Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was responding to a legitimate concern when he issued a decree that curbs the powers of Egypt’s judicial branch. The Supreme Administrative Court, stacked with judges from the Hosni Mubarak era, has a history of bogus rulings. It upheld a decision to dissolve the entire lower house of parliament on a technicality, apparently because the body was dominated by Morsi’s fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood, enemies of the old regime. The court also dissolved a 100-member elected assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. It may have been preparing to dissolve the new assembly as well. Morsi was right to prevent that from happening. The new constitution must be written.
He should have stopped there — but he didn’t. Morsi went on to decree that the courts can’t overturn any of his decisions until the new constitution is unveiled. That amounts to a vast expansion of presidential powers — far more authority than any president should have.
He used “a sledgehammer rather than a chisel” to handle his problem with the courts, asserts Nathan Brown, a specialist on Egypt’s legal system. Morsi insists that the decree will only be temporary. But Egyptians have lived for too many years under a “temporary” state of emergency to believe a line like that.
Now protesters are pouring into the streets in numbers not seen since Mubarak was ousted last year. Demonstrations have spread from Tahrir Square to remote cities.
Morsi needs to find a graceful way to retract his heavy-handed decree. He should reach out to opposition parties and judges to find an acceptable compromise. He should also restrain the Muslim Brotherhood, which has threatened to bring its own protesters out in the streets in support of his decree. That would undoubtedly lead to violent clashes. So far, it looks like he is doing that. The Brotherhood canceled plans Tuesday for a rally in Cairo.
US officials have wisely avoided inserting themselves too publicly into this dispute. They have called for checks and balances on the presidency, but haven’t supported the opposition’s demands for Morsi to step down, which would only produce more chaos. Morsi needs time to work this out. At this point, calls to withhold US aid from Egypt are premature.
The silver lining in all of this is that Egypt’s fractured liberal parties finally have a cause that unites them and resonates with the rest of the population. If they can keep it up, they just might do better in the next round of parliamentary elections. That would provide another important check on the power of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.