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News Flash: Egypt’s Islamist President Assumes Dictatorial Powers

Being the main sponsor of Hamas, a terrorist group, used to be called "state sponsorship of terrorism," now it is to be admired as being, in the New York Times formulation, Hamas’s “most important international ally.” Another interesting parallel is that Hamas, like the fellow Brotherhood branch in Egypt, won an election and then seized power completely. Things in Egypt have not yet gone that far, but Mursi has taken a big step in that direction.

At home, it has taken only a few weeks for Mursi to return to dictatorship. The decree comes as secular-minded groups demonstrate in the Tahrir Square area while the Islamists call for suppressing them.

Mursi’s offensive seeks to give him the power to purge existing institutions and put supporters in control.

Perhaps the highest priority is to take over the court system by appointing Islamist judges. During the late Mubarak regime, judges were among the most courageous of dissidents, issuing decisions the government doesn’t like. After the revolution, judges gave rulings against the Brotherhood’s goals, for example, saying that the election of parliament—which is three-quarters Islamist—was illegal. Mursi wants to reverse this ruling by decree rather than face new elections where Islamist vote totals will probably plummet.

The other key institutions are the armed forces, where top generals have already resigned, and the religious establishment. While the chiefs of Egypt’s religious system, including the powerful mosque-university al-Azhar, are hardly liberal, they are also not systematic Islamists or Brotherhood supporters. Once such people are replaced with loyalists, the Brotherhood will have the power to define Islam itself.

Given the international authority of al-Azhar, which trains clerics for many different countries, Sunni Islam from Morocco to Indonesia would be closer to becoming thoroughly in line with revolutionary Islamist, anti-Western, antisemitic thinking.  That is not to say it is open, liberal, and tolerant now. But the situation would be far worse and destabilizing. For example, mainstream clerics would issue a stream of rulings justifying terrorism and condemning anyone who cooperated with the West.

The Egyptian regime’s cooperation on a Gaza ceasefire, then, was in large part intended to defuse any reaction against its movement toward dictatorship at home. It is doubtful, for example, that the Obama administration will condemn the new decree giving Mursi total power in the country. And Egypt will get almost $10 billion in aid from the United States, European Union, and International Monetary Fund, even as it becomes a repressive, Islamist state.

Also read: Egypt’s Judges Slam Morsi Power Grab