News Flash: Egypt’s Islamist President Assumes Dictatorial Powers

The French press agency headline says it all: “Egypt's [President] Morsi assumes sweeping powers, branded new pharaoh.” Mursi has issued a decree giving himself virtually dictatorial powers and contradicting the assumption that he—and his Muslim Brotherhood organization—intend to rule democratically. Opposition forces said this constituted a coup.

Mursi’s spokesman explained the decree in these terms: the president can issue any decree he wishes to protect the revolution. "The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal."

It seems apparent that this is another step in the process toward the fundamental transformation of Egypt into an Islamist, Sharia-ruled state. If one views the 2011 revolution as a democratic one, then Mursi is destroying it. But of course he and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists see it as an Islamist revolution, parallel to the 1979 Iranian revolution -- though in Egyptian terms, of course. Lest there be any illusions about what this means, note that Mursi is one man whose legitimacy is not established in practice--despite having won an election--and who cannot depend on the country's institutions to obey him. The power behind Mursi is not that he is president but that he has the support of the country's strongest group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and can generally count on the Salafists as well.

The timing of this takeover is ironic since it coincides with an all-time high for the Obama administration’s regard for Egypt, following that regime’s brokering of an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, including a continuous insistence from the U.S. government and mass media that the Brotherhood was now moderate and pro-democratic. In a normal universe, a U.S. president would be furious at Egypt for being made to look foolish after lavishing so much praise on Egypt and its insistence that the Brotherhood was moderate and democratic. Of course, that will not happen with this administration.

It is true that Mursi acted “pragmatically” on the ceasefire issue. But what does that mean? He took into account his own regime interests and didn’t just howl “Alahu Akhbar!” repeatedly. Westerners seem to think that for someone to be a radical Islamist they have to be a wild man. If Osama bin Laden wore a suit and tie, he’d still be alive today.

But of course Mursi wants to stay in power and strengthen his regime. He’s not going to throw away $10 billion in aid (U.S., EU, IMF) for some wild adventure in the Gaza Strip that Hamas began without asking him. He doesn’t yet control the country or the army. There’s no constitution and no functioning parliament. If the Muslim Brotherhood has proven anything, it is that it has patience.

According to the New York Times:

Mr. Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology. Most important, Mr. Obama told aides that he considered Mr. Morsi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.

"The thing that appealed to the president was how practical the conversations were — here’s the state of play, here are the issues we’re concerned about,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “This was somebody focused on solving problems.”

But the main problems Mursi is focused on is how to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power, how to get lots of money from the West, and how to make Egypt into a radical Islamist state. Enforcing quiet in the Gaza Strip right now is part of that effort.