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Egyptians fear Morsi's powers

30 November 2012


Lighting up: tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Tuesday, signal their opposition to President Morsi's appropriation of absolute powers, which he has sought to justify as "exceptional measures"

Lighting up: tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Tuesday, signal their opposition to President Morsi's appropriation of abso...

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 process".

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 poverty.

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.

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