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.
In a speech outside the presidential palace on Friday, Morsi argued that he had seized sweeping powers to preserve the transition to democracy. He promised that once full constitutional democracy was established, he would relinquish these powers.
"I am for all Egyptians," Morsi said, adding that he was working for social and economic stability and the rotation of power. "I will not be biased against any son of Egypt."
Unfortunately, we've seen this script before. It almost always turns out badly. A destructive dynamic is taking hold in Egypt. The poisonous distrust and conspiracy theories that have handicapped the country's transition to democracy are deepening.
On Friday, a senior Brotherhood official scoffed at liberal opposition leader Muhammed ElBaradei's calls for protests.
"We're not scared of ElBaradei," the official told journalist Lauren E. Bohn, "he has no real support on street, he's Western."
ElBaradei and members of country's liberal opposition have their flaws. They are deeply divided, failed to build strong political organizations and too quickly engaged in boycotts and walk-outs.
Only Egyptians can change Egypt's political culture. The international community, though, can and should clearly signal its support for constitutional democracy and the rule-of law in Egypt. The State Department issued a statement Friday calling on all sides to peacefully resolve their differences. But the quicker way to create pressure is through the IMF.
On Tuesday, officials from Egypt and the IMF announced a tentative agreement to issue a $4.8 billion IMF loan to the country's cash-strapped government. Egyptian officials agreed to enact spending and tax reforms designed to reduce the country's deficit, attract foreign investment and restore the economic growth that vanished after Mubarak's fall.
IMF officials said the loan was part of a whopping $14.5 billion funding package planned for Egypt. They did not name the donors but they are believed to include the Unites States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Final approval of the $4.8 billion IMF agreement lies with the group's board, due to meet on Dec. 19.
Washington, Brussels, and the IMF should set benchmarks for the disbursement of the aid, pegged to democratic reform being implemented in Egypt. Fears of instability in Egypt or Gaza should not prompt the international community to turn a blind eye to Morsi's power-grab. All Egypt's key stakeholders -- whether Islamists or secular liberals -- should be shown that they will pay a price for anti-democratic excess.
We've funneled billions to Egyptian dictators before. The results were grim: poverty, economic stagnation and deep resentment of the United States. If Morsi -- or any Egyptian leader -- flouts democracy, they should not receive billions in American and international aid.
If Egyptians squander their chance for democracy, it's their choice. Shame one us, though, if we lose our nerve and make the strongman mistake twice.
This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.