Egypt erupts over Mursi’s power play

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians staged protests in Cairo and other cities after President Mohammed Mursi granted himself autocratic powers.

What happened

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians staged protests in Cairo and other major cities this week, demanding that President Mohammed Mursi rescind a constitutional decree granting himself autocratic powers. In the capital, some 200,000 secular demonstrators against Mursi’s Islamist government converged on Tahrir Square, chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime”—the same slogan shouted last year in opposition to longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. And in the cities of Alexandria, Mahalla, and Mansoura, angry crowds of anti-Mursi demonstrators attacked the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood—the powerful Islamist group Mursi led until his election five months ago. The demonstrations were sparked when Mursi decreed that all of his presidential policies were immune from judicial review, and banned the courts from dissolving an Islamist-dominated legislative panel that is writing a new constitution. “We hoped he would be different from Mubarak,” said Gouda Ali Hassan, a protester in Tahrir Square. “He can’t declare himself another pharaonic god and expect us to be silent.”

Mursi and the Brotherhood insisted that the decree was necessary to protect the Arab Spring revolution from the judiciary, and promised that once full constitutional democracy was established, the president would relinquish these powers. Obama administration officials expressed “concern” over the declaration, but noted that Mursi has taken a conciliatory tone in response to the protests and was meeting with judges and the opposition. “That’s a far cry from an autocrat just saying, ‘My way or the highway,’” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

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What the editorials said

Mursi’s frustration with the judges is understandable, said The Washington Post. The Mubarak appointees on the Supreme Court already dismissed a democratically elected parliament on a technicality earlier this year, and were threatening to block the writing of a new constitution “and, perhaps, to tip the country back toward chaos.” But Mursi’s reaction to this deadlock “was a huge overreach,” especially given the fear of Egypt’s secular youth that Islamists would turn the country into another Iran. Instead of protecting a revolution, Mursi now risks triggering one.

The military won’t intervene to topple Mursi, said The Wall Street Journal. Egypt’s powerful generals are only interested in protecting their great wealth, power, and privilege, and the Brotherhood’s draft constitution puts the military outside of civilian control. “This is a recipe for rule à la Pakistan, with an increasingly Islamist state but the military and intelligence services as an independent power.”

What the columnists said

Nobody should be surprised by this power grab, said Jonah Goldberg in the Chicago Tribune. Naïve Westerners have been calling Mursi “a moderate,” but since his election, this cunning Islamist ideologue has “deftly built the foundation for despotism.” He’s replaced military leaders “with officers more pliable to the Brotherhood,” purged scores of newspaper editors, and put himself in charge of the new constitution. President Obama helped create this monster, said Patrick Brennan in His administration has come to rely on the Egyptian leader as its Middle East interlocutor, most recently asking him to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. Mursi knows the U.S. wants him as an ally, not as an enemy—one reason he felt secure enough to make this power grab.

Fears that Mursi is a budding dictator are “exaggerated,” said Noah Feldman in He and Islamist legislators were elected by a majority of the Egyptian people, but the unelected judiciary—stocked with allies of the old military order—has in effect been trying to stage “a constitutional coup d’état.” Mursi’s attempts to defang the obstructionist court “were naïve, and they backfired badly.” Now he has to prove to Egyptians, and to the world, that his goal is democracy, not dictatorship.

Hopes for Egyptian democracy are not dead, said David Rohde in the ongoing chaos there could lead to a return to the kind of dictatorship that the U.S. supported for years for the sake of stability. The U.S. and the West should make it clear that our billions in aid will be cut off should Mursi—or anyone else—claim unilateral power. “If Egyptians squander their chance for democracy, it’s their choice. Shame on us, though, if we lose our nerve and make the strongman mistake twice.”

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