Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made a gross miscalculation when he asserted vast new political powers, making himself immune to any oversight. He called it a temporary measure to protect the revolution, the drafting of a new constitution and the nation's agonizing, unnecessarily long transition to democracy.
Egyptians, who were the real authors of that revolution 18 months ago that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak, are buying none of it.
Morsi seems inexplicably tone deaf to the mood of a nation that so recently demonstrated its resolve and its willingness to sacrifice lives to the idea of a representative and free government. As a result, thousands of people once again are gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand that a leader step down.
The last time Egypt erupted in such protests, the United States was slow to respond or take sides. There were diplomatic reasons for this; Egypt is an important strategic ally in a troubled region. The Obama administration did not want to appear supportive of an unpopular and undemocratic leader, and it also did not want to undermine protesters by making it appear as if their efforts were heavily backed by the U.S.
The current situation offers much the same dilemma. However, the U.S. stands to gain most by forcefully denouncing the moves away from democracy, standing for principles instead of against individuals.
So far, the administration appears to be following that script, albeit a bit timidly. The State Department issued a statement reminding Morsi that "one of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution." Even in the unique language of diplomacy that seems tepid.
The U.S. recently praised Morsi, and rightly so, for his part in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in a conflict that threatened to spread. But Morsi's sudden claim to power threatens further disruptions and jeopardizes the important drafting of a constitution in a nation where many minority interests — women, Christians and others — need basic human rights protected.
The U.S. is believed to be a principal backer of a $14.5 billion aid package for Egypt from the International Monetary Fund. That money ought to be used as leverage to demand that Morsi retreat from his declaration of power.
In response to the public protests, Morsi already has modified his declaration somewhat. He indicated the decrees were temporary and did not infringe on the judiciary's independence. The judiciary, meanwhile, said it would let the constitution be drafted without interference. It also conceded that some "acts of sovereignty" may be beyond judicial review, although the wording was vague enough to allow for a host of ills.
Some groups, notably secularist assembly members and Christians, have refused to be part of drafting a new constitution. The process, they believe, is being dominated by Islamists intent on subjecting Egypt to Islamic rule. That is the main danger behind Morsi's "temporary" declaration of powers.
Modern dictators have frequently grabbed power under the guise of "temporary" necessity. History shows such declarations generally lead to no good. The Egyptian people, it seems, are no fools.