How dictatorial is Egypt's Morsi?

Mohammed Morsi's recent decree, granting himself sweeping legal powers, including immunity to judicial oversight, has sparked fears that Egypt has replaced one dictator with another.
Under Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's new powers, any laws he has made since he took office back in June and any laws in the immediate future are final and cannot be appealed to the judiciary until a new constitution is approved. (Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press)

Mohammed Morsi's recent decree, granting himself sweeping legal authority, including temporary immunity to judicial oversight, has sparked fears that Egypt has replaced one dictator with another.

Some critics have even begun calling him a 21st century pharaoh.

"Certainly the powers that he's asserted for himself are total," Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told CBC News.

Morsi had already asserted full executive authority at the outset of his tenure earlier this year and then used his power to reconvene parliament's constitutional assembly in August, Trager observed.

"And now with the latest, he has not only put himself above any judicial oversight but actually declared the authority to pass any law that would advance the revolution, which is such a vague term that it implies unchecked extensive powers."

"So, is he Egypt's dictator? At the moment, yes, on paper the most powerful Egyptian leader since the pharaoh," said Trager who has extensively studied Morsi and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the once-banned Islamist party that he was a member of.

Trager, like many demonstrators in Tahrir Square these past days, are concerned about Morsi's apparent power grab. But others also fear the country's new constitution will be Islamicized to a point that it might suppress individual liberties.

For many, that would call into question whether the Arab Spring and the deposing of former president Hosni Mubarak was worth the struggle.

Temporary laws

Under Morsi's new powers, which he has claimed are temporary, any laws he has made since he took office back in June and any laws in the immediate future are final and cannot be appealed to the judiciary until a new constitution is approved. 

The new president also barred any court from dissolving the upper house of Parliament, where Islamists are the majority, or the constituent assembly, which is in charge of creating the new Egyptian constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood is dominating that process, too, as other participants have walked away from the task in protest.

More than 200,000 people flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square earlier this week, demanding Morsi revoke edicts granting himself new powers. (Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press)

Morsi also asserted that the president may take "necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution."

None of this should come as a surprise, said Trager, who said Morsi's former role in the Muslim Brotherhood was to enforce its hardline doctrine.

"This is a not a moderate by any stretch. This is someone who very much viewed himself as an organization man first and foremost," Trager said.

"The idea that this was going to be someone who would moderate in office, who might rule pluralistically simply ignored the reality of the organization that he came from …

"He was the official most in charge for making the Brotherhood an anti-pluralistic organization."

Nezar Alsayyad, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said Morsi has acquired certain powers that most of the previous presidents of Egypt since it became a republic never had.

"Neither [former presidents] Nasser, nor Sadat, nor Mubarak had the power that Morsi had today," Alsayyad told CBC News.

But Morsi has defended his actions, saying they are temporary measures to restore democracy and protect the constituent assembly as it prepares a new constitution.

Morsi feared that the country's constitutional court, dominated by liberal and secularist members, was set to dissolve the constituent assembly, hindering the goal of establishing the limits of presidential powers and, as seems likely, a more Islamic-centric constitution.

The Egyptian judiciary has stepped in before. It ordered parliament be dissolved last June after deeming the election unconstitutional, and that put a halt to the constitution-making.

"He took short-term extremely dictatorial steps and said it was necessary to do because the judiciary was poised to disrupt the entire process, a process that was designed to build a democratic system," said Nathan Brown, political science professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

Brown said concerns that Morsi is becoming or has become a dictator are "exaggerated for now." But he also said that while Morsi's fears about the judiciary were well grounded, they, too, were most likely exaggerated since Morsi could have just appointed a new constituent assembly.

But Alsayyad of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies said what Morsi was really trying to do was to protect the Islamist-dominated consitituent assembly to guarantee the creation of a constitution that enhances the rule of Sharia law.

Sharia law has been part of Egypt since Anwar Sadat enacted the first modern-era constitution in 1971. That document stated that Islam is the religion of the state and that legislation is inspired by Sharia law.

But Alsayyad said the existing constitutional article pertaining to Sharia law was flexible, allowed for interpretation and did not state that Sharia law would be the only source of legislation.

"What the Islamists want to do is change that so that it is the only source of legislation and they want to go further as to identify who the authorities would be in charge of interpreting that aspect of the constitution," Alsayyad said.

"What Morsi wants is it to be very clear: This is an Islamic country with Sharia as its only laws of the state."

Fears overblown?

Other concerns have been raised as well about the proposed constitution.

In a recent article written for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hafez Abu Saeda, executive director of the Middle East Freedom Forum, wrote that, in his view, the draft constitution "fails to provide even the dimmest hope for the realization of Egyptian society's aspirations."

Among his chief concerns is that while the constitution protects certain rights and freedoms, there are also qualifiers that say those rights are protected "within the confines of the law" and "according to the law," which could cause those rights to lose their constitutional value.

But Brown, a renowned expert on Egyptian constitutional law, said some of those fears have been overblown.

"In general what they do is they take from the old document, they do tweak it a little in an Islamicizing direction but not one that is as severe that people would fear," he said.

Brown said this constitution tends to be better on narrow political rights — freedom of speech, freedom of expression. But he acknowledged it is less strong on broader freedom and cultural expression.

"There's some material in there about Egyptian values and protecting the family, avoiding insults to the prophets and humanity and that sort of thing, that could be used, I think, to squelch unpopular speech," he said.

"So you  might be able to criticize the ruler but you certainly couldn't criticize religion."

He added that the constitution speaks of freedom of belief but there are much less robust guarantees for the freedom of religious practice

Still, it is not the constitution that would necessarily make Egypt more Islamicized, he said, but who is operating the constitutional machinery.

The constitution may spell out certain freedoms, but the established laws are still very restrictive and to bring those laws into accordance with new constitutional principles is a long task, he said.

"All constitutions usually promise rights. But read the fine print. How would they guarantee them, who is given responsibility, what kind of enforcement mechanisms [are there]? 

"This draft constitution is stronger than the one it's replacing but probably not up to the hopes of a lot of the revolutionaries of last year. It doesn't go quite as far as they would have wanted in many critical areas."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press