Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first elected leader in history and an ostensibly former member of the Muslim Brotherhood is growing increasingly enigmatic. Last week Morsi went from a career high to a career low in a number of days, and in doing so, he insulted the United States, set off an internecine war with Egypt’s judiciary, rekindled the fires of street battles throughout Egypt and convinced many that he is unfit to be president.

Image courtesy of Dave Putz/Connie Sieh, ©2010, some rights reserved.

On November 22nd, Morsi issued a decree which declared that his judgements were above review by Egypt’s judiciary. In doing so, he essentially amalgamated the powers of all three branches of government into the executive. As President he already led the executive branch. After the very courts which he now seeks to circumvent disbanded parliament based on the unconstitutionality of the elections, first SCAF, the former ruling junta, and then the President took on their powers. This decree completes his collection, allowing him to supersede the judges. He has already made judicial decisions such as stripping Mubarak and his codefendants of their dual-jeopardy protections and ordering retrials for the accused. This reads as populist revenge seeking at a time that Morsi should be more focused on forward momentum.

Nullifying the authority of Egypt’s fiercely independent judiciary was not Morsi’s only assault. He also replaced the Public Prosector, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a holdover from Mubarak’s era. This is notable because unlike in western systems, this is a judicial, not executive role. It thus constitutes another attack on the judiciary’s independence. The Judge’s Club, one of countless professional-cum-social clubs in Egypt and a key part of the country’s culture, has made their fury at this well known.

To place this astounding decree in context, it is important to recall the status of the Judiciary during Mubarak’s era. Mubarak’s power was not as complete as other autocrats in recent history. While he wielded significant and often absolute influence, the judiciary remained somewhat independent of the executive. While they predominantly ruled in favor of the regime, or were coerced or co-opted into supporting it, Mubarak’s trespasses against the judges were not as unilateral as Morsi’s.

Morsi also picked an inopportune time for this decree. Morsi was given significant credit for peacefully resolving the conflict in Gaza. He received a windfall of political capital, both domestic and international for that foreign policy coup. Morsi had an opportunity to invest this in a better relationship with the United States and even in significant and lasting improvement to the situation in Gaza.

His decree has already squandered that capital domestically and abroad. By showing this dictatorial streak so quickly after earning the praise of the United States, Morsi has seriously damaged his credibility with the Obama administration and likely embarrassed them. This is not only bad for the important relationship between Egypt and the United States, but horrible news for the middle eastern peace process in general.

The Gaza ceasefire is tenuous at best. If it falls apart, which at this point is really a question of how well Hamas can control its agents and those of more extremist elements in Gaza, then Egypt and the United States will both be needed if any diplomatic solution is to be found again.

Morsi has seriously weakened his credibility with the global community and has destroyed it entirely within the liberal, secular and Christian elements of Egyptian society. His own supporters spoke out against him a week ago for failing to support Gaza more belligerently and now he is under the guns of the other half of Egypt’s populace.

It is easy to forget how fractional and divided the Egyptian electorate is. Morsi only won with slightly more than 50% of the vote. He does not rule on a grand mandate nor with a consensus. This means his position is even more vulnerable, which indeed may be what has led him to such a drastic and draconian policy shift.

Morsi has fallen for one of the oldest tropes of a revolution – the need to protect it. Almost without fail, this urge to protect is only achieved through violating the principles of the original revolution. It is painfully ironic that Morsi has taken up this banner and become a strongman himself after 30 years of Mubarak. He has become a latter day Egyptian Robespierre and despite his predictable protestations of sincerity, he has aborted the revolution. It appears that Morsi has forgotten that democracy and consensus building can be a frustrating, painful and long process.

He has also profoundly damaged the legitimacy of his presidency. He has upped the ante of the criticism that can be directed against him. His opponents in the past assailed his decisions in office, his quality as a president. He has now exposed the presidency itself to their considerable scorn. In doing so the process of state building itself is in danger. If his presidency collapses, Egypt will be pushed further off the path it needs to follow.

Egypt faces numerous problems besides the chronic uncertainly of the government. For it to recover economically and continue to be prosperous, Egypt needs, above all, stability and peace on the streets. This is for reasons beyond tourist revenue, though the current street fighting is doubtlessly causing Egypt’s tourist sector anxiety as we enter the western holiday season.

In large part, the business interests who are most affected by this instability are opposed to Morsi. The army too, as demonstrated by their intervention in the original revolution, is keen to avoid mass violence and has its own significant business interests. They have also proven their ability to step down and cede power to civilians. After this, many Egyptians will hold SCAF in higher regard than Morsi himself.

To save his presidency, and this entire attempt at state building, Morsi must tread very carefully. He has already attempted to clarify and downplay his decree, declaring it to be, “temporary,” but that rings as an empty promise. Mubarak’s despised emergency laws were also “temporary.” He seriously limited his political maneuverability and may be forced to resign, especially if the violence in the street continues to accelerate.