Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi has assumed temporary sweeping powers that supporters say will cut back a turbulent and seemingly endless transition to democracy, but outraged critics say he has now become a dictator.
His mostly liberal opposition, already roiling over an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly preparing a new charter, called for protests after Morsi assumed his new powers in a surprise announcement on Thursday.
In one swoop, Morsi hamstrung the judiciary, the last check on his powers, by stripping courts of the right to challenge his decrees or annul the constituent assembly, until a constitution is agreed.
Morsi crossed a line by shielding his decrees from judicial review, powers even the fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak did not enjoy, Morsi’s critics say.
And, unlike Mubarak, Morsi is an Islamist whose Muslim Brotherhood movement wants to gradually introduce Islamic law, as seen in provisions of the draft constitution that appeared to further entrench Sharia.
“Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh. A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences,” Egyptian Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account.
According to the country’s political timetable, a new parliament will be elected after a constitution is ratified, to replace the Islamist-dominated house annulled by a court before Morsi’s election last June.
“We need to move things in the right direction,” said Murad Ali, the spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party which Morsi headed until his election as president.
“We need stability. That’s not going to happen if we go back again to allowing the judges, who have personal reasons, to dissolve the constituent assembly in order to prolong the transitional phase,” he said.
A top court was set to rule on the assembly’s legality next month. Liberals, journalists, farmers and Christian churches had already withdrawn their representatives from the panel, furthering the possibility of its annulment by court.
Morsi came into power pledging to address layers of corruption, poverty and unemployment that fuelled the early 2011 uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Five months later, little has changed and more Egyptians grumble about Morsi’s apparent inability to bring about the changes as he wrangles with his opponents and a hostile judiciary.
“One can’t achieve anything on the ground, that’s what they want,” Ali says of the president’s opponents.
“The problem with Morsi’s decree is that it is very open ended,” said Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“If we take it at face value, it’s about finishing the transition,” he said. “At the same time it opens the way for him to make other decisions and impose other things. For instance, an electoral law to the Muslim Brotherhood’s advantage.”
Morsi’s decree was packaged in other decisions long demanded by many in the opposition, such as sacking the state prosecutor, accused of bungling trials of ex-regime figures leading to their acquittals.
It also struck at a judiciary which insists that it is independent but is rife with Mubarak-era appointees whom critics say helped prop up Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
“I understand where this is coming from. There is a fundamental problem with the independence of the judiciary in Egypt,” said Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch’s Egypt director.
“But these sledgehammer tactics only alienate the legal community,” she said.