x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Egyptians will not suffer a new dictatorship

Egyptians are not willing to accept a new version of one-man rule, whatever justifications are offered for it.

A dozen Egyptian newspapers did not publish yesterday, and five television channels will be off the air today, in a coordinated protest against the Morsi government.

The newspapers' websites offered a dramatic image: a human shape made of newspaper, languishing in prison. "No to dictatorship," says the headline.

It is, to be sure, paradoxical for media outlets to silence themselves. But the tactic reflects extraordinary times in Egypt, where President Mohammed Morsi has - with no legal justification - claimed extraordinary powers, forcing through a draft constitution written by Islamists alone.

Egyptians know all about presidents with sweeping powers. The whole point of the national uprising that swept away Hosni Mubarak, almost two years ago, was to usher in more responsive, responsible government. But events are not working out that way. The poster for this week's media "strike" warns that the proposed constitution ramrodded through by Mr Morsi's allies "terminates rights and restrains freedoms".

The thousands of thousands who thronged Tahrir Square during the last days of the Mubarak regime emphatically did not want to replace one absolutism with another; most of Egypt's rural silent majority, too, surely hoped for something better. But the political opposition - and perhaps the striking media - may be guilty of speaking to the outside world more than ordinary Egyptian voters. The Islamists may well triumph at the constitutional referendum scheduled for December 15.

Whatever the result, the process has been toxic. When Mr Morsi awarded himself those new powers last month, it seemed like the hubris of a dictator, not just canny politicking. The actions of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters have since reinforced the impression. On Sunday, an Islamist mob barred judges from entering their offices - a blatant recourse to force over debate and law.

The December 15 referendum is no bulwark against this crude power grab. Some Egyptians would welcome Islamist institutions, while others hardly care as long as they can afford to eat. But the referendum offers a grim choice: approve the Islamists' constitution, or stick with the status quo - with vast powers in Mr Morsi's hands.

It might seem that only the Islamists win in this situation. In fact, no one does. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies' unsophisticated grab for power is not in their interest either: by abandoning compromise and restraint they are also abandoning legitimacy. Their new constitutional order will prove to be built on sand.