In the last couple of days, Egypt has seen the birth of a new kind of regime. With President Mohammed Morsi's latest decree, there is a new constitutional reality, and near-absolute powers have just been placed at the disposal of the Egyptian president. The question is: will Egyptians benefit from it, or not?
The transitionary period has been, it is safe to say, mismanaged over the course of the past two years. The building blocks of a new, better Egyptian political and judicial system have not been put into place. Political polarization has deepened and widened, and with no parliament in place. The judiciary remains as it was: a throw-back to the Mubarak era. The constitution looks set to be drafted by a constitutional assembly that is dominated by Islamists of different types, rather than a broad cross-section of Egyptian society. Most non-Islamists have now left it altogether -- even if they had not, the committee does not require an absolute majority for articles to be passed, meaning Islamists could force through any articles they choose.
All of that makes the last couple of days all the more difficult to understand. Mr. Morsi, in one fell swoop, issued a declaration that affected all of those different issues: the political polarization, the judiciary, and the constitution. The constitutional assembly vested with drafting that constitution has been given two extra months to complete its task: but it has also been made immune from any legal interference. Cases that had been raised in the courts against its non-representative nature are now null and void by virtue of the declaration.
More than that, however, the judiciary has been neutered in a critical manner: Mr. Morsi's decrees may not be legally challenged, and he has immunity for any of those that he issued since the day he took office until a new parliament is put into place. The prosecutor general has been dismissed. Essentially, on the 22nd of November 2012, the Egyptian president vested the presidency with complete and total executive and legislative authority.
One may ask: and so what? After all, Mr. Morsi won the presidential elections, there is no other official in the land with popular electoral legitimacy, and the judiciary is corrupt. So, why not allow him this authority, and let him do some good with it?
It is a tempting argument, and one that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from which Mr. Morsi hails is pushing hard: but it is based on two critical notions. The first is that Mr. Morsi's electoral mandate is strong enough to justify such a move. The second is that there was no other way for him to do what Egypt required.
The two notions are linked very much to the revolution. If Egyptians recognized Mr. Morsi as a revolutionary president, one who commanded the support of the revolution, then he might have legitimacy to give himself powers outside of the normal legal system for a time. Yet, more than three quarters of Egyptians voted for someone other than Mr. Morsi in the first round of the presidential election. In the second round, he only just barely won against a candidate who was overwhelming recognized as the candidate against the revolution -- hardly an overwhelming victory providing Mr. Morsi with revolutionary legitimacy.
How, then, does Egypt's revolutionary transition move forward, if Mr. Morsi does not have the mandate and the legitimacy to go outside the system? Is there no way for Mr. Morsi to deal with those key problems within that system that must be addressed?
These are perhaps the wrong questions. It is not about whether there are other avenues or not. There are: Mr. Morsi could have easily created a presidential council made up of the key former presidential candidates. Mr. Morsi, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, accounted for the overwhelming majority of votes in the presidential election -- the Egyptian public would likely welcome any consensus between them in the absence of a legislature.
The real question is, however: does Mr. Morsi, and does the MB, believe they need to get consensus on such issues, which would tackle the polarization of Egyptian society, rather than increase it?
All of those major former presidential candidates, as well as political figures from across the board, rejected Mr. Morsi's recent move -- this made little difference. Rather than try to leverage his political power to bring unity during such a difficult time, Mr. Morsi appears to have chosen to further consolidate his position instead. His supporters believe that though he might have near absolute powers, he will use them benignly to Egypt's benefit and withdraw them once a parliament and constitution are instituted. Yet, the precedent he has now instituted will outlive him and this presidency, and could come back to haunt Egypt in the years to come.
At the moment, this leaves Egypt more divided than ever. A president of absolute power, backed by a religious movement that truly believes it is doing what the overwhelming majority of Egyptians want. The opposition, while more united now than it was previously, is not in a position to drive Mr. Morsi to alter course by the force of the street. Nevertheless, they continue to play an important role: even more so now for accountability's sake, as power has become more centralised in Mr. Morsi's hands. Had they been more organized and strategic from earlier on, Egypt might not be in this situation now: they need to step up to perform the task Egypt requires.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer. This was first published on al-Arabiya.