BUOYED up by his success in effecting a ceasefire in Gaza, President Mohamed Morsi has acted the wrong way — he has given himself sweeping powers in a move that the opposition calls “a coup against legitimacy”. The new decree issued on Thursday says decisions taken by the president cannot be overturned by any authority, including the courts. This negates the very spirit of the Arab Spring. Already, the president had enormous powers, because there is no legislature and he himself makes the laws. By pre-empting a judicial review of his actions, the president has armed himself with absolute powers. No wonder opposition leaders, who include such names as former Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, allege that the president has anointed himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”. More menacingly, there is a hint of witch-hunting in his moves, because he has decided to reopen Hosni Mubarak’s trial and sacked chief prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak loyalist. The charge against him was that he failed to secure adequate punishments for pro-Mubarak demonstrators who had attacked the security forces. He had earlier withdrawn his decision to fire Mr Mahmoud under pressure from Egypt’s powerful legal fraternity.
An acute and dangerous polarisation could grip Egypt, because Muslim Brotherhood activists have demonstrated in the decree’s favour, while the opposition has begun street protests and attacked Muslim Brotherhood offices. On Thursday, shortly after the decree was announced, Muslim Brotherhood activists staged demonstrations in front of the main court building, demanding that the judiciary be “purified”. This is a disturbing development. Unless such demands for purges are discouraged in time, the country could head towards authoritarianism. At present, Egypt has no parliament, and a Brotherhood-dominated assembly is still drafting a new constitution. The absence of any constitutional and legal checks on a head of state who already wields executive and legislative powers could throttle democracy, strengthen totalitarian tendencies and dash the populist hopes for which the people of Egypt had launched a valiant struggle against a despotic regime. As an opposition leader said, the anti Mubarak stir was not launched “in search of a benign dictator”.