Egypt Expert: 'Pharoah' Concerns 'Understandable'

In Egypt, protests continue in reaction to President Mohammed Morsi's decree giving himself unchecked powers, even though Morsi has said the scope of those powers is limited. Questions remain over whether Morsi's powers are actually limited and whether he'll cede them if the country gets a new constitution, as he has promised. Renee Montagne talks with Tarek Masoud from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for insight into the political crisis in Egypt.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Cairo's Tahrir Square is relatively quiet today after a mass protest yesterday that could have been a scene from the Arab Spring.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Egyptians filled the square, furious at the sweeping powers President Mohamed Morsi granted himself last week. His presidential decree puts him beyond the reach of Egypt's courts.

MONTAGNE: Morsi and his supporters, in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, say he's only aiming to maintain stability as a new constitution is written.

To help us sort out this turn of events, we reached an expert on Egyptian politics, Tarek Masoud of Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Good morning.

TAREK MASOUD: Oh, great to be with you, thank you.

MONTAGNE: So after depriving the country's senior judges of the power to challenge his future decisions, President Morsi appeared to back off earlier this week. I mean, what exactly did he do in a nutshell?

MASOUD: Well, it's not clear that he did back off, Renee. What happened was that in a meeting with some of the country's senior justices from the supreme judicial authority, he said that he would limit the extraordinary powers he granted himself to only sovereign matters. This is being portrayed by the president's spokesmen as somehow a climb down from his earlier position or a compromise when, in fact, the people who are protesting in Tahrir, the opposition, don't view it as anything of the sort.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, the people who are protesting this are concerned about, as they put it, I think, in Egypt, having a new pharaoh, that that's what he's setting himself up to be. Do you think there's something to that?

MASOUD: Well, you know, if you read the text of the constitutional declaration that the president came out with on Thursday and these constitutional declarations, I should say, are basically amendments to the constitution that the president can issue unilaterally because he possesses, and has since August, both the executive and the legislative authority.

So imagine if Barack Obama was president and Congress rolled into one. That's what Morsi has been since August. And this last constitutional amendment he issued says that all of his decisions are final and binding and can't be appealed in any way to any entity, which means no judicial review. And that second to the last article says he's empowered to take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.

So it's no wonder that people are concerned and worried that, in fact, the president has designs to make himself the new pharaoh. Now if you ask me, I don't think he wants to be president for life. I think he really believes that the current situation in Egypt is stalled because of the intransigence of some sectors of the judiciary, because of struggles between liberals and Islamists on the constitution writing committee.

And what he wants to do is basically move everything forward and he feels that in order to do that, he needs the full unfettered powers of the presidency.

MONTAGNE: Well, how, though, true is that concern? The judges have been obstructionist to come degree. Does he need to sweep them aside in this way to get something that would be valuable for this revolutionary time in Egypt?

MASOUD: So certainly, Renee, the justices have taken some decisions that have complicated Egypt's democratic transition. The most dramatic of which was when they dissolved the Islamist dominated Parliament back in June, when it looked like Mohamed Morsi was about to be elected president, the supreme court basically wanted to make sure that the executive and the legislature weren't both captured by Islamists.

Now, we're actually suffering from the follow on effects of that decision. So certainly the justices have been seen as obstructionists. There were some rumors that they were going to dissolve the second incarnation of the constitution writing committee. So there are all kinds of legal maneuverings going on behind the scenes and I think Morsi believed that he needed to take action to sideline them.

However, the action that he took is far more dramatic than just sidelining the judges. This issue of making himself the supreme, unquestioned authority is something else entirely.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us again.

MASOUD: Oh, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Tarek Masoud is an expert on Egyptian politics and the Muslim Brotherhood at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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