EGYPT is facing its most serious political crisis since the
uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak early last year, as
widespread anger is directed at President Mohammed Morsi for his
decision to grant himself absolute powers. As a result, the first
Egyptian head of state to be chosen through free and fair elections
now stands above the law, answerable neither to the judiciary nor
any other institution.
But President Morsi appears to have overplayed his hand. His
surprise announcement, made in the wake of international acclaim
for his part in mediating an end to the worst of the violence in
Gaza, has sparked several days of violent protests on the streets
of Cairo and other cities, against him and the Muslim Brotherhood
to which he belongs.
Furthermore, three of the President's recently appointed aides,
including a prominent Coptic intellectual, Samir Morkos, have
resigned. Mr Morkos, who was an adviser on democratic
transformation, denounced Mr Morsi's action as "undemocratic and a
leap backwards". He could no longer remain in his post because the
presidential decisions were "crippling to the democratic transition
The Egyptian leader has defended his move, saying that he had
taken "exceptional measures" because "my people, my nation, and the
revolution of Egypt are in danger." He said that he would
relinquish his new powers once a new constitution was in place.
On Monday, in an apparent attempt to ease tension, he held talks
with senior judges. He said that the decree ordaining that no
judicial authority could challenge his authority would be limited
in scope. There continues to be broad scepticism among the
President's opponents, however, about his ultimate intentions.
For Christians and secular Egyptians, the immediate prospect is
of something akin to a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. Last
weekend, the President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the
Most Revd Mouneer Anis, sent out an appeal to Christians around the
world to say prayers for his country. He said that there was
"obviously agitation in Egypt" in the wake of the President's
declaration. "No one can predict what is going to happen."
President Morsi has also decreed that no judicial body is
entitled to dissolve the assembly drafting the country's new
constitution. The dominance of Islamists in this assembly is a
cause of concern for millions of Egyptians. Even before the latest
announcement from Mr Morsi, Christian and liberal Egyptians had
withdrawn from it.
This, Bishop Anis said, "was an act of protest because the
majority of the committee are Islamists who want to impose their
own views on the constitution."
Although the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups cancelled a
mass demonstration in Cairo planned for Tuesday, opponents of the
President turned out in huge numbers, some of them vowing to
continue protests until he withdrew his declaration. They accused
him of betraying the revolution.
Unless President Morsi bows to public pressure, Egypt looks
likely to face a further period of chronic instability. Public
anger is this time directed at the Muslim Brotherhood rather than
the army or supporters of the former Mubarak regime. Until this
latest political crisis is resolved, there is no hope that tourism
will recover or investment will return to the country. This, in
turn, will worsen the already desperate economic plight of millions
of Egyptians - leaving open the possibility of yet another mass
uprising, this time sparked by the effects of unemployment and
In the view of the Saudi columnist Hussein Shobokshi, President
Morsi's decrees "give the impression of a move towards absolute
autocracy, the same manner adopted by the Free Officers who rose
against the monarchy in 1952 and promised that curbing the
constitution" was just a temporary measure. Yet the Egyptian people
"soon discovered that this was a genuine nightmare that would
continue for six decades".
The difference now is that the fear barrier has been broken. The
Egyptian people are likely to challenge authority with weight of
numbers on the streets rather than allow themselves to be forced
into another dictatorship.