Editorial: Egypt at risk of losing all it fought for in Tahrir Square

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Amid the turmoil in Egypt, one thing is certain. Nobody will be underestimating President Mohammed Morsi from now on. When he was elected to power in June, detractors assumed he would be a puppet of the military, which had ruled the country for 60 years. Mr Morsi quickly defused that threat by ordering the retirement of the army's top generals. More recently, he has, once again, defied critics by astutely brokering the truce that ended a week of conflict between Israel and Hamas. With international acclaim ringing in his ears, he then proclaimed a decree so all-encompassing that it was equated to appointing himself Egypt's "new pharaoh".

The decree stated that Mr Morsi can issue "any decision or measure to protect the revolution". These will be final and not subject to appeal. This placed him at odds with Egypt's sidelined judiciary and the young, secular liberals and leftists who spilled blood for their democratic ideals in Cairo's Tahrir Square last year. In mass demonstrations, they have made it clear they are ready to do the same again, given that Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers have assumed powers little different to those held by Hosni Mubarak, the man ousted in the Arab Spring revolution.

Mr Morsi has reacted by saying his sweeping powers are temporary. They would stay in place only until a new constitution, now set to be published today, was approved in a referendum, setting the stage for parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-2013.

According to his backers, these powers have become essential because of the push-back from Mubarak loyalists and from the courts, where the loyalists have a strong presence. The courts have, for example, dissolved the elected, Brotherhood-dominated lower house of Parliament, and have been considering disbanding an assembly writing a new constitution. Mr Morsi's decree was the only way to break through the deadlock preventing the adoption of that constitution, say his supporters.

It is possible to understand why Mr Morsi feels frustrated and, to his credit, counter-rallies of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been called off in an attempt to ease tensions. His commitment to democracy, or disdain for it and determination to concentrate power in his own hands, will become clear when the contents of the constitution are revealed.

But there is already enough evidence in his conduct to suggest the fears held for Egypt are well merited. Take, for instance, his allegation that money stolen under the old regime was being used to fund the new protests, including by "thugs". This could only have been calculated to inflame matters by convincing his supporters that the pro-democracy demonstrators are the same as Mr Mubarak's hired henchmen.

Such statements differ greatly from the moderate stance adopted by Mr Morsi in securing the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. This allowed the President to go some way towards allaying fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is intent on creating a repressive Islamist state in Egypt.

Now, those concerns are not only back but have been written larger. Politically and socially, Egypt is split even more starkly into the two camps evidenced by Mr Morsi winning just 52 per cent of the vote in the presidential election.

As it stands, he is above the rule of law, and has eschewed any notion of power-sharing. That is far from a march towards democracy. In response to demonstrations throughout Egypt, he has called for political dialogue to reach "a common ground". But many of his actions betray another intent. The advances wrought last year by the Tahrir Square protesters are in danger of coming to nought.

- NZ Herald

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