Mohammed Morsi: Abe Lincoln in Disguise or Another Mubarak?

At this point, we don't really know if Morsi is on a path to installing himself as a "new pharaoh" or whether he is genuinely trying to build a more inclusive Egypt.

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

"I am the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, clothed in immense power!" one can imagine Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi thinking after his jaw-dropping power grab these last few days.

Of course this is parody of the words roared by President Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's stunning film, Lincoln, as the 16th American president ground down by a four-year, bloody civil war spent the entirety of his political capital procuring Constitutionally-based freedom for millions of American slaves. 

At this point, we really don't know if President Morsi is actually planning to install himself as what Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has called a "new pharaoh" -- or whether he has committed to an inclusive democratic vision for Egypt which he believes requires extraordinary measures, much like those Abraham Lincoln took while manipulating pols of his day, procuring votes through patronage and threat. 

The fact is that while Morsi has declared himself, at least for the moment, the maker of law, the implementer of law, and the overseer of himself who makes the law, his rhetoric is highly inclusive. He has frustrated many in the Muslim Brotherhood by not moving to establish more of a theocratic state and not moving against other of the newly established political parties and movements in the country. At a public level, Morsi says he is acting on behalf of all Egyptians -- not just those who are tied to the Brothers. 

Morsi states that he is moving to reduce the authority and influence of those loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak -- and that first the army and then the courts have been havens for protectors of the old regime's interests. 

Is Morsi the kind of leader who will aggrandize total power and then liberalize like a George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? Or is he more like a Lee Kuan Yew who can build a state and the facade of a democratic system while holding tightly to power for decades in all ways that matter? 

We don't know the answer yet. But for those surprised by Morsi's moves -- as the State Department reportedly was after having just secured his pivotal support on a Gaza-Israel truce -- only naivete would lead one to believe that a healthy, balanced, checks-and-balance democracy would immediately succeed the kind of autocracy Mubarak mastered. 

Despite the claims in the media today that Egypt's judiciary was fairly independent and respected, the fact is that the system -- all parts of it, including the judiciary -- were ruthlessly managed and sculpted by forces that stewarded Mubarak's interests and power.

There were no checks and balances in Egypt during Mubarak; nor during de facto head of state General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's short reign; and for the time being, there will be no checks and balances during Mohammed Morsi's tenure -- at least not in this phase. 

Given the conditions of Egypt's rotten political culture that are turbulent and unstable, it seems ridiculous to think that an Egyptian leader -- whether religious or devoutly secular, whether a man or a woman -- would automatically and successfully move the Egyptian political architecture into one based on checks and balance statecraft. 

This doesn't mean that the protests against Morsi in Tahrir Square are wrong or illegitimate. They are in fact vital in the absence of other political checks on Morsi. Note this excellent survey of the scene by David Rohde.

In a political system that has not been forged over decades and centuries of constitutional battle about the rights and prerogatives of branches of government, perhaps the people must rise in such a delicate time to empower other branches of government, while communicating what they believe to be the limits of Egyptian presidential powers. In other words, this conflict was inevitable: a new President whose party had been suborned and abused by the previous political order, mistrustful of institutions derived from that preceding era, is working to sweep aside those institutions and the people in them like any powerful executive would. 

In a system of checks and balances, other parts of the political order rise to challenge the executive, vigorously defending their own turf and legitimacy. The people must allow both sides, or all three or four or five, sides in the institutional square-off to ultimately win, so that institutions are balanced each other not because they want to be but because there is no choice. 

That is the strength and delicacy of democracy -- and Egypt is not nearly there yet. 

The United States is in the proverbial glass house on this one as its own demonstration of a system of checks and balances is at a darker stage at the moment, when parties seem to relish strangling the interests of the state and the people rather than compromising across political lines. The world today sees a victorious American President stymied almost immediately by challenges to his choice (Susan Rice) for Secretary of State as well as what looks to be a high-stakes game of brinksmanship over a tax and spending deal, or alternatively framed, an ideological train wreck going over what has become called "the fiscal cliff." 

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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