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Cairo Bombshell

A year ago, I was mixing with demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square calling for an end to Mubarak’s dictatorship and democracy for Egypt’s 84 million people.

Being a natural-born firebrand, I find most revolutions intoxicating – if almost inevitably disappointing or even ghastly.

What a difference a year makes. Tahrir Square is now packed with Egyptians protesting against the new revolutionary government led by the elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Egypt is in political turmoil.

Morsi was fresh from brokering a cease-fire in Gaza that earned fulsome praise for him from Washington which had until then been cool to Egypt’s first ever democratically-elected president. Islamist Morsi then turned around and staged a bombshell auto-coup.

Morsi issued a decree granting him extensive – critics charge dictatorial – powers that exempts all of Morsi’s decisions and those of the elected constituent assembly from challenge by Egypt’s courts and other high government institutions. The decree is valid until a new parliament is elected.

Howls of “dictatorship” came from Egypt and from many nations abroad – the very same nations that warmly collaborated with Mubarak’s ugly dictatorship for 30 years. Foes of the Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood cried, “you see, you can’t trust those Islamists.”

All this is very curious. So far, Morsi has moved with extreme prudence to implement free elections, reassure Christians and secular liberals, and deftly break the iron grip of Egypt’s bloated armed forces. Few believed that the colorless, low-key Morsi, a former political prisoner, would be able to out-manoeuver Egypt’s powerful, US-backed generals. But he did, with deftness and remarkable skill, getting younger senior officers to gently oust the pharaonic old guard.

Morsi managed to reign in the armed forces and return Egypt to civilian control. But, until this week, Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party were unable to oust an entrenched cadre of Mubarak-appointed officials and henchmen in the judiciary, security police, academia, media and the diplomatic corps.

They constitute what is known as Egypt’s “deep government,” the real power in the nation that reported directly to Mubarak’s entourage.

This parallel regime had thwarted many of Morsi’s efforts to reform the corrupt ruling system, construct a truly democratic republic, and break the hold of Egypt’s pampered, westernized urban elite who enjoyed almost total political and economic power under Mubarak.

Egypt’s “deep government” very closely resembles a similar Kemalist secular ruling structure in Turkey that controlled the powerful military, security services, courts, universities, media, big business cartels, and Islamic religious institutions. – and was closely allied to the US and Israel.

Breaking the grip of the Turkey’s “deep government” took now PM Recep Erdogan and his AK Party ten years of patient siege – longer than Sultan Mehmet to capture Constantinople. Erdogan finally managed to put the military and security forces under civilian control, free much of the economy from the Kemalist elite, and turn Turkey into a impressive if not perfect modern democracy - generating a 7%growth rate.

President Morsi us now trying this same shock therapy for Egypt, which desperately needs to be shaken up and modernized. His biggest problem: Egypt can’t feed itself nor generate funds to import food. So Cairo is forced to rely on the United States and, now, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for a financial lifeline.

Spare parts and munitions for Egypt’s US-equipped military are kept scarce by Washington, meaning it can maintain internal security but not fight Israel or any other power.

Now, however, the formerly cautious, plodding Morsi has staged a coup of sorts to purge what he calls the Mubarakist “weeviles’ thwarting reform. Could the cure be worse than the disease?

Morsi’s coup has scared a lot of Egyptians and done nothing to burnish the reputation of political Islamists. While his thunderous action is in good part understandable, he should have taken a slower, more patient Turkish approach. His abrupt action causes his many domestic and foreign foes to unite against him.

Maybe Mohamed Morsi will indeed renounce his newly assumed powers once a democratic parliament opens and a new constitution enacted. If he does, he will be hailed as a second Pericles or George Washington.

Alas, as Lord Acton so famously and wisely warned, “all power corrupts; ultimate power corrupts absolutely.”

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a columnist, author and a veteran of many conflicts in the Middle East. Margolis recently was featured in a special appearance on Britain’s Sky News TV as “the man who got it right” in his predictions about the dangerous risks and entanglements the US would face in Iraq. His latest book is American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World.

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