Report: Morsi agrees to limit scope of power grab, kinda sorta

Hillary called Egypt’s foreign minister today to “underscore U.S. hopes that Egypt’s political crisis can be resolved in a democratic manner,” but Morsi’s spokesman said this afternoon no changes have been made to the temporary decree he used to seize power.

Or have they?

President Mohamed Morsi agreed on Monday to limit the scope of a sweeping decree he had issued last week that raised his edicts above any judicial review, according to a report by a television network allied with his party. The agreement, reached with top judicial authorities, would leave most of Mr. Morsi’s actions subject to review by the courts, but it appears to preserve a crucial power: protecting the country’s constitutional council from being dissolved by the courts before it finishes its work

[T]he statement Mr. Morsi issued last Thursday to claim his broader powers had explicitly exempted all his future edicts from judicial oversight until a new constitution is ratified, and in recent days Mr. Morsi’s justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, publicly criticized the wording of the decree as over-broad; he argued that the president should add a phrase restricting its application only to presidential edicts related to the constitutional assembly and certain other matters.

Some of the ramifications of the deal remain unclear. Mr. Morsi and the judges of the Supreme Judicial Council agreed to limit the scope of the president’s immunity from judicial review to matters known in Egypt as acts of sovereignty. That is an established formulation in Egyptian law, so interpreting the decree that way meant he would not be claiming new immunity.

By accepting that interpretation, Mr. Morsi in effect pulled back from the aspects of his decree that aroused alarm about a power grab.

Can’t wait to find out what he offered the judges to get them to stay out of the way of an Islamist-dominated constitutional council that’s all but certain to cripple the judiciary in the new constitution. Many of the judges are Mubarak holdovers and natural enemies of the Brotherhood, so this is no easy compromise. Did he offer them amnesty and safe passage out of Egypt when, not if, the Brotherhood finally clamps down on the courts? Money too? Sinecures in their current positions if they play ball with the new order? Why any Egyptian official would trust him after not one but two major power grabs plus the overthrow of Tantawi as supreme leader of the country’s junta is inexplicable to me.

Two questions here for Egypt-watchers. One: Did Morsi move too fast with this second power grab? I was scratching my head on Friday night over why Hamas would have gone along with Egypt’s ceasefire request but it made more sense the next day, after he issued his temporary decree. The more the Brotherhood can consolidate power in Egypt, the better off Hamas is long term, but in order to consolidate power they need western economic support. And if they bare their fangs too much too soon, public opposition in the west might imperil that support. The White House needs something for its money, after all. So Morsi gave them something — he got Hamas to calm down, for a while. And having done that, he now had the political capital he needed to issue his “temporary” decree. James Brandon puts it bluntly:

The ‘stability and peace’ trade-off that was reached between Clinton and Morsi in Cairo is clear; in return for Morsi persuading Hamas to agree to a ceasefire with Israel, the US would allow him to seize new ‘temporary’ political powers under the guise of ensuring ‘stability’, both in Egypt and in the region…

Clearly, this new dynamic works actively against Israel; the more Hamas threatens Israel, the more the US will have to concede to the Brotherhood in Cairo; a formula that only motivates the Brotherhood to allow Hamas’ military capabilities strengthen further, all while the Brotherhood uses its control of Egypt to advance towards its planned ‘last stage’, namely the eventual liquidation of Israel.

Right. American acquiescence in the power grab was effectively Morsi’s price for reining in Hamas. Problem is, American acquiescence isn’t all he has to worry about; he needs Egyptian acquiescence too, and getting Hamas to back off from Israel is a weird political posture domestically from which to seek that. There are lots of Egyptians who oppose the Brotherhood for various reasons — Mubarak loyalists, liberals and Copts who think they’re too fundie, Salafists who think they’re not fundie enough — and Morsi’s power grab has brought many of them together, at least temporarily, in an alliance against a Brotherhood takeover. As strong as the MB is, that’s a precarious position to be in when you’ve held power for just a few months. A shrewder play might have been to make the public happy by doubling down on support for Hamas’s jihad against Israel and then trying to leverage the popularity of that to purchase domestic acquiescence in the power grab. Once it was done and the public was more or less pacified, he could have gone to the White House with his offer to put Hamas on a leash in exchange for “foreign aid,” i.e. bribes. Not sure why he didn’t do that; maybe he thought it might have irrevocably alienated his western bankrollers. At the moment, though, he seems to have gotten the worst of both worlds, a galvanized opposition at home and a newly wary international order abroad. Today’s revisions to the power grab are essentially his way of postponing it and then trying it again later when the new constitution is done. In the meantime, I assume we’ll be seeing plenty of anti-Israel rhetoric from the MB, to boost domestic support in anticipation of his power grab do-over later, and plenty of quiet from Hamas to impress the White House.

Two: I’ve been reading various analysts on Egypt over the past week and no one’s addressed a basic question. Is Morsi a pure pawn of the Brotherhood leadership or is he spearheading the attempt to seize power? Remember, he wasn’t the MB’s first choice as a presidential nominee. Khairat al-Shater was, but he was disqualified by the junta for having served time in prison too recently. Is Shater (or some other Brotherhood leader or leaders) the eminence grise in all this or is Morsi more or less navigating his own way? It’s hard for me to believe the MB would let their second choice for the presidency steer the ship after they’d finally realized their ambitions and taken power, but Morsi was a high-ranking party apparatchik before he ran. And to rank that high in the Brotherhood, you need to survive a lot of nutty Islamist vetting:

That’s because the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to weed out moderates. It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”

Throughout this process, rising Muslim Brothers are continually vetted for their embrace of the Brotherhood’s ideology, commitment to its cause, and—most importantly—willingness to follow orders from the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. As a result, Muslim Brothers come to see themselves as foot soldiers in service of the organization’s theocratic credo: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” Meanwhile, those dissenting with the organization’s aims or tactics are eliminated at various stages during the five-to-eight-year vetting period.

Just today, Michael Totten wrote about two aspiring Brotherhood members who washed out of the vetting process because they weren’t paranoid and authoritarian enough, which evidently was no problem for Morsi in climbing the ladder. Still, the question remains: Is he actually calling the shots or following orders from the MB’s inner circle? Any Egypt experts have input/theories?