Was the Arab Spring just a passing illusion?
"There is no middle ground, no dialogue before [Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi] rescinds this declaration," said pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. "There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says, 'Let us split the difference'."
Morsi won last June's presidential election fair and square, but many Egyptians are frightened that his decree of November 22 sweeps aside the democratic gains of last year's revolution. The decree gives him absolute power, although he swears it is only for a limited time.
Morsi was already governing by decree, pending a new parliamentary election, since the courts had dissolved the lower house of parliament because the election was flawed. His latest decree declares that the courts cannot challenge any of his edicts until that new election takes place.
The decree also states that he can take any steps necessary to defeat undefined "threats to the revolution" - and nobody can ask the courts to decide whether those steps are legal and justifiable. In theory, at least, Morsi has given himself greater powers than the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, ever possessed.
This is as puzzling as it is alarming, since nothing in Morsi's previous history suggests that he wants to be Egypt's next dictator. He is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood and shares its conservative social and religious values, but that organisation, the mainstay of opposition to Egypt's military dictators during half a century of tyranny, has moved a long way from its radical and sometimes violent origins.
So was Morsi a wolf in sheep's clothing, just waiting for the chance to impose Islamic rule on everybody, including liberals, Christians, and secular Egyptians? How else can you explain what he has just done? The answer matters, because if Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country (90 million people), succumbs to a new tyranny, then the whole "Arab Spring" was just a brief illusion.
Morsi's actions are wrong, but he is not actually aiming at a dictatorship. He just wants to thwart the Supreme Judicial Council, made up of judges who almost all date from the Mubarak era, which had already dismissed the first body charged with writing a new constitution. There were indications that it might be about to dissolve the second one on the same grounds.
The grounds were legally sound, because the first assembly chosen by parliament included a large number of MPs who belonged to the Islamic parties, although the law said members of parliament could not themselves sit in the Constituent Assembly. A second Constituent Assembly, chosen in June, once again included MPs in clear defiance of the law, which is why it is facing further court challenges.
In the past month or so, the prospect that this new body will produce a constitution based mainly on Islamic law led most of the secular and Christian elements to withdraw. This deprived it of a voting quorum, but the remaining members, including many MPs linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, carried on regardless, so there was a growing probability that a new court ruling would dismiss this assembly, too.
Morsi moved swiftly, not only giving himself supreme powers beyond the ability of the courts to challenge, but specifically forbidding the Supreme Judicial Council from dismissing the second Constituent Assembly. He also gave that assembly an extra two months to finish writing the constitution, after which it will have to be approved by a referendum.
Only then (perhaps next May) will a new lower house of parliament be elected - and once the constitution is in place and the subsequent election is past, Morsi has promised, he will relinquish his extraordinary powers. But by then, Egypt would have an Islamic constitution, and almost certainly a lower house of parliament dominated by the Islamic parties.
What is happening now, therefore, is not the rise of a new dictatorship but rather a ruthless political manoeuvre aimed at creating a democratic but Islamic Egypt. Naturally, it frightens a large proportion of the 49 per cent of Egyptians who voted against Morsi in the presidential election earlier this year, and it absolutely terrifies the country's eight million Christians.
Morsi's edict has been met with impassioned protest in the streets, and the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at uniting all non-Islamist groups to force Morsi to rescind his edicts. Its leaders include three of the candidates who stood against Morsi in the election earlier this year. But that may not be enough.
The truth is that the elections produced a parliamentary majority and a president who want to impose Islamic law, and that its opponents are using various legal devices in an attempt to stop the process. Moreover, a new constitution imposing Islamic law would almost certainly get a "yes" in a referendum.
Majorities in a democracy should not try to impose their religious and social views on large minorities who do not share them. Morsi is already showing signs of wanting to compromise - but, as ElBaradei pointed out, he cannot take these extreme measures and then offer to "split the difference". Egypt is in for a rough ride.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
Taranaki Daily News