01/28/2013 05:48 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Egypt's Challenge

Disqualifying millionaire, businessman and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood kingmaker Khairat el-Shater probably struck Egypt's Supreme Court as a good way to strengthen anti-clerical forces. But Brotherhood politics are rooted in its organizational skill, work in charity and social welfare, and as a champion for Islam. They out maneuvered the so-called reformists =- Mohammed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, Naguib Sawiris, and their allies =- and won control of both Parliament and, in a broken promise not to field a candidate, the Presidency.

The Brotherhood substituted engineer Mohamed Morsi for Shater and, having broken a pledge not to control the Presidency, elected him. The game hasn't changed. Morsi wasted little time issuing a decree that set himself up as the region's newest tin-horn strongman. Protest caused him to water it down, but just a little. His actions exposed as a canard the Brotherhood's pledge to non-violence and democracy. Egypt -- and like the U.S. who help bankroll its military and support its economy -- must now ask whether Morsi is in control and what his brazen arrogance means for the future of Egypt and the region.

Several things are evident. Morsi is clumsy. He has made scant effort to arouse popular support or build a base for it. Instead he's provoked large protests in Port Said and nearly a week of violent clashes in Cairo. His response was arbitrarily to declare a state of emergency and a curfew in three cities. He has failed to define a rationale that anyone except his hard-core supporters find half-credible. He preaches freedom of speech and religion. Yet the constitution his Islamist supporters drafted and approved in a December referendum at once guarantees and limits both. It turned out that he had uttered inflammatory anti-Semitic statements about Jews and Zionists. His excuse that he was criticizing Israeli policies in Gaza, not Jews, was lame.

Those seeking portents might cast a wary eye at Coptic Christian Albert Saber's prosecution and conviction for blasphemy -- carrying a six-year sentence -- for writing questions about religion on his private computer. Shia Abul Ghar was found praying on a stone, a practice that dates to the Prophet Mohamed praying directly on the earth without using a prayer rug. For following his faith, a Kafa al-Zayat court convicted him of desecrating a mosque and sentenced him to a year behind bars.

Morsi arrogated power in the name of protecting democracy. His pose was a sham. The process he embraced for drafting a new constitution was to cram one down the throats of his countrymen that was written in a voting session lasting only sixteen hours. His behavior inspires fear, not confidence for among those who desire religious tolerance and democratic pluralism. Although the Brotherhood claims to desire peaceful reform, Morsi stood by as its thugs employed violence against peaceful demonstrators who protested his power grab.

Who's calling the shots? One suspects that Morsi takes more orders than he gives. Having for years taken orders from the Muslim Brotherhood, what's changed? Reportedly, Shater and his cohort, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, provide his instructions. Amr al-Laithi, who resigned as a Presidential adviser, claims that Morsi lacks the political power to make his own decisions. Thus, apparently the Brotherhood, not the cabinet or other counselors, ordained the list of candidates for the key posts of Governor.

Western nations would be wise to make clear that a new dictatorship will disqualify Egypt as a place to do business with the international community. Ordinary Egyptians will pay the price. Egypt's Arab Spring was not about religion. It flowed from the frustrations of a population fed up with corrupt, patronage-ridden government imposed by force. They want accountable, responsible leadership that offers opportunity for jobs, hope, and opportunity. Egyptians will not brook substituting one dictator for another.

Morsi needs to offer his citizens growth and opportunity, not rigid leadership or religious ideology that stifles free spirits. Egypt's struggling economy depends heavily upon foreign investment and aid. That includes nearly $5 billion from the International Monetary Fund, hundreds of millions in U.S. loan guarantees and $1.3 billion in military aid. Attracting investment demands transparency, political integrity, and cultural tolerance. Tourism helps fuel Egypt's economy. A new era of repression would have dire consequences for that industry and Egypt's ability to prosper.

The U.S. made the right decision to support Egyptian thirst for democracy and reform. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was adept in mobilizing Morsi to help broker the recent ceasefire in the region. We need to be equally adroit in impressing upon Morsi that political arrogance and a refusal to support pluralism and tolerance will strangle Egypt's ability to create a vital economy, diminish its role as a force for regional stability, and turn the frustrations of the younger generation -- half its population -- into hope and opportunity. With new elections looming in February, more moderate forces are finally working together. Ensuring that the elections are free, fair, and open, and that Morsi fully embraces religious tolerance and democratic pluralism is vital. We need to be strong and consistent about that, for Egypt's sake and ours.

James P. Farwell is an expert on political issues in the Middle East and author of a new book, Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). Darby Arakelian is a former CIA Officer and national security expert. The opinions expressed are their own and not that of the US Government, or its departments or agencies.