Egypt has had quite a week, even by its inimitable standards. President Mohamed Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, returning Egypt to the regional political balance and proving to be the pragmatic, realistic leader for which many had hoped. Almost immediately afterward, his government announced a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan. But then, just as Morsi stood poised to bask in the international acclaim, he suddenly released a presidential decree granting himself extraordinary powers and triggering a surge of popular mobilization protesting his decisions.
Morsi's move 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. But that will no more solve the underlying problems than last week's Israel-Hamas ceasefire will solve the enduring problems of Gaza.
Morsi's decree raises some truly troubling issues for Egypt's transition. It sparked large protests, violent clashes, judicial backlash, resignations from his administration, rare unity among opposition politicians, and severe new doubts about Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's political intentions. Cairo is bracing itself for dueling protests scheduled for Tuesday, with few signs yet that either side is preparing to back down. But the last year should have taught us to be less inclined to see the sky falling at the first sign of outrage on Twitter than we used to be. The political crisis has been exacerbated by the now familiar pattern of exaggeration, hyperbole, and false rumors spreading like wildfire through the media and the internet to a polarized public primed to believe the worst. And it has been fueled by the deeply unfortunate polarization which has poisoned Egyptian politics over the last year, for which both the Islamists and their rivals bear their share of responsibility.
The surge of popular and institutional mobilization against Morsi's move are positive signs, since these are the only way to push back against executive overreach in the absence of a parliament, a constitution, or any institutionalized avenues of political contestation. Will the mobilization against Morsi's decree be another January 25 (unlikely), another round of the violent, pointless chaos of November and December 2011 (hopefully not), or -- in the best case -- a return to the unified, politically focused, and effective shows of popular force like those in the spring and early summer of 2011? Or will the mobilization and counter-mobilization succumb to the poisonous dynamics of an escalating existential battle between Islamists and their enemies that could destroy any hope of finding a shared foundation for a new constitutional order?
Morsi's Gaza triumph has rapidly faded from the Egyptian public arena in the face of the political crisis sparked by his power grab. But it remains an important part of the puzzle of Egypt's new politics. The eruption of Israel-Hamas fighting was rightly seen as the first real test of Morsi and his elected Egyptian Islamist government. Many thought he would seize the moment to escalate against Israel, tear up the Camp David Treaty, engage in reckless rhetoric to demonstrate radical credentials, or reveal the true extremism lurking behind a mask of moderation. Instead, he behaved as every bit the pragmatic statesman. It is too soon to know whether the ceasefire will hold, the Gaza blockade will be lifted, or precisely what responsibilities Egypt has now taken on as guarantor of the agreement. But in the short term, Egypt emerged looking a more effective diplomatic player than at any time in a decade of the long twilight of the Mubarak regime or the chaotic post-revolutionary transition.
He did so by positioning Egypt as an important mediator between Hamas and Israel and winning the confidence of Washington while also expressing pro-Palestinian views in line with those of the Egyptian and broader Arab public. Moves such as sending his prime minister to Gaza to express sympathy won political points even as he pursued a cautious, fairly traditional set of Egyptian interests toward Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood helped keep the streets relatively quiet, whatever its members felt privately, giving him space for diplomacy. And he showed that he could use both the Muslim Brotherhood's ties to Hamas and the Egyptian intelligence service's ties to Israel to become an effective broker. In short, on the regional stage Morsi's Egypt proved the adept practitioner of Realpolitik inflected with tactical appeals to Arab and Islamic identity. This is the role which Erdogan's Turkey played so effectively over the past few years -- and which Morsi's Egypt is now bidding to fill.
Had Morsi stopped there, there would have been a clear narrative of a pragmatic, effective new Egyptian government. But of course, he did not. Instead, he made his unprecedented bid to centralize power in the office of the presidency, a bold Calvinball move redefining the rules of the game in mid-play which immediately ignited a new political crisis. Opposition politicians ceased their bickering for the moment to unify around a denunciation of the power grab. A larger than normal crowd descended on Tahrir and protest broke out around the country, along with depressingly familiary violent clashes between security forces and the opposition. Meanwhile, Muslim Brotherhood supporters mobilized in counter-demonstrations. Rumors ran wild about coming moves to prosecute political enemies, purge the media, and more.
A case could have been made for Morsi's constitutional decree had he not pushed it too far. The judiciary has played an erratic, unpredictable, and politicized role throughout the transition, with its controversial decisions such as the dissolution of parliament. Its Calvinball approach to the rules, in the absence of either a constitution or a political consensus, introduced enormous and unnecessary uncertainty into the transition and badly undermined the legitimacy of the process. Morsi was not the only one who despaired of Cairo's political polarization and institutional gridlock. But none of that can justify his assertion of executive immunity from oversight or accountability, declaring his decisions "final and binding and cannot be appealed in any way or to any entity." And then there was Article VI, asserting the power to do literally anything "to protect the country and the goals of the revolution." That Morsi was elected has nothing to do with his attempt to place himself above the law. Nor does the expiration date of his extraordinary powers (after parliamentary elections and the constitutional referendum) reassure in the slightest.
The pushback which is now taking place on the streets and in the courthouse and in the public sphere is exactly what needs to happen, even if the increasing turn toward existential opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood rather than toward specific political issues is disturbing. For all the polarization and ugliness of the street clashes, this intense engagement with politics and unwillingness to accept Morsi's diktat are positive signs of the vitality of Egypt's vibrant, ornery, and contentious new politics. It shows yet again that there is no going back to the old patterns of Egyptian or Arab politics. The dissolution of parliament, failure to produce a constitution, and politicization of the judiciary has left Egyptians with no legitimate institutional channels by which to contest executive power. The ability of other political forces to push back through such extra-institutional means is crucial to maintaining de facto checks and balances on the president. De jure would be better.
Both Morsi and his rivals seem determined to push this fight toward what could be a truly ugly conflict rather than to seek the grounds for compromise. There is such a compromise to be had, however. Morsi has to back away from his claims of executive immunity, but the judiciary and other power centers need to stop blocking any political development. Morsi has to accept the urgent need for yet another try at putting together an inclusive and representative constitutional assembly, abandoning once and for all the odd notion that an electoral majority should entitle Islamists to majoritarian dominance of the drafting of a foundational document. But his opponents need to be willing to actually sit on such an assembly rather than quitting at the first sign of trouble to register their symbolic dissent. The cycle of violent repression of protests has to stop, with the security forces showing more restraint and protesters doing more to police their own ranks. I think it's important (though I suspect I am in a distinct minority on this) to get a legitimate parliament back in place -- whether by reinstating the dissolved one in its entirety, holding by-elections for the seats deemed unconstitutional, or holding entirely new elections.
Overall, at its core, both the Brotherhood and its opponents need to take steps to break the cycle of polarization and start to somehow build the common ground on which a successful transition will depend. They have not been good at this throughout the transition; in particular, I still believe that the Brotherhood blundered badly in breaking its promise to not seek the presidency, and that both Egypt and the Brotherhood would have been better off had they kept their word. There are a million other poor decisions by all actors along the way. But there's no going back to fix those mistakes, only the opportunity for both sides to seize this crisis to change direction. I don't think anyone is optimistic that such an accord will be reached. We will see this week whether either side wants to find one and is willing to take the first steps to repair the deep ruptures in Egypt's transitional politics.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.