Egypt is rapidly approaching its most acute political and economic crisis since the 2011 revolution that swept dictator Hosni Mubarak from power.
Poverty is at an all-time high of 25 percent, with youth unemployment at a record 40 percent. Foreign currency reserves are on a rapid decline. President Mohamed Morsi is losing the most important commodity he possesses—the people’s confidence and trust. Conditions seem ripe for either a new uprising from below or a new military coup from above.
Instead of cementing his new regime’s democratic credentials, Morsi has undermined the legitimacy of his rule in word and deed. For example, immediately after collaborating with President Barack Obama to broker a ceasefire in Gaza last November, Morsi issued a decree giving himself sweeping powers not even enjoyed by Mubarak. If Morsi thought his usefulness to the Obama administration would persuade Washington to look the other way during his power grabs, the administration has done little to correct him.
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Regime critics have held massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square and in several other cities. Although many Christians and secularists have joined the recent demonstrations, the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators have been Muslims, with most of the women in Tahrir Square donning headdresses.
Yet in language often used by dictators and tyrants to slander their critics, Morsi has labeled these demonstrations the work of “infiltrators,” “thugs,” and “terrorists.” Moreover, he has unleashed the police and his supporters on the demonstrators, resulting in clashes where several have been killed and hundreds wounded. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have engaged in violence against their Muslim brethren to prevent them from expressing their moderate and liberal views.
In light of the recent unrest, it’s increasingly difficult to overlook the illiberal currents at work in Egypt’s constitutional process. The drafting of the constitution was controlled mostly by the Muslim Brotherhood and some of its Islamist allies. In order to curry favor with the military leadership, they imbued the military with arguably greater powers than it enjoyed even under Mubarak. The new constitution gives the military seven out of 15 members of the council that has the power to declare war and control the secret military budget. Among other illiberal provisions, the constitution singles out “the duties of a woman,” allows military trials of civilians under certain conditions, and fails to guarantee religious freedoms. The voters approved the new constitution by a considerable margin, but results were clouded by a boycott from opponents. The majority of urban and educated voters opposed the new constitution.
In the past, I have been very optimistic about the future of Egypt’s revolution. I continued to be optimistic when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through free and democratic elections. I overlooked some of the more inartful statements and acts by Brotherhood leaders as part of the democratic struggle on the bumpy road to full democracy. With some exceptions, Egyptians seemed to agree.
But now Morsi has to prove himself worthy of that trust. He must push the next parliament into amending the constitution to give complete and equal freedom to Egyptians regardless of gender or religion, reduce the number of military members in the national defense council, and bring the military budget under the auspices of the parliament. Morsi should take steps to ensure the safety and full participation of the country’s nearly 15 million Coptic Christians, and he must stop harassing opposition media and non-profit organizations.
Morsi still has an opportunity to become a historic leader for the people of Egypt and the Arab world. But to do it, he’ll have to free himself from Mubarak’s dark shadow and start acting like the president of all Egyptians.