Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s power grab presents a unique opportunity for the Obama administration to take a firm position on what the United States will tolerate from post-Arab Spring governments, foreign-policy analysts say.
Meanwhile, on the eve of a mass demonstration against him, Mr. Morsi told his country’s highest court on Monday that he did not usurp its authority when he claimed near-absolute power to change laws and issue judicial decrees last week.
What’s happening in Egypt is “a critical test of how Islamist parties behave in power,” said Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Samer Shehata, who teaches Arab politics at Georgetown University, said the U.S. “should not be quiet or silent about moves that threaten a democratic transition to democracy.” He added that the U.S. also should avoid appearing as a bully on the subject.
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi is Egypt’s first popularly elected president, but his decree late Thursday sparked angry protests across the nation that have left one person dead and hundreds injured. Many fear the country might regress to the authoritarianism of longtime former president Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown amid a popular uprising in February 2011.
Mr. Morsi has said his action is a temporary means to implement reforms and ensure Egypt’s shift to democracy, and that he will relinquish his new powers after a new constitution is enacted and parliamentary elections are held sometime next year.
But Egypt’s Supreme Judiciary Council has called his move an “assault” on the judiciary, and the opposition has denounced his action and called for a massive protest in Cairo on Tuesday.
The Obama administration has been cautious in referring to the situation and the Egyptian president, who announced his new powers after helping to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Monday said the administration is “encouraged” by reports that Mr. Morsi had entered into a “dialogue” with opposition figures, but that U.S. officials are “not going to prejudge where that’s going to go.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced concerns during a phone call Monday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, Mrs. Nuland said, refusing to characterize Mr. Morsi’s actions as undemocratic or say that they may disqualify Egypt from U.S. aid.
The circumspect nature of the administration’s posture has discomfited some foreign-policy analysts, who suggest that Mrs. Clinton may have inadvertently encouraged Mr. Morsi’s action last week.
Appearing Wednesday in Cairo, Mrs. Clinton thanked the Egyptian president for his “personal leadership” in de-escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence. She went on to say that “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”
[Corrected paragraph:] “It seems that, intentionally or not, the message Morsi took from Hillary Clinton is that stability trumps democracy,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar focusing on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute.
“What Morsi has done is show the Muslim Brotherhood’s true colors,” Mr. Rubin said. “All this talk of democracy was just manna for the useful idiots outside of Egypt.”
While Mr. Morsi’s decree may appear to be driven by Muslim Brotherhood desires to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, across Egypt, others suggest that what’s more troubling to Egyptians is the prospect of a return to the authoritarian era.
With that in mind, Mr. Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations said the Obama administration risks missing an opportunity to redefine Washington’s relationship with Cairo, which had been warped and misguided during Mr. Mubarak’s reign.
Egypt’s authoritarian era was marked by “an unspoken deal,” in which U.S. leaders would ignore Mr. Mubarak’s autocratic ways as his regime worked toward facilitating U.S. foreign-policy goals in the region, Mr. Danin said.
The overthrow of Mr. Mubarak created “an opportunity to develop and define a new relationship where that’s no longer the bargain,” he said, adding that how Washington conducts itself in response to Mr. Morsi’s power grab will have regional consequences.
“The way in which these issues are sorted out now is very important, not just for Egypt but for the region, especially as others look to Egypt as a critical test of the future and possibilities for real democratic institutions to develop in the Arab world,” Mr. Danin said.
Mr. Shehata said the Obama administration’s plight is complicated by the fact that “the United States is not looked at very favorably by the majority of Egyptians since in the past it was seen as supporting an authoritarian regime.”
As a result, “the United States can’t be seen to be dictating what the Egyptians should create as a democratic system,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.