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Egypt learns the art of politics amid protests challenging Morsi's decree

News analysis

Last week’s sweeping power grab by Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi has thrown the country’s political elite into crisis, and prompted tens of thousands of Egyptians to take to the streets in protest. But much of the fury over his most recent moves probably has more to do with the way he chose to act than what he has actually done.

The conflict roiling the Arab world’s most populous country has been painted by some international observers and many regular Egyptians as a struggle between autocratic Islamists and democratic secularists. Indeed, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party have angered many with how they managed to win power democratically and then tried to consolidate it by decrees.

In a move quickly pounced on by critics, Morsi’s decree last week gave the body charged with writing a draft constitution two more months to finish its work. The decree essentially prevents challenges to the president's rule until the end of the two-month transitional period so that any decision made by Morsi cannot be questioned by the judiciary.

If the so-called constituent assembly, the elected constitutional body that is now dominated by Islamists, would have dissolved, it would have been seen as a victory by many liberal and secular Egyptians.

But Morsi’s decree will allow the assembly to finish its essential work, Henry Smith of the international consultancy Control Risks told NBC News.

'Leave, leave': Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest president's decree

"There was a risk that the body writing the constitution would be disbanded by legal judgments but according to his decree, we should see a draft in February," he added. "And if that is decided then we could have a new constitution by mid-2013."

As the struggle of the constituent assembly shows, Morsi and his government have been locked in a struggle with the judiciary.

And however dictatorial Morsi’s recent moves may have been, the judiciary is no paragon of democracy. Indeed, even many of the Brotherhood’s opponents think the judiciary is corrupt and packed with loyalists of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The lack of accountability for the killing of protesters during the 2011 revolution illustrates why many Egyptians do not trust the judiciary. None of the former regime officials brought to trial for these deaths has been convicted.

The judiciary also upheld the dissolution of parliament, halting essential efforts, such as reforming fiscal and economic policies meant to liberalize and jump-start the economy.

According to liberal and secular parties, the president  didn't consult with them before issuing his decree on Thursday -- a claim disputed by Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party — thus losing the opportunity to be seen as a leader willing to reach across political divides and interested in creating consensus.

And those protesting his power grab have reason to be suspicious. After all, Mubarak promised to be a one-term president at the beginning of what ended up as a 30-year rule.

In the end, Egypt is new to the art of politics and its actors unused to sharing power and debating issues publicly.

As international consultant Smith says: "Putting aside some of the autocratic elements of his recent decree, Morsi’s move could be seen as a positive move."

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