This article was first published by The Huffington Post on December 10, 2012
Assertions and opinions in this publication are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy
The message broadcast loud and clear by the Egyptian people throughout the January 25th Revolution was that they'd had their fill of dictatorial rule, yet it appears the first-ever freely elected president of Egypt's 7,000-year history wasn't listening.
As Americans sat down to their Thanksgiving dinners, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree granting himself essentially unrestricted powers and effectively immunizing his actions from any kind of challenge. His declared intent was to shield the work of the constituent assembly drafting a new constitution against potential challenges from a judiciary dominated by Mubarak-era judges. Morsi's decree came on the heels of his triumphant negotiation of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel following eight days of hostilities, for which he was widely praised, both within and outside of Egypt.
Sympathetic observers attributed Morsi's act to political ineptitude, but when asked by Time magazine whether he would do things differently in hindsight, Morsi defiantly replied that in his view, and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was the responsibility of the Egyptian people alone to decide the fate of the constitution, and that free elections are the true measure of democracy.
Several days later, President Morsi called for a December 15th referendum on the controversial draft constitution, which would replace that in effect since 1971. Critics argue that the final draft, written by a committee of a hundred people, mostly Islamists, does not reflect the fundamental democratic aspirations of Egyptians, while at the same time imposing unacceptable restrictions on their personal freedom. Consequently, non-Islamist groups including liberals, leftists, and those loyal to the previous regime walked out of the constitutional constituent assembly. Since Wednesday, Cairo has witnessed increasingly violent clashes between opposing groups outside the presidential palace, leaving hundreds injured and at least seven dead.
The polarization that seems to characterize 21st-century politics has not spared Egypt: Morsi was elected with less than 52 percent of the vote. For the first time in recent history, Egypt is struggling to integrate and reconcile its Islamist and non-Islamist identities, despite the fact that 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Non-Islamists will accept nothing short of the elimination of Morsi's constitutional declaration, and demand a delay of the referendum on the constitution until a consensus is reached on the draft. Morsi's latest moves have also exposed the tensions between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government in a new Egypt. Following the election of an Islamist president, non-Islamist political forces used the judiciary, namely the Supreme Court, historically anti-Islamist and packed with Mubarak-era judges, to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament and to declare Morsi's decree unconstitutional. This tension partly explains President Morsi's announcement that none of his legislative decisions can be overridden by any entity until the constitution is finalized, and that the parliament and the constitutional assembly cannot be dissolved.
In a televised address to the Egyptian people on Thursday night, President Morsi affirmed he would neither rescind his decree nor revoke the draft constitution. He also made what his critics characterized as an insincere invitation to the opposition to dialogue. The president insists the powers he has taken are temporary, but his actions have fueled fears that he seeks to become a new strongman. Many now question where the Muslim Brotherhood is taking Egypt.
Following President Morsi's speech, President Obama contacted him to welcome his call for dialogue with the opposition but stressed that such dialogue should take place without preconditions. The increasingly violent confrontation between factions in Egypt will make such dialogue extremely difficult if not impossible, with the opposition now calling for nothing less than the removal of Morsi. Moreover, the American administration's call for the Muslim Brotherhood to respect democracy does not serve to pressure the Islamist group, which assesses that Washington's leverage on Egyptian domestic politics is limited and that repeated calls for the Obama administration to put conditions on U.S. civilian and military foreign assistance to Egypt are unlikely to materialize. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Mohamed Morsi, spent a long time in prison during Mubarak's rule, precisely -- in their view -- for their opposition to his dictatorship. They have neither forgotten nor forgiven America's support for a regime that routinely forged elections, tortured dissidents, ignored basic human rights, and discriminated against minorities. In their experience, Washington's bipartisan interests always placed regional security and stability far ahead of human rights and democracy, whether inside Egypt or elsewhere. They calculate that Israel's security, containing Iran, Gulf energy security, and military-to-military relations between Cairo and the U.S., are too important to jeopardize.
Will the Muslim Brotherhood adopt the same tactics Hosni Mubarak used for three decades to sustain absolute power, in this case hiding their intentions behind the pretext that "free elections equal full democracy"? Or will the party pursue a pluralistic approach that respects diversity and includes non-Islamists in governing Egypt? Recent developments suggest that Morsi and his band of illiberal brothers are supporting free elections to perpetuate their own brand of illiberal democracy.