Memo to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: When huge crowds of angry demonstrators are demanding your departure, tanks and soldiers are needed to protect the presidential palace, a fragmented opposition is uniting against you and high-ranking members of your government are resigning to protest your decisions, you might just be doing something wrong.
Maybe no one he listens to is giving him that advice. Or maybe he's ignoring it. But it's becoming painfully clear that instead of bringing Egypt into a bright new era, Morsi is pushing his country toward chaos. He had better reach accommodation with his opponents before the situation spirals out of control.
Nearly two years ago, Egyptians poured into the streets to protest the unchecked power of a president they saw as the enemy of democracy. Hosni Mubarak was soon forced to step down, in one of the highlights of the movement known as the Arab Spring. Today, Egypt is seeing similar complaints and unrest— this time directed against Mubarak's elected successor.
Morsi came to power honestly, narrowly winning the first real election modern Egypt has ever had. But differences over a new constitution provoked a split in the assembly assigned to draw it up. With Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood making the most of its dominant majority, more than a fourth of its members, including women and Christians, quit.
Fearful that the nation's courts would shut the assembly down, the president suddenly issued decrees barring judicial review of the assembly's work or his decisions. The drafters then rushed to finish so their new charter could go to an early vote, scheduled for this week.
Instead of advancing political and constitutional progress, Morsi provoked a backlash from Egyptians who accuse him of joining the country's long line of autocrats. By asserting such vast powers, he undermined his own legitimacy and confirmed the fears of many that the Muslim Brotherhood favors democracy only as a means to secure permanent control. That may not be the case. Egypt's Brotherhood is considered more moderate than many Islamic movements in the Middle East.
Morsi annulled a decree that gave him unfettered powers, but it is not clear that this will appease his opposition. Equally troubling is Morsi’s apparent tone deafness in dealing with many allies that have been in his corner throughout his young presidency. From various corners of the world leaders have attempted to be supportive of the new leader but are being put in a ticklish position by the appearance of the power grab. It does not bode well for future assistance and Egypt’s standing in the community of nations to see ongoing and continued unrest. Especially when that unrest appears to be spurred on by a smart elected leader who doesn’t take advice from friends and questions the motives of his perceived enemies.
However, Morsi has been given a mantle to take his country to a level of democracy not seen in generations. It has been a long time since someone started with so much promise and disappointed so many so quickly. In trying to protect Egypt's democratic revolution, he has appeared to put it in jeopardy. Unless the president continues to back off, the opposition will stay out, the economy will suffer and uncertainty will reign.
The proposed constitution leaves much to be desired as well. Like the old one, it concentrates power in the hands of the president. It leaves the military substantially free of civilian control. It offers only weak protection for freedom of the press.
It allows civilians to be tried in military courts. It incorporates a role for Islamic law that alarms secularists and Christians. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights has decried its "very worrying omissions and ambiguities.”
Egypt looks as though it is sliding toward civil war, with consequences no one can foresee. If the president is seriously prepared to retreat from his ill-considered show of power and forge a compromise with the opposition, he better do it sooner than later!