Major demonstrations are being planned for Nov. 27 following Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's earlier decree that replaced the prosecutor general with a Muslim Brotherhood ally and declared that no judicial body can dissolve the Egyptian Constituent Assembly. The decree was characterized by secular opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood as an autocratic power grab and sparked violent protests and attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood's offices.
Morsi's intent behind the decree is fairly obvious. Egypt has yet to draft and finalize by referendum a new constitution that will lay out the ultimate power balance between the civilian government and the military. The judiciary has played a key role in this tumultuous process — Egypt's secularists, military and other Mubarak-era beneficiaries have relied on the country's court system to keep a check on the Muslim Brotherhood since its rise to power. Morsi and his allies understand that they are unlikely to get anywhere in drafting a new constitution that adequately recognizes their power unless they do something to neutralize the courts. This is one of several steps we can expect the Brotherhood to take to institutionalize its power in the country at the expense of its secularist rivals.
It is little wonder that Morsi made such a bold move on the domestic scene shortly following a victory on the foreign policy front. Morsi seized the opportunity to make a big showing of Egypt's mediation credentials and regional influence in negotiating the cease-fire in the Gaza crisis. Though the United States, Israel and others are already wary of the Muslim Brotherhood's political authority in Egypt, they have no choice but to rely heavily on the Egyptian government to interdict weapons supplies into Gaza and secure the border in order to maintain the shaky truce between Israel and Hamas. So long as the Muslim Brotherhood does its part to maintain the peace treaty with Israel and prevent Gaza from fraying that vital agreement, Egypt's main external backers in the West — such as the United States — may turn a blind eye to some of the Muslim Brotherhood's power plays at home.
The United States can do this with the comfort of knowing that the Muslim Brotherhood's secularist rivals still have a voice. The recent demonstrations against the Brotherhood are a testament to this fact. Moreover, it would be false to assume that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government alone was responsible for the Gaza cease-fire. In fact, Israel would have been much less likely to incur the political cost of a cease-fire without further military action on Gaza if it had not been for the Mubarak-era military and intelligence veterans — such as current Egyptian intelligence chief Mohamed Raafat Shehata — who played instrumental roles in negotiating the truce in return for Egyptian security guarantees.
The Muslim Brotherhood is getting bolder in its actions as it tries to institutionalize its influence. However, it will take a lot more time and effort before the secular establishment is effectively neutralized to give the Islamist movement the degree of political security it is seeking for the long-term.