Morsi's Illusory Power Grab

11/30/2012 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2013

Political conflict is escalating in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and tens of thousands more protested in cities throughout Egypt to denounce President Morsi and his ill-judged decree granting himself wide-ranging unchecked powers last Tuesday. It is worth taking a step back to try to understand what this conflict is about.

First, President Morsi's decree, or "power grab" as his critics refer to it, is not the root cause of the stand-off. The decree was a serious political miscalculation by Morsi because it played into the portrayal of him as a nascent dictator bent on extending the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on power in post-Mubarak Egypt. But it's not what really is bringing people into the streets.

The core issues are really two: the constitution drafting process that will determine the type of state Egypt will become in the months and years ahead; and linked to that the legitimacy of the elected bodies and officials, including President Morsi himself, that have emerged in the aftermath of the February 2011 uprising.

The constitution drafting assembly is now rushing to complete its work, hoping to head-off a ruling by Egypt's constitutional court, scheduled for Sunday, that could abolish the assembly and derail Egypt's halting transition process.

President Morsi has a great deal of power on paper and the decree gives him more, especially the power to override the judiciary. However, these powers do not bear comparison with those exercised by President Mubarak or other authoritarian Egyptian leaders, including the Pharaohs to whom Morsi is now equated by street protesters and cartoonists. Mubarak led a highly centralized government that controlled the armed forces and the security services, controlled much of the media, restricted the opposition and suppressed dissent. Elections were rigged and parliament was a rubber stamp, the judiciary was susceptible to pressure from the executive and was circumvented when it failed to do the president's bidding. The vast government bureaucracy was filled with officials whose first loyalty, encouraged by an extensive, well-oiled patronage system, was serving the regime, not the people.

Morsi has none of these things because the military establishment, security services, state bureaucracy and judiciary that Mubarak put in place over decades is still there. Unsurprisingly, some of these Mubarak-era holdovers are pleased to obstruct the upstart, civilian president who has been foisted upon them. It would be understandable if Morsi and his supporters were to find that irksome. At any event, assertions that Morsi exercises unprecedented powers in his current role as nominal head of the executive should be taken with a large grain of salt.

The protracted transition in Egypt has degenerated into a polarized stand-off between President Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and opponents to Islamist rule on the other, comprising a variety of liberals, leftists, Christians and old-regime loyalists. The judiciary has also become a political player directly engaged in the conflict over the decree, the primary purpose of which was to prevent the judiciary dissolving the Constituent Assembly that has been preparing a new draft Constitution. The judiciary had previously dissolved the elected parliament and had played an overtly political role in blocking certain candidates from standing in the presidential elections. This polarization and the politicization of the judiciary are all bad for the prospects of a relatively smooth transition process. If they continue they will prove fatal.

There are other groups that are even more hazardous to Egypt's democratic future. The military establishment has not gone way, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces exercised absolute power from February 2011 to July 2012 and, while they are currently quiet, they would not stand by if instability continues or if serious political violence develops between different factions. The Salafi extremists are also a potential factor if the transition process fails. Having no pretense of commitment to democratic process they would prosper if the field of contestation continues to move beyond nominally democratic means.

The proper place for Egypt's competing political factions to settle their differences will be in elections after the new Constitution has been drafted and adopted. In order to get to this point, the political factions must negotiate with each other. The opposition factions and parties are proud of their large turnout of protesters on November 27, but they should be wary that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis could turn out just as many, if not more, protesters if they chose to do so. If both factions choose to confront each other in the streets, violence will ensue and the transition would be seriously at risk.

For the process to work the principal competing factions must agree to abide by the rules of the democratic game. For Morsi and the Brotherhood this means recognizing that electoral victories in the parliamentary elections and, very narrowly, in the presidential elections do not give them a mandate to summarily disregard the views of opponents, still less to set themselves above the rule of law. For the opposition, looking for quick ways to unseat Morsi or elected members of parliament will not strengthen democratic institutions and will make pre-emptive, unilateral moves, like the recent decree, more likely to recur with disastrous consequences.

Both the opposition and the Brotherhood claim to be acting to safeguard the ideals of the February 2011 revolution. They would both do well to remember that legitimate, representative government was one of the main goals of that revolution. The only way to get there is through political contestation channeled through democratic processes rooted in the rule of law and universal human rights standards.