Democracy in Egypt is still possible; the country's president isn't helping, though.
After helping end the fighting in Gaza, impressing President Barack Obama, and negotiating a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has fallen victim to what Bill Clinton calls "brass."
Morsi's hubristic post-Gaza power grab on Thursday was politically tone deaf, strategic folly and classic over-reach. It will deepen Egypt's political polarization, scare off desperately needed foreign investment and squander Egypt's rising credibility in the region and the world.
Television images of renewed clashes in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez will play into stereotypes that the Middle East is not ready for democracy. They will bolster suspicions inside and outside Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be trusted.
"There was a disease but this is not the remedy," Hassan Nafaa, a liberal political science professor and activist at Cairo University, told Reuters Friday. "We are going towards more polarization between the Islamist front on one hand and all the others on the other. This is a dangerous situation."
An alarming dynamic is taking hold in Egypt. Power-grabs, brinksmanship and walk-outs are becoming the norm, as a bitter struggle plays out among newly empowered Islamists, vestiges of the Mubarak regime and the country's deeply divided liberals. Political paralysis is the result -- with rule by presidential decree, overreach by the judiciary, and a deadlocked constitutional assembly. As polarization deepens, desperately needed economic, political, and judicial reforms stall.
Friday's street protests were relatively small compared to the massive Arab spring demonstrations. But the trend is in the wrong direction.
"President Morsi has used the nearly absolute authority he assumed last August," Nathan Brown warned in an excellent analysis for The Arabist, "to try to put that absolute authority beyond reach, at least on a temporary basis. He may very well succeed."
In a surprising triumph in August, Morsi abruptly ended the Egyptian military's post-Mubarak rule of the country. After apparently gaining the support of younger military officers, Morsi forced older, pro-Mubarak officers, led by Field Marshall Muhamad Hussein Tantawi, into retirement. Morsi then seized sweeping powers.
In one positive sign, Morsi used his new authority sparingly. Critics who feared an Islamist crackdown were proven wrong. His boldest move was a failed October attempt to remove the country's unpopular prosecutor general, a Mubarak holdover widely criticized for mounting lenient prosecutions of Mubarak and other former officials. When the prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, refused to obey Morsi's order to resign, the new president quickly backed down.
That restraint vanished on Thursday. Morsi removed the unpopular prosecutor, opened the doors for a re-trial of Mubarak and other officials, and granted himself and the country's constitutional assembly immunity from rulings by the country' pro-Mubarak judiciary. Critics feared pro-Mubarak judges would dissolve the constitutional assembly, just as they had dissolved the country's first democratically elected parliament before Morsi was elected president in June.