November 23, 2012 6:47 pm

Morsi’s mistake

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The Egyptian president is rightly under fire for awarding himself sweeping new powers. It is still not too late to correct a serious error

It has taken less than a day for Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president, to go from hero to suspected villain. Fresh from his triumph as mediator in Gaza’s conflict, Mr Morsi is now under fire for awarding himself sweeping new powers. He argues this will protect the gains of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. But dictatorship, benign or otherwise, is no way to build democracy.

Since the showdown with Egypt’s military in August, Mr Morsi has held both legislative and executive authority. Thursday’s decree adds judicial powers to the mix. It says that neither he nor the committee charged with drawing up the constitution can be overruled by the courts – at least until a new parliament is elected.

As the protests and attacks on offices of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood showed on Friday, the move will only polarise further Egyptian society. There were already suspicions about the Islamist government’s commitment to full democratic transition. Secular-minded liberals and minorities have been so frustrated by Islamist attempts to monopolise the new constitution that they have withdrawn from the project that will shape the country’s future.

Mr Morsi’s supporters argue that the measure is necessary to root out the “deep state” – those remnants of the Mubarak regime that are dedicated to bringing down a democratically elected Islamist government. There is an element of truth in this. The courts have sometimes played a dubious role, for example when they dissolved parliament just weeks after it was elected. While these battles have dragged on, the government has been unable to address the dire state of the economy.

Mr Morsi has tried to avert criticism. He has ordered new inquiries into deaths of protesters in Egypt’s uprising in response to popular criticism that Mubarak and his officers were treated too leniently. He has acceded to non-Islamist demands by extending the deadline for a new constitution. He has also appointed a vocal supporter of judicial independence as the new general prosecutor. But in setting himself beyond the reach of the courts. he has thrown away the legitimacy he sought to project.

Egypt, as the Arab world’s most populous country, is the standard bearer for all those who rose up against autocracies. Mr Morsi’s deft handling of foreign affairs has shown that his government can be an effective interlocutor between Middle East and west. But it is also the test for whether democratic Islam has a future. As long as there are no checks on his exercise of power, this will be in doubt. The decree should be reversed.

Democracy is often noisy, complex and slow. But its processes cannot be usurped. Instead of protecting a revolution, Mr Morsi risks relaunching one.

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