Tahrir Square is filled to capacity once again. The same chants calling for an end to the regime reverberate throughout downtown Cairo. On Tuesday, protesters and riot police clashed near the square, reminiscent of the revolution that was born there less than two years ago.
These mass protests are being held in response to a shocking announcement last week by Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. On Thursday he claimed sweeping powers, declaring his office beyond judicial oversight. Morsi framed the decree as necessary to protect the revolution and ensure the democratic transition. He also ordered the retrial of ex-President Hosni Mubarak and top aides on charges of killing protesters during the 2011 protests.
Essentially, this is an expression of the tension between Morsi and the courts controlled by Mubarak-era judges. Last June, Egypt’s highest-level court dissolved the Islamist-majority Parliament. Morsi’s decree was a way to prevent a similar fate from further delaying the drafting of a new constitution. On Tuesday, judges condemned Morsi’s move as an authoritarian power grab and called for a nationwide court strike. As of yet, no compromise has been made and a Morsi backtrack is not in the foreseeable future.
Egypt has once again plummeted into a state of deadlock. Though the issue is a political one and highly complex, popular opinion has mostly been categorized as pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood. U. S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland gave a lukewarm and general response calling for the continuation of a political system of checks and balances. This type of American response to revolutions of the Arab Spring has become humdrum and typical. If true democracy is what the West wants for the rest of the world, then let’s first look at the two paths facing Egypt at this critical juncture.
Even if Morsi’s decree was made with the intention of protecting the revolution, the fear that power begets power is historically proven and thus legitimate. Adel Iskander of Georgetown University and a scholar on Middle East media warns that such a move is not unlike “going to war to maintain peace.”
Iskander says,“Morsi has rendered himself extra-judicial and extra-constitutional, a condition neither Mubarak nor the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces had or could do. While he has used viable and populist justifications for this decree, it is a glaring red flag that democracy in Egypt can be used to justify absolute power grabs, a deeply worrying and ominous precedent in a revolutionary climate.”
If the U.S. is looking for another Mubarak-type regime to maintain stability in the region, will the Muslim Brotherhood be as cooperative as co-conspirators? The general assumption might be at first be an emphatic “no.” However, taking into account behind-the-scenes politics and the Egyptian economy’s pressing need for foreign aid, a deal might not be far off.
Or Egypt could take the harder path and continue to strive for true democracy. That would mean a painstaking and arduous presidency for Morsi of butting heads with political rivals. It would require a restructuring of the system from top to bottom that would really allow for checks and balances, fair political representation for all, and most importantly time. Democratic changes will begin now but only truly resonate a few administrations into the future. Morsi’s altercations with the judiciary would be the price to pay for democracy. Calling for sweeping powers in order to bypass the system, is not.
In the U.S., we have witnessed that first hand — first with Obamacare, and now with our fiscal cliff crisis. The people of Egypt have to make a choice on which way their country will go. After all it is their revolution. The U.S. needs to take a clear stance on whether or not it will support that decision.