CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's Islamist president has given himself the right to legislate and control over the drafting of a new constitution. He has installed at the top of the powerful military a defense minister likely to be beholden to him.
Under Mohammed Morsi's authority, officials have moved to silence influential critics in the media. And though a civilian, he declared himself in charge of military operations against militants in the Sinai peninsula.
Over the weekend, Morsi ordered the retirement of the defense minister and chief of staff and reclaimed key powers the military seized from him days before he took office on June 30. With that, Egypt's first freely elected president amassed in his own hands powers that rival those of his ousted authoritarian predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
If left unchecked, there are fears Morsi and his fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, could turn the clock back on the country's tumultuous shift to democratic rule and pursue their goal of someday turning the most populous Arab nation into an Islamic state.
The Brotherhood already won both parliamentary and presidential elections after the uprising last year that forced Mubarak out. The question now is whether there is any institution in the country that can check the power of Morsi and the Brotherhood and stop them from taking over the nation's institutions and consolidating their grip.
"Are we looking at a president determined to dismantle the machine of tyranny ... or one who is retooling the machine of tyranny to serve his interests, removing the military's hold on the state so he can lay the foundations for the authority of the Brotherhood?" prominent rights activist and best-selling novelist Alaa al-Aswani wrote in an article published Tuesday in an independent daily.
"He must correct these mistakes and assure us through actions that he is a president of all Egyptians," wrote the secular al-Aswani before warning that Egyptians will never allow Morsi to turn Egypt into a "Brotherhood state."
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the country's top reform leader, issued a similar warning on Monday. After Morsi stripped the military of legislative authority, and in the absence of parliament, he cautioned that the president holds "imperial powers."
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled Egypt for 17 months after Mubarak's ouster, dissolved parliament after a court ruled that a quarter of its members were illegally elected and claimed legislative authority for itself. It stripped the presidency of many of its key powers before it handed the office to Morsi.
The defense minister ordered to retire was the head of SCAF and the outgoing chief of staff was his No. 2.
SCAF issued constitutional amendments just before Morsi took over that gave the military control over the national budget and the process of drafting a new constitution. The generals also put themselves in charge of all defense and foreign policy, including the appointment of the defense minister.
But Morsi reclaimed those powers on Sunday, so far uncontested by the military.
During his campaign and the early days of his presidency, Morsi touted himself as "the president of the revolution" and spoke tirelessly of democracy. He pledged inclusiveness, tolerance and promised guaranteed freedoms under his rule — promises he has done little so far to fulfill.
Supporters of the 60-year-old, U.S.-educated engineer say he simply restored his rightful powers that the military grabbed from him.
"It is too early to say whether Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are bent on dominating the state, but there are legitimate concerns given that Morsi now holds executive and legislative authority as well as having an avenue for intervening in constitution writing," said Jeff Martini of the Rand Corporation.
Morsi's consolidation of his authority comes at a time when his likely opponents are too weak or distracted to challenge him.
The pro-democracy youth groups behind the uprising are in disarray. They lost much of the popular appeal they once had among the millions who answered their call to come out and protest during the uprising. Squabbling and demoralized, they may do little more than denounce Morsi just as they did when the military grabbed the president's power in June.
Morsi has counted on the support of the pro-democracy movement in his power struggle with the military. But many of the activists view the Brotherhood as politically opportunistic and obsessed with power, suspecting Morsi is driven by those same ambitions.
"Courageous presidential decrees have foiled the counter-revolution plots," Brotherhood stalwart Essam el-Erian wrote on his Twitter account of Morsi's latest stand against the military. "The president performed his sovereign duty and realized the demands of the revolution. Every revolutionary must support the president to prevent any attempt against the revolution."
The military is not in a much stronger position to challenge Morsi right now.
For decades the nation's most powerful institution, the military has seen its reputation tainted by the events of the 17 months when it was running the country. Troops clashed with protesters — sometimes shot them dead or ran them over. The military was vilified for its human rights abuses, dragged into chaotic, post-Mubarak politics and ridiculed in the media.
Morsi's bold order to retire the top brass further hurt the military's image, shattering its aura of invincibility.
Still far from being a spent force or a paper tiger, the military is now led by a defense minister who owes his job to Morsi. He is expected to fight to keep the military's traditional say in key security and foreign policy issues, but he is not expected to challenge Morsi's authority anytime soon.
Morsi succeeded Mubarak, whose 29-year rule saw Egypt evolve into a state where a confluence of powers — the presidency, the hated police and a coterie of wealthy, corrupt businessmen — held the nation by a stranglehold. Mubarak ruled unchallenged, his ruling party dominated, assured of sweeping every election even before the first ballot was cast. With the support of the police and the presidential establishment, he controlled every state institution.
Emergency laws were in force for all 29 years and dissent was tolerated, but only if it fell short of a concrete action to elicit real change.
Now Morsi is in effect both the executive and legislative branches combined. And his backers are showing some tell-tale signs of wielding power unchecked.
Last week, Brotherhood members of parliament's upper house named 50 new editors of state-owned publications, many of them known to be sympathetic to the group. The move tightened the Brotherhood's stranglehold on the media after one of its members took over the Information Ministry in a newly appointed Cabinet backed by the group and led by a devout Muslim.
Morsi and the Brotherhood remained silent when a mob of supporters attacked a media complex in a Cairo suburb, smashing offices and cars to punish critics of the president. Supporters also intimidate and sometimes scuffle with protesters outside the presidential palace.
And though he is a civilian, the president declared himself to be running military operations against radical Muslims in Sinai after suspected militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers on the border with Israel on Aug. 5.
Morsi, according to insiders, is expected to press ahead with efforts to expand the Brotherhood's control.
He plans to soon replace many of Egypt's 27 provincial governors with Brotherhood members or sympathizers of the group and purge the judiciary of judges known to be opposed to its policies, according to the insiders familiar with deliberations in Morsi's inner circle. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
"We are now rid of a state run by the military. What is left for us to do is to rid ourselves from the state of the Brotherhood," wrote columnist Mohammed Amin in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm daily.
The Brotherhood will be emboldened by Morsi's standing up to the military as it prepares for new parliamentary elections expected before the end of the year and may press even harder to give the new constitution an Islamist tint over the opposition of liberals.
"There will be a firestorm if he interferes in the drafting of the document, but that he has the right to do that amounts to coercive influence on the process," said Michael W. Hanna of New York's Century Foundation.