In the wake of the Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has assumed “sweeping” legislative and executive powers, and unilaterally decreeing that the courts cannot challenge his authority.
This is the latest controversial development in an Egypt that seems to be slowly meandering towards an improved democratic system. While it may put us at risk for unforeseen, and potentially negative, consequences, it is essential that the United States offers more than just rhetorical support for developing democracies in the Middle East.
By now it has become cliché to observe what the Arab Spring has taught us, namely that dictatorships and tyrannical governments are inherently unstable and liable to fall victim to unpredictable political instability. It has therefore become a liability to support the tyrants in the Middle East. Despite this, the U.S. has unabashed and unwavering support for all of the Arab autocrats (excluding Bashar al-Asad of course). Our policy of “democracy promotion” has been limited to paying lip service to rigged elections and shallow social reforms, and providing nominal financial support to organizations like NDI and IRI.
However, in providing such steadfast support of tyranny over Arabs, especially in the Gulf, we lose all credibility in dealing with the Arab populations. Additionally, we greatly heighten the chances of rapid and unpredictable political upheaval. The Iranian Revolution in 1979, in which the Iranians replaced the U.S.-installed Shah with the current Islamic democracy, best exemplifies this. This has resulted in the most anti-U.S. regime in the world (see the introduction to movie Argo for a brief history of these events). Ultimately, the tyrants' days are numbered and the quicker the U.S. allies itself with the people, rather than the regimes, the less likely we are to encounter antagonism upon regime change.
In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has recently expanded his powers in a move that is seen to put him at odds with the courts. However, almost the entire judicial system in Egypt is still packed with faloul, or remnants of the old regime (and this is where the strongest opposition to the recent decree comes from), so it seems Morsi is engaged in a power struggle with Mubarak loyalists. Indeed, in the same decree he also called for re-trying the security personnel who were accused of using excessive violence against protesters (although it is still unclear as to whether this will be effective). A number of liberals and secularists have also lambasted Morsi for his latest power grab, likening him to Mubarak and the Pharaohs.
So the question remains how the U.S. should react to these most recent developments. Ultimately, it comes down to how the decree plays itself out. The Egyptian judiciary is obviously opposed to it, but they have little credibility due to their connections with Mubarak. Liberals and secularists also do not like the idea of increased Brotherhood power, but they will jump on any excuse to lambast the Egyptian Islamists and try to appear as Western as possible.
However, the Brotherhood should most definitely not be given a carte blanche. Since the revolution it has had a history of power consolidation, and reneging on promises to not seek additional power. This may prove to be a move in good faith by Morsi to rid Egypt of the last of the faloul, an intense power grab to make Morsi the next Mubarak, or a combination thereof. Morsi may also have been reacting to his recent success in brokering the ceasefire, thinking he can act anti-democratically with impunity now that he has more U.S., Israeli and Western support.
The U.S. therefore should respond accordingly. If it turns out Morsi continues to seek more power and approaches dictatorship, we should put pressure on his government, including but not limited to withholding some of our substantial military foreign aid. On the other hand, if Morsi merely uses these new powers to cleanse Egypt of Mubarak's influence, and provides a smooth transition of power once the new constitution is completed, we should support and not interfere with the developing democratic processes in the country.