Few would have ever expected that the easier of the two daunting tasks facing new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi last week would be the brokering of the cease-fire that ended the fighting in the Gaza Strip by Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, thus ending, at least for now, the threat of a major Middle East crisis.
When Morsi succeeded in persuading the Israelis and the Palestinians to put down their weapons, a grateful world cheered. And, immediately, he attained international relevance. But he still is so new to his job back in Egypt that he needed — or at least believed he needed — to take a bold and deeply controversial step to secure not just his presidency but what he viewed as the preferred outcome of his country’s recent revolution.
So, wisely or not, he issued a decree that appeared to grant him virtually all the powers of a dictator, which is exactly the opposite of what the “Arab Spring” uprisings were all about. And in doing so, he invited the unbridled wrath of Egypt’s secularists and political liberals — they’re often the same people, of course — who had thought the whole idea of the revolution was precisely to end dictatorship.
In Washington, President Obama and the State Department must be viewing all this unexpected turmoil with a certain amount of apprehension, if not outright confusion. They have to decide — and the decision can only follow careful analysis — what would be the proper United States response to Morsi’s apparent power-grab. He is, after all, the person who, in negotiating the cease-fire, accomplished exactly what Obama wanted so it would appear he has earned considerable patience on the part of America’s political leaders.
But, with his decree, what if Morsi has miscalculated and in fact has unwisely destabilized Egypt after a far too-brief period of political calm? Indeed, there already have been widespread riots, particularly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where demonstrators so famously succeeded in ending the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
The United States, no matter who occupied the White House, had always tolerated Mubarak’s leadership simply because he was — despite his antipathy toward Egyptian democracy — reliably useful in maintaining a stable relationship with Israel, something no other Arab leaders were willing to do.
And yet, quite naturally, the United States cheered as the Egyptian people demanded political freedom, unseating the American ally Mubarak, and in an open and free election elected Morsi to be their new leader. True, his party is the Muslim Brotherhood, and because of its very name there are many in America who distrust it, believing its first goal is to advance the anti-American agenda of militant Islamists in Egypt. However, in the early stages of his presidency, it appeared Morsi was less doctrinaire than many had feared.
Now those fears have been revived, and, not surprisingly, Morsi has his supporters who accuse many in the elected assembly’s non-Islamist minority of obstructing the path to a constitutional democracy simply because they refuse to accept their defeat at the polls.
“They are afraid of democracy, really,” an official of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in a recent interview. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”
Washington needs to be sure it knows exactly where the truth lies before settling on any particular approach to the Egyptian situation. Until Morsi shows he can deal with his own nation’s unrest as ably as he dealt with the fighting between Israel and her Palestinian enemies, there will be only worrisome uncertainty.
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