‘New pharaoh’ Morsi confronts pyramid of woes
If Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi believed his increased stature after brokering this week's Hamas-Israel ceasefire would help him muscle through new decrees granting him sweeping powers, he appears to have made a miscalculation.
What a difference a day - or two - makes. On Wednesday night, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was hailed for brokering an Israel-Hamas ceasefire. On Thursday, he issued a series of decrees granting himself sweeping powers. By Friday, mass demonstrations against the decrees broke out across Egypt, with protesters torching Muslim Brotherhood offices in several cities.
For international audiences who have not kept up with Egyptian politics since the heady days of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year, the schizophrenic opinions of Morsi were on vivid display over a 72-hour period.
But for Egyptians who have followed – and been disappointed by – the twists and turns of the political gears in the post-Mubarak era, the schizophrenia came as no surprise, mirroring as it were, the deep divisions in Egyptian society today.
While police on Cairo’s Tahrir Square were firing teargas at angry anti-Morsi protesters on Friday, the Egyptian president was addressing a rally of supporters outside the Heliopolis Presidential Palace with the crowd chanting, “We love you Morsi”.
Mostly sticks, but some carrots in the mix
The anti-Morsi protesters were demonstrating against the latest decrees, which banned any challenges to the Islamist president’s laws and decisions.
In an analysis piece posted on The Arabist blog shortly after the decree was issued Thursday, Middle East expert Nathan Brown noted, “The potential opponents to his move are legion but they are also divided and many are politically clueless”.
Nearly two years after Mubarak’s ouster and five months after Morsi was elected with a 51% sliver of a majority, Egypt’s liberal opposition is still scrambling to present a united front that could take on the disciplined grassroots organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi’s latest decrees include a wide-ranging set of rulings which include sticks and a few carrots clearly designed to placate a divided opposition.
While the overarching theme of the recent decrees is Morsi’s unprecedented power grab, Brown noted that, “the substance of the decisions is not all bad news for those who hope for a democratic transition”.
Send in the new public prosecutor, take out the old
One of the decrees issued Thursday was the sacking of public prosecutor Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak-era holdover, and the appointment of a replacement.
Morsi had unsuccessfully tried to remove the veteran prosecutor last month after the acquittals of Mubarak-era officials on trial for a deadly crackdown on protesters during the 2011 uprising.
Shortly after his appointment, the new public prosecutor, Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah announced that he would retry Mubarak.
Analysts say several other senior Mubarak-era officials are also likely to face retrials since Morsi is particularly keen to prosecute officials implicated in last year’s "Battle of the Camels," when thugs – known locally as baltagiya - on horses and camels staged a deadly crackdown on protesters at Tahrir Square.
One of the other sweeteners in the mix of presidential decrees was an order providing compensation to the families of the victims of the 2011 crackdown on protesters.
But while the former prosecutor is a widely reviled figure, Morsi’s previous attempt to dislodge Mahmoud failed after it triggered an outcry from judges who said the Egyptian president had exceeded his powers. Critics attacked Morsi for what they claimed was an attack on the independence of the judiciary.
No justice, no peace
Morsi’s attack on the judiciary is a complicated issue since many activists, including opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, criticise a judiciary packed with judges and prosecutors sympathetic to Mubarak.
But if Morsi hoped to woo sections of the opposition by taking on the judiciary, he spectacularly failed to win them over after he granted himself the authority to neutralize the judiciary and barred the courts from challenging his decisions.
One of the decrees that succeeded in unifying a divided opposition – at least in the short term – was Morsi’s ruling that no court could dissolve the country’s Constituent Assembly, which is drawing up a new Egyptian constitution.
The rewriting of the new constitution has been a controversial issue, with most non-Islamist members quitting the Constituent Assembly – including representatives of the Coptic Christian Church and the April 6 Youth Movement, which played an influential role in the 2011 uprising.
An international and domestic miscalculation
Addressing his supporters outside the presidential palace Friday, Morsi maintained that he was working to secure a strong and stable Egypt. “I will not be biased against any son of Egypt," he said while vowing to defend the independence of Egypt’s executive, judiciary and legislature.
But across Egypt, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood were not placated by Morsi’s reassurances.
“While President Morsi was giving his speech pushing for stability, we saw the heavy use of teargas on protesters in Tahrir Square,” said Bel Trew, an Egypt-based journalist and Middle East specialist, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “This juxtaposition of huge amounts of police brutality while the president is claiming that he is the guarantor of the revolution clearly shows that few were reassured by his speech.”
The timing of the new decrees has also raised eyebrows among Middle East experts and Egyptian opposition leaders.
“Morsi obviously believes the ceasefire he brokered protects him from international criticism and possibly from domestic criticism because he’s really positioning himself as the strongman of the Middle East, the broker of peace in the region and the leader of Egypt,” said Trew.
But on both the international and domestic fronts, Morsi appears to have miscalculated.
Just two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lavishly praised the Egyptian president for his role in brokering the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, the US voiced concerns over Morsi’s new decrees.
"The decisions and declarations announced on November 22 raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community," said a State Department statement issued Friday. "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."
By Friday night, Egypt’s fractious opposition appeared to be uniting against Morsi with dozens of political movements joining a one-week sit-in protest in Tahrir Square starting Friday.
For the moment, the opposition appears to have found common cause against the latest decrees. But it’s hard to gauge the durability of their new-found unity. As Brown noted in his blog post, “Those who oppose these moves need not only unity but a strategy. And that has never been their strong suit.”