The Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, is doing great damage to his country’s democracy
THE bespectacled Mohamed ElBaradei is a serious man with a pile of degrees in constitutional law and a Nobel Prize for running the UN’s nuclear agency. Last winter he warned of grave trouble if his country elected a president before defining the powers of the office in a new constitution. The generals in charge of post-revolutionary Egypt failed to listen.
That is something many Egyptians will now deeply regret. Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brother and winner of presidential elections in June, shocked the country by issuing a decree that assumes vastly widened powers for his office, including virtual immunity against judicial oversight. He then ordered the assembly that is drawing up the country’s new constitution to cram a month’s work into a single day—so as to produce a draft on November 29th, ready for a referendum in mid-December. All this has met with furious protests. The courts have gone on strike and demonstrators have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since last year’s revolution.
Mr Morsi’s frustration with the courts is understandable. Egypt’s judges have serially and petulantly interfered with the creation of better democratic institutions, disbanding an elected parliament on a technicality and threatening to scrap the constitution-drafting body. His powers will lapse when the constitution is adopted. But all this is eclipsed by his disastrous rush to get the constitution he wants at any price.
For one thing, the draft is flawed. The founding document of Egypt’s new democracy is full of waffle about the role of Islam and draws freely on the dictatorial constitution of 1971. Just as bad, Mr Morsi has engineered the backing of Egypt’s armed forces for the rushed job by enshrining the principle that a serving officer will be minister of defence. In effect, that spares the overmighty army from civilian oversight.
Just as bad is the flagrant abuse of process. Flushed with his success in helping to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, Mr Morsi went too far, too fast. By declaring himself above any law, he raised the spectre of a return to dictatorship. Egypt is fresh from turfing out its latest despot, who governed on the basis of “emergency powers” that lasted for 30 years. By rushing through the constitution, Mr Morsi virtually guaranteed that it would lack legitimacy. Nearly a third of the assembly’s members, including all the Christians and women, have resigned in protest at its domination by Islamists, few of whom have a background in constitutional law. At times on November 28th it did not even have a quorum.
This leaves Egypt polarised. Many of its people are sceptical of, if not hostile to, the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive society that raised Mr Morsi and to which he owes allegiance. Even advisers and fellow-Islamists have distanced themselves from the president. United for once, leaders of Egypt’s secular opposition, including Mr ElBaradei, have vowed to fight.
Mr Morsi, like the vast majority of Egyptians, professes to want a stable democracy. He and his party, whose instinctive mistrust for outsiders was ingrained by decades of oppression, must understand that a strong showing in a single election does not entitle the Brotherhood to monopolise the drafting of a constitution that will govern Egypt for years.
Ideally Mr Morsi would even now step back from this disastrous path. At the least, he should try to salvage a shred of legitimacy. This means ensuring that the forthcoming constitutional referendum is free and fair. Mr Morsi can go down in history either as the leader who guided Egypt towards stability, or as the man who scotched its chances of a decent future. Just now it looks as if he has chosen infamy.