Analysis: Morsi’s Auto-Golpe

The analysis below has been contributed by Nathan Brown, who has not yet eaten his turkey and therefore can react to today’s big news from Egypt — whereas I am in post-turkey coma. But I largely agree with him: this is a move that might be pulled off by an overwhelmingly popular national leader, but goes a little too far for someone elected by only 51% of the electorate in an ever-more divided country.

In a series of moves, President Morsi has used the nearly absolute authority he assumed last August to try to put that absolute authority beyond reach, at least on a temporary basis.

He may very well succeed. The potential opponents to his move are legion but they are also divided and many are politically clueless. By careful timing and a series of carrots for various actors, Morsi may have outmaneuvered any opposition. Internationally, he has just won plaudits for his role in ending the fighting between Israel and Hamas; that likely offers him a bit of insulation from international criticism and some vague domestic capital for showing Egypt’s centrality. Offering cash to the revolution’s victims and retrials for their attackers seems designed to placate street activists. Non-Islamist forces in the Constituent Assembly are seeing one of their fundamental demands—an extension on the clock—met. And an obvious source of opposition—the judiciary, whose role is dramatically evicted from the transition process—may be a bit confused on how to respond. After all, it is leaders of the “judicial independence” movement from within their ranks that appears to be leading some of Morsi’s charge (Morsi’s vice president, the minister of justice, and the new prosecutor general are all members of that clique that stood so resolutely against the old regime’s judicial manipulations).

And the substance of the decisions is not all bad news for those who hope for a democratic transition. The prosecutor general who has been dismissed was an old-regime holdover trusted by few people. The Constituent Assembly, constantly threatened with dissolution by court order, was working in a manner that seemed to deepen divisions. Non-Islamists were having trouble breaking themselves of the habit of praying for foreign, military, or judicial intervention and Islamists had depleted the very limited supply of amity they had brought to the transition. Trials of old regime elements had clearly gone awry and victims of military and security force brutality been abandoned. Morsi’s moves work to address these issues.

But whatever the desirability of elements of these decisions, today’s overall message might be summed up: “I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still. But don’t worry—it’s just for a little while.”

What could stop him in the short term? Morsi has over-reached before (such as the first time he tried to rid himself of the prosecutor general). And his August bid for power worked in part because he used the power he assumed in such a restrained manner (until today, that is).

This time, ambitious and assertive courts could tell him no. Various political non-Islamist forces could line up against him. Neutral institutions and professional associations could cry foul. But only if they do so in unison, are they likely to be able to force Morsi to back down or to find a way to temper his power. And there is no easy venue for them to carry out their struggle. Those who oppose these moves need not only unity but a strategy. And that has never been their strong suit.

And if they do fail, then Egypt’s best hope for democracy may be a Morsi metamorphasis into an Egyptian Cincinnatus. Perhaps he will use his authority to protect a process that will build a functioning democratic and pluralistic system. That is not impossible. But it’s an odd way to build a democracy.