Photograph by Jin Lee/Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photograph by Jin Lee/Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi appears to be struggling with the concept of separation of power in a democratic system. Whether he masters it will determine Egypt’s chances of becoming a genuine democracy.

Mursi’s latest effort to grab authority to which he is not entitled is worrisome because it’s his second such offense. In July he tried unsuccessfully to defy a court order nullifying parliamentary elections dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with which he is aligned. This time he went after the judiciary because he suspected it was about to dissolve the assembly writing Egypt’s new constitution. He issued a decree that stripped the courts of that power, granted him wider authority and immunized all presidential orders from challenges until a new constitution is passed.

The reaction within (and without) Egypt was furious. Street protests have been rife, Muslim Brotherhood offices have been trashed, and courts have gone on strike. In the past couple of days, the president has tried to soften his approach; aides have said he will only apply his order to suspend judicial review over acts that protect major institutions of the state. They say his motives are good -- that he wants to protect the revolution from remnants of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in the courts.

Motives are irrelevant. The revolution created a rudimentary balance of power that didn’t exist under Mubarak. To disrupt this positive balance marks a retreat from democracy. Once powers are arrogated, there’s little record of leaders returning them.

Leaders who’ve recently crushed rights temporarily -- they said -- in order to let them flower later include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They may have had good intentions; many in the West thought they did. Yet none has proved in a hurry to hand back powers once acquired.

It is true that Mursi had reason to worry about the constitutional assembly being disbanded. The assembly was on the clock: It had until Dec. 12 to complete its work. If it failed, the courts had the right to step in.

But it is also true that Mursi had alternatives. To win the body more time, he could have suggested that the assembly itself declare that it couldn’t be dissolved by the judiciary, a more legitimate legal maneuver.

Mursi can still correct his course. He can officially revoke his decree and have the constitutional assembly put itself above the courts, though not above the Parliament that appointed it. With no Parliament currently in place, Mursi, by law, holds its powers.

Paradoxically, that means Mursi’s authority is the key to solving the larger problem posed by the assembly. To protect against the tyranny of the majority, Egypt’s minority Christians, liberals and secularists must play powerful roles in the drafting. This hasn’t been happening. These groups have been leaving the committee in droves, complaining that Islamists are railroading the process.

For this reason, Mursi needs to find a way to ensure non-Islamists are satisfactorily represented on the committee. Otherwise, the constitutional draft will become a new source of conflict. To stand the test of time, such a foundational document has to encompass the aspirations of the widest circle of people. In guaranteeing that happens, Mursi could make the best possible use of the powers he already has.

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