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Troubling signs for Egyptian democracy

Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests that ousted Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, is again filled with angry demonstrators fearful that their first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, is himself intent on becoming a dictator.

Morsi feels, with some justification, that a judiciary still heavily stocked with Mubarak loyalists is out to thwart his political agenda, which seems to consist largely of allowing his allies in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to write the constitution and laws that will determine Egypt’s future.

Morsi’s critics say he has concentrated on these internecine political battles to the exclusion of dealing with Egypt’s serious long-term economic problems.

At the end of last week, Morsi granted himself the legal protections typical of a dictatorship: He made himself and his decrees immune from judicial oversight and gave himself broad and ill-defined authority to crack down on any “threats to the revolution.”

Maybe Morsi didn’t intend it that way, but this is a standard template of legislation that allows dictators to lock up their opponents indefinitely and, mind you, there is no judicial review.

The courts had earlier blocked a constitutional panel and dissolved the lower house of parliament as unrepresentative.

Morsi extended judicial immunity to the new panel drafting a constitution and to the upper house, dominated by Morsi’s own Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party.

That prompted the resignation of one of his top aides and a denunciation by Mohammed ElBaradei, a former top U.N. official and Morsi ally, that the Egyptian president was intent on making himself “a new pharaoh.”

Morsi’s performance in office is of more than academic interest to the United States.

Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid and was instrumental in brokering a cease fire, however fragile, between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

The cease fire has been a ray of sunshine in a situation that is threatening to turn dark and bloody.

The fact is we need a motivated Morsi in the Mideast.

But his unpopular decrees provoked the largest demonstrations since those against Mubarak as well as the burning of several Muslim Brotherhood facilities and attacks on Brotherhood members leaving Friday prayers.

Most discouragingly, Morsi trotted out the old Mubarak justification that these dictatorial powers were necessary to guide Egypt to a new democratic future – a future that somehow never seemed to come until mass rioting brought it about.

Average Egyptians can be excused for suspecting that they may have exchanged one dictatorship for another.