Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable,” according to Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Decades-long military rule has left nothing but an undemocratic political tradition in Egypt — less than is needed to give the infant civilian government under President Mohammad Mursi time and space to push for the anticipated democratization of the nation.
Egypt has been enduring massive street protests in several parts of the country over the past week after Mursi issued a presidential decree on Thursday granting him far-ranging judicial powers, including immunity from judicial oversight regarding any laws he issues until a new parliament and constitution is in place.
Mursi has been having a hard time governing since taking office in June. The president has been relying mostly on the support of Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaah Islamiyah. He has to deal with a bureaucracy that is still dominated by loyalists of ousted president Hosni Mubarak while negotiating an escalating power struggle between himself and the military.
His decision to issue the decree has been proven counterproductive and has largely been considered a setback in the country’s ongoing democratization, which began after Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011 and Mursi’s election victory last June. The decree, in essence, makes the president virtually untouchable — and no different from the military rulers who he replaced in the democratic election in June.
It is true that Mursi has been in a difficult position, as he leads a nation that is only in an embryonic stage of democratization, lacking an infrastructure for democratic processes and with an electorate that is not yet prepared for democratic values. However, instead of issuing the controversial decree, Mursi should have pursued a more democratic way of ensuring his presidency, by, for example, seeking constitutional assurance of a full four-year term — a practice acceptable in many democracies. However, the first and urgent thing for the president to do is to revoke the decree.