x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Morsi's decision raises fears of the Mubarak era

Time will tell whether Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi will surrender his newly declared powers, or even if they will be sufficient to propel the political process forward.

Listen to the argument that Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi makes for granting himself sweeping powers, and one might be convinced he is simply an impatient man. He is, he says, bent on doing what is right in a country where vital political reforms - the writing of a new constitution, the transition to a new democracy - are simply taking too long.

But who is listening? Protests have swept Egypt for two days, as thousands take to the streets to show their displeasure at what they perceive as a naked power grab. The spectacle of a president appropriating such sweeping powers was unseemly to say the least.

The trouble with Mr Morsi's actions, particularly the decree that his decisions are not subject to judicial oversight, is the issue of trust. Egyptians are not so sure. For those willing to give him a chance, who trust his legitimacy as a democratically elected president, this was a poorly executed announcement. The policy may make sense, but the way it was communicated was awkward at best, politically naive at worst.

For those who fear Mr Morsi will become another tyrant of the Mubarak model, or will put his ambitions before the state's interests, the announcement on Thursday will seem to confirm their suspicions.

Perhaps Mr Morsi deserves the benefit of the doubt, for the time being. But he needs to convince his own people.

What this situation highlights is the urgent need for a constitution and a balance of power to check Mr Morsi's office. A charitable view of Mr Morsi's decision recognises that his extraordinary powers are meant to be temporary. But the reason so many people have taken to the streets is because they know that people power in Tahrir Square is the only other real check to power in the absence of institutions that are meant to do the same.

This is a powerful demonstration of citizen empowerment in the new Egypt, but it is also clumsy: not only are protests crippling the moribund economy, but protest groups are easily labelled as malcontents, as columnist Issandr El Amrani notes today. There are many Egyptians who simply want stability and some semblance of normality after a tumultuous two years.

Time will tell whether Mr Morsi will surrender his newly declared powers, or even if they will be sufficient to propel the political process forward. But Mr Morsi needs to understand that democracy works two ways: he cannot merely act on behalf of the people, he must also explain his actions to them.