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Will Egypt's Democracy Survive New President?


I'm joined now by Professor Samer Shehata, professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University. Welcome to you.


LYDEN: So Mohammed Morsi was widely praised for his role in negotiating the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas this last week. And now he appears to be playing the same role on the international stage as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and I mean by that, being an autocrat at home while being an international statesman.

SHEHATA: Well, that's certainly the charge by many in Egypt, and there are legitimate reasons for that charge because the new constitutional declaration gives him incredibly wide-ranging powers at a time when Egypt lacks legislature. There's no parliament right now because it was dissolved, and he has legislative powers in addition to executive powers. But now he's taken some judicial powers as well in a nondemocratic move. And that's worrying many people in Egypt, particularly liberals and secular voices.

LYDEN: It was, of course, this last year that we saw all the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and all over Egypt. What does it mean for the democracy movement that we've followed so closely?

SHEHATA: Well, it means that the transition to democracy in Egypt is certainly not guaranteed, and the best we can say about it is that it's a mess. It has not been orderly. There has not been a process that has achieved consensus with regard to a constitution, elections and so on. And there are concerns by many that the Muslim Brotherhood is now attempting to exert greater control over the political process, possibly dominating the political process at the expense of the original goals of the revolution.

LYDEN: Mohammed Morsi's election this year in June raised some concerns that after the Arab Spring that there would be a way that Islamist governments in the region, that that would make things even more unstable. Do you think that's what we're seeing?

SHEHATA: Well, it's not exactly what we're seeing. I mean, it's certainly after the uprisings in the Arab world - in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen and elsewhere - which were initially voiced in a language of democracy and freedoms and so on, Islamists naturally did well. And I think those of us who know the region would expect that. Islamists have been the most powerful political force over the last 30 or 40 years. And when there were elections, Islamists succeeded.

The question is, are those Islamists who are committed to democracy - I think that's clear in Tunisia and Egypt - are they committed to democracy where minorities are guaranteed equal rights and citizenship as those in the majority? And I think many of us in Egypt are at least questioning that to some extent.

LYDEN: You're Egyptian. I want to also ask you, what do you make of the timing of this? I mean, one day, he's being the peace broker between Israel and Hamas, and then the next day, this decree. Anything we should read there?

SHEHATA: Well, it's not clear, but it would seem, if one was cynical that it's incredibly opportunistic. Mr. Morsi certainly was at a zenith in terms of popularity and certainly in the international community. He received praise from Secretary Clinton, from Mr. Netanyahu, from Khaled Mashaal of the Hamas and Egyptian people. And then immediately afterwards, he takes these measures. So I think some people are legitimately skeptical about the timing of these constitutional declarations.

LYDEN: What's most worrisome to you as you - I know you've only had a few days, but what's most worrisome to you in the Morsi edict?

SHEHATA: What's most worrisome to me is the fact that the constituent assembly, which is dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis does not represent - I would say a consensus opinion among Egyptians, which, of course, is what a constituent assembly and the constitution should do - is now immune from any kind of judicial challenge or appeal. And that's worrisome because, I think, Egyptians do not want a document as a constitution that is catered or geared to one particular view and that doesn't guarantee rights for women, religious minorities, political dissent and so on.

LYDEN: Samer Shehata teaches Middle East politics at Georgetown University. Thanks very much for coming in.

SHEHATA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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