Fresh from brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza, Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi tested his popularity back home. The move backfired. A decree on 20 November granting him sweeping new powers reignited tensions between Islamist supporters of Mursi and the rest of the country. It was a sharp illustration that Egypt has failed to unite behind its new ruler.
Mursi’s declaration prevents the courts from dissolving the body writing Egypt’s new constitution. Secular and liberal members have all but abandoned the assembly, leaving it now dominated by Islamists. It also delivers Mursi unprecedented new powers, granting the president the unrestrained ability to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution”. His supporters say this new authority will only remain in place until a new constitution is drafted and a new parliament is elected.
Evoking their recent history, some Egyptian’s see similarities with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of a coup that overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk in 1952. There are obvious similarities. Nasser’s decrees were also framed as an unwanted, but necessary load for Egypt’s law and order. Ominously, Nasser’s next step was to ban all political parties, and to establish a one party system. Large parts of the population of Egypt are unconvinced that Mursi is not following a similar path.
Many Egyptians are not convinced by promises that the powers are only temporary. Even the hastily announced concessions – that new laws would be reviewed by the courts before being passed – have not calmed tensions. Whatever political capital Mursi may have gained from his diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Gaza, the response to his domestic policy has been mass protests, with thousands of people gathered in the old Tahrir Square. The Muslim Brotherhood has also mobilised its supporters. The newly rebuilt square could be a battleground again for the fate of last year’s revolution.