissed a senior prosecutor and declared that a number of protester deaths from last year’s uprising would be reinvestigated. Those reopened probes could lead to new trials for former regime officials, including Mubarak himself. And perhaps most tellingly, Morsi claimed essentially unlimited powers “to protect the revolution.”
All of this throws Egypt’s democratic future into doubt. If Morsi is not angling for a return to autocracy with a Muslim Brotherhood flavor, he has blundered. Protests and walk-outs in cities across the country may be the first signs of an awakened opposition movement. But if he is setting the groundwork for a Muslim Brotherhood consolidation of power across all spectrums of Egypt’s new government — and right now it looks as if this is exactly what he’s doing — Morsi’s latest maneuvers could be a masterstroke of authoritarian statecraft.
His judicial decrees are the next logical step toward political dominance. Morsi has already neutered ancien-régime threats to his authority from the military and the judiciary. Going forward, he has ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the primary voice in Egypt’s constitution. Once the Brotherhood has an intractable Islamist legal framework in place — one that will almost certainly restrict speech and place sharia above all else — Morsi might then consider loosening his grip on the reins of power.
Or he won’t. From what we have seen since his election, Morsi doesn’t hesitate to push his gains and enrage his opponents. President Morsi can lay the groundwork now for decades of Muslim Brotherhood control. He recognizes that after generations of persecution, the Brotherhood has transitioned from localized shadow government to parliamentary and presidential powerhouse in just less than two years. Morsi may well decide to play for keeps and ensure that the democracy train’s last stop was Egypt’s first election.
Either way, there are bitter political fights ahead. Egypt’s fractured opposition views the Morsi decrees as a moment of reckoning. The newly established National Salvation Front — Egypt’s liberal and secular coalition du jour — has been vehemently protesting around the country. But we saw this before in 2011, when the opposition overestimated the power of Cairo’s Twitterati and Facebook revolutionaries versus that of the Muslim Brotherhood. If it’s street battles Egypt’s liberals want, the Brotherhood can play that game, too.
And while fiery opposition may be a sign of encouragement to those who maintain hope for Egypt’s democracy, the firebombing of Muslim Brotherhood political offices is not the sort of dialogue that reformers promised after Mubarak’s ouster. Already Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and leader of Egypt’s embattled liberals, has raised doubts about the prospects of a peaceful political transition, saying: “We hope that we can manage to do a smooth transition without plunging the country into a cycle of violence But I don’t see this happening without Mr. Morsi rescinding all of this.”
That looks unlikely to happen unless Morsi’s hand is absolutely forced. The military could step in, but that could just as likely exacerbate the turmoil. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been caught flat-footed once again, even though Morsi’s machinations shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Considering the White House’s wait-and-see approach to almost every aspect of the Egyptian revolution, President Morsi knows the U.S. has limited leverage, and that Obama isn’t about to use it anyway.
Whether Morsi’s decrees stand or not, factions within Egypt will furiously battle one another over the country’s constitution and legal system in the months ahead. This sounds fine in principle, but if Islamists win the day, the ramifications for minority groups, liberals, and secularists could be disastrous. While Morsi claims his judicial decrees are necessary to protect Egypt from the Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood believes it already has a divine decree. Even if a decent constitution emerges from this morass, Egyptians may soon find that the procedural roadblocks and judicial hurdles of man-made laws utterly fail to dissuade those who are so certain that the almighty backs their policies.
— Buck Sexton is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer with the Counterterrorism Center and the Office of Iraq Analysis. Currently, he is national-security editor at theblaze.com.