In a move which will resonate far beyond West Asia and North Africa, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has rescinded the decree he issued on November 22 giving himself sweeping powers including immunity from challenge to any decision he made thenceforth. The cancellation is clearly a response to widespread public protests, some of which turned violent; at least seven people died and 350 were injured in confrontations between supporters of Mr. Morsy’s movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the President’s opponents. Leaders of the National Salvation Front, a coalition favouring secular democracy, state that the President’s self-arrogated powers went beyond even those of the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, and that Mr. Morsy has thereby lost legitimacy. The President has convinced none of his opponents that the powers in question were needed for an orderly transition to representative democracy, and the strength of public feeling was probably a shock to him; the security forces did not stop crowds from removing barricades around the presidential palace in Heliopolis. International reaction has also shown a sharp change in tone from the Mubarak era; the United States initially supported Mr. Mubarak when the uprising against him started on January 25, 2011, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has now stated that “enduring cooperation” will be hard to sustain without “democratic legitimacy and public consent.”

Mr. Morsy, however, has not cancelled the referendum he has scheduled for December 15 on the draft constitution prepared by a 100-member committee agreed by the parties after the judiciary had unilaterally dissolved the constituent assembly which had been elected a few months earlier. Amid severe disagreements, 19 members withdrew, criticising the document’s Islamism — it would make the Sharia the main source of law — and weak protections of rights. Yet if the public rejects the constitution, Mr. Morsy will remain in place with no specification of powers for the various institutions of state. Powerful groups from the ancien régime will do all they can to maintain their power-bases; the former ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has been dissolved, but Mr. Morsy has added two top Scaf generals to his own entourage and made a third defence minister. Secondly, the judiciary could in effect be taking sides against Mr. Morsy and his Islamist supporters; it has said it will not supervise the referendum. Clearly, the leaders of the major blocs are yet to learn a politics legitimised by the public, whose protests are the only thing keeping Egypt from returning to the bad old days.

More In: Editorial | Opinion