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The Age of Islamic Dictators

In the Middle East, the hope for democratic change has been replaced by the fear of Islamist autocracy. The role models for Mohammed Morsi are Egypt's former secular strongmen.

The only reason why Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi did not stick with his super-presidential decree has been the presence of the military. In November, Morsi sought to seize near-absolute power for himself, claiming that this was required to “complete the revolutionary process.” The proposed decree stated that a presidential action was exempt from oversight or scrutiny by other institutions, like the judiciary. Egyptian secularists decried the move as a tactical maneuver to introduce a full-fledged Islamist constitution, or as a way for Morsi to secure his position by use of dictatorial power. The secular (and Coptic Christian) opposition gathered in Tahrir Square to call for the revoking of the “super powers.”

Clashes between secularists and Morsi’s supporters soon broke out. The military reacted by asserting that “they did not want to intervene in a political matter between opposed factions.” Yet two things became clear very soon: first, the military is still the only force capable of guaranteeing order. As Rami G. Khouri suggested in The Daily Star, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are still relatively inexperienced “amateurs” that easily lost control of the square. Second, an agreement with the military could have been worse for Morsi and his allies than negotiating a truce with the opposition. In the end, the president opted to retire his proposed decree.

Yet we cannot dismiss the events in Cairo as an isolated story. Morsi’s aspiration to absolute power may be the signal of a new, overarching tendency: that of “Islamist dictatorships.