When Egypt’s first democratically-elected president assumed office, he pledged to uphold the revolution’s democratic principles and swore he would be a president for all Egyptians. Fine words that fell on stony ground with most liberals, secularists and Copts, sceptical that he was capable of shedding his Islamist agenda, in which democracy plays little part. They feared that he would be unable to unite a country riven with social, political and religious divides. They doubted his ability to put the battered economy back on track, attract investor confidence and sustain a healthy relationship with western powers. They worried he would permit his Islamist base to alter Egypt’s eclectic social fabric. Even so, there were many among the opposition prepared to take a wait-and-watch stance.
Until just a few days ago, Mursi had proved the majority of his critics wrong. He showed decisiveness when he dismissed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) top brass, a move that was endorsed by most Egyptians tired of living in a virtual military state camouflaged by a toothless civilian government. Mursi’s bold take-over of the armed forces, that risked provoking a military coup was hailed in the capitals of western democracies as the right thing to do.
Concern that Mursi would rule with an iron fist was largely quelled as the president had been amenable to making U-turns on a number of unpopular executive orders. His order to reinstate the Islamist-dominated parliament, in defiance of a ruling by Egypt’s highest court, was rescinded. And he succeeded in warding-off a backlash from the judiciary by U-turning on his sacking of the nation’s top prosecutor, Abdul Majid Mahmoud.
Those who were convinced that he would alienate the US and its allies and shred the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in light of his chest-thumping pre-election rhetoric, were also off base. Mursi is a natural diplomat, able to measure his words when faced with criticism. For instance, in response to President Barack Obama’s comment that the US did not consider Egypt to be either an ally or an enemy, Mursi responded by terming the US as a strategic partner and “a friend”.
Since then, the Egyptian leader has cemented his credentials as a pragmatic statesman. He fearlessly snubbed Iran during a meeting of the non-aligned movement held in Tehran, telling the Iranians they were wrong to side with the Bashar Al Assad regime. He has actively courted major regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Monumentally, he is credited for securing a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, thus averting a possible Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
In return for his mediation skills, he has received gratitude not only from Hamas and Egyptians, but also from Tel Aviv and Washington. Obama has called him numerous times over the past weeks and Hillary Clinton was effusive in her praise. “I want to thank President Mursi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” she said.
Then, just as the Egyptian people were beginning to value him as a man who had accrued genuine stature at home and abroad, he goes and spoils it all with a power grab that provides him with more powers than any of his authoritarian predecessors enjoyed.
Edicts issued by Mursi last Thursday have set the country aflame. They give the president the right to make decisions and pass laws that cannot be challenged by any official body, including the courts. Further, they shield parliament’s upper and lower houses as well as the Islamist-heavy constituent committee — tasked with drafting a new constitution — from judicial oversight. In other words, Mursi is now the absolute ruler of Egypt, presiding over the executive branch of government, the armed forces and he can override prosecutors and courts. He is the new pharaoh, shout protesters in Tahrir Square, brandishing posters merging Mursi’s facial image with Hosni Mubarak’s. Mursi insists his upgraded powers are a temporary means to an end meant to end the constituent committee’s impasse, permit a shake-up of the judiciary and allow the Mubarak-era accused to be retried. His sole motive is to protect the revolution, he says. His opponents are not buying it. They suspect that if he quacks like a dictator and behaves like a dictator then he is a dictator. His first act was to fire Abdul Majid Mahmoud for a second time.
Judges are incensed, denouncing the edicts as “an unprecedented assault on the independence of the judiciary”. The influential Judges Club has called for a nationwide strike until Mahmoud is re-appointed and Mursi’s declarations are declared null and void. Egypt’s leading politicians, including Amr Moussa, Mohammad Al Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fotouh have been galvanised into doing what they should have done many months ago by cementing numerous opposition parties into a national front. Major anti-Mursi rallies are scheduled to take place today throughout the country, along with counter-demonstrations organised by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Baradei has issued a stark warning that if Mursi does not back down, the military will be forced to step in. Attacks on Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in several cities heighten the risk of a civil war.
For now, the president is digging in his heels, but even if he reluctantly concedes that this is one battle he cannot win, will he ever be trusted again?
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org