The best arguments for and against Egypt’s presidential power grab

November 26, 2012

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaks to reporters. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

On Thursday, when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi granted himself sweeping powers that put him above oversight of any kind, a move he says is necessary to push through much-needed reforms, it set off national protests and "a crisis as dire as any since the uprising in January 2011 that ended six decades of military-backed dictatorship," according to The Economist.

Western debate over the edict's implications seems to begin with two assumptions: first, that it's particularly dangerous given Egypt's history of dictatorship and, second, that the country's deadlocked political system is indeed blocking essential reforms. There are hints of sympathy in the otherwise strident criticism. Here is a sliding-scale guide to the commentary so far, from the most critical to the most sympathetic.

The rise of another Egyptian strongman?

David Rohde, a Reuters columnist and former New York Times foreign correspondent, urges the U.S. to consider withholding aid money. "Unfortunately, we’ve seen this script before. It almost always turns out badly. A destructive dynamic is taking hold in Egypt. The poisonous distrust and conspiracy theories that have handicapped the country’s transition to democracy are deepening," he writes. "If Egyptians squander their chance for democracy, it’s their choice. Shame one us, though, if we lose our nerve and make the strongman mistake twice."

Gives the appearance of inching back toward Mubarakism.

"Many Egyptians do not trust him to give back powers once he has acquired them, and so they fear that he is refashioning himself as a dictator," Juan Cole explains, saying many Egyptians see "the specter of a one-party state" in the move. "When Morsi took power, he promised not to try to legislate or to impose things on the country, aware that in the absence of a legislature or a constitution, people in Egypt would be touchy about anything that looked high-handed. He has abandoned that earlier caution, most unwisely, and now does look high-handed."

A blundered attempt to fix Cairo's politics.

Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch, though critical of the move, says it "should be seen in the context of Cairo's intensely polarized, gridlocked politics rather than as some pure expression of Islamist intent. His power is more impressive on paper than in reality. But there is no real question that Morsi went too far: decrees changing the rules of the game and placing the executive above any appeal were dangerous and wrong when done by the SCAF, would have been dangerous and wrong if done by a President Shafiq, and they are dangerous and wrong when done by Morsi. They should be reversed."

Morsi is addressing a serious problem.

Historian Walter Russell Mead points out that for revolutionary governments this is common dilemma with no easy solutions: What do you do about leftovers from the old regime? The courts were closely tied to Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship and "it’s worth noting that [Morsi's] plans to bypass Egypt’s judicial system are grounded in a reality: Egypt’s judges were handpicked by the thoroughly corrupt Mubarak regime and did the old dictator’s bidding without protest for many years. Neither the judges as a group nor the judiciary as an institution are entitled to any particular respect."

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Steve Clemons of The Atlantic asks if Morsi is more like Abraham Lincoln, who seized special "war powers" during the Civil War, or like three-decade Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, who is seen as the poster boy of benevolent authoritarian development. Either take is sympathetic, and Clemons says that Morsi "needs to continue to challenge other weak or rotten sectors of society and should at the same time welcome the institutional battles that will ultimately limit his power."

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Olga Khazan · November 26, 2012