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Mohamed Mursi’s pharaonic blunder has thrown Egypt into chaos. The protests against the Islamist president’s power grab to “protect the revolution” show he has misjudged civil society’s craving for democratic institutions. His authoritarian moment threatens to destroy the fragile stability that has held in the country during the two years since the popular uprising. And, it puts further strains on the weak economy.
The push by Mursi to add judicial authority to his executive and legislative powers is a radical attempt to fix a real problem. The judiciary needs an overhaul — it is rife with corruption, its decisions are unpredictable and it lacks a tradition of independence. But it was a major mistake on Mursi’s part to think he could deal with the judges like he dealt with the military earlier this year.
The president’s move has triggered the immediate expression of the frustration that has been mounting against the Muslim Brotherhood since they took over. Mursi may have been emboldened by a recent agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and his own role in brokering a ceasefire in Gaza, and may have thought that he could seize the moment. But this counted for little as opponents of the government — but also many of its supporters — took to the streets. The stock market plunged almost 10 per cent on Sunday as investors fretted over the two sides violently clashing.
It is not too late for Mursi to back down and bridge the divide. The current unrest has a direct impact on the economy, as it delays the return of foreign tourists and investors. Egypt needs a political consensus to smooth its transition. For Mursi’s own sake, the voice of the minority liberal opposition must be taken into account even if it is still too divided and incoherent. Going forward, the Brotherhood will need broad support to implement fiscal reforms, meet its optimistic deficit reduction targets, and create jobs.
The situation is dangerous but some good may still emerge from the standoff. A deal that revokes the constitutional amendment and agrees how to proceed on judicial reform would be a step forward, and provide the Brotherhood with an opportunity to reset public expectations to realistic levels. Mursi must prove beyond doubt that he is committed to building the stable democracy that is crucial to Egypt’s future prosperity.