Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s November 22 decree awarding himself vast new powers has both stirred up a political hornet’s nest and demonstrated the uncertainty and difficulty of the transition to consolidated democracy of one of the most important countries in the Arab world. The decree, which critics say is akin to former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s laws and may even go beyond any of them, gives Mr. Morsy the power to enact any law he wants, and in effect removes the current prosecutor general, so that no authority can now revoke any presidential decision; the President also gets the power to appoint a new prosecutor general for a four-year term. The edict, claimed by Mr. Morsy to be a way of ‘cleansing public institutions,’ will remain in force until a new parliament is elected — but that cannot be done until a new constitution is drafted — and Mr. Morsy has also extended the timeline for that process. The President issued the decree of his own accord, without consultation, in a move that has been likened to the Free Officers’ coup in 1954 and amounts to a sidelining of the judiciary. It is a contemporary version of a Henry VIII clause.

Substantial sections of the Egyptian public have, understandably, been horrified by the Morsy edict, and have taken to the iconic Tahrir Square; some of the initial protests, including those in Alexandria, turned violent as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, parent body to Mr. Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party, confronted them, and at the time of writing four people have died. The judiciary, for its part, has gone on strike, and most courts are closed. The President says he means the new powers to apply only to “sovereignty-related issues”, but that is at best vague; the judiciary, for its part, is widely distrusted for its role during the 30-year-long Mubarak regime, and the President’s announcement of a special judicial group to reopen the trials of former members of the dictatorship may not go far enough. Mass demonstrations are planned, but for the present most of the public apparently do not wish open confrontation to go too far. The Muslim Brotherhood has abandoned plans for counter-demonstrations, and there are grounds for some optimism. Mr. Morsy’s dismissal of the senior military has reduced the army’s influence. Secondly, the decree has united the democratic opposition, including liberals, leftists, and other groups, in a new National Salvation Front. The key point is that Mr. Morsy’s decree is simply not a substitute for genuine democratic reform of major public institutions. That is where the real work lies.

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