Courting trouble

Late on Saturday night, when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi rescinded his November 22 decree that gave him unchallengeable powers, it was taken as evidence of one of two possibilities. Either Morsi had felt sufficiently cornered, given the scale of the protests and the military's warning of "disastrous consequences" if dialogue failed. Or, Morsi had done the clever thing of offering this concession only after the decree had bought the constituent assembly time to write the controversial draft constitution. Both possibilities may actually be valid. Not only have the anti-Morsi protests spread out geographically unlike last year's anti-Mubarak protests largely confined to Cairo's Tahrir Square but Morsi still insists on the constitutional referendum, which the opposition says will deepen the political crisis.

Egypt had to progress from the unsustainable condition it found itself in after Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Morsi's tactful curbing of the military in August was a significant step forward. But in tackling the judiciary through the decree, he had overreached. The last thing Egypt could afford was the threat of a fresh dictatorship. Now, after the violence, and with a more determined opposition asking for his departure, even if Morsi rams the referendum through, the mistrust and divisions will plague the Brotherhood. While Morsi has shrunk his hitherto broader appeal and returned to his Islamist base, the draft is criticised for falling short on minorities' and women's rights among other things.

The international community has done the strategically right thing of being patient and watching. Egypt, after all, is undergoing a generational change and its nascent democracy can mature only through missteps, institutional confrontations and unfulfilled aspirations. However, as the democratically elected president of the largest Arab country, the onus is on Morsi to minimise the chances of conflict and assure minorities and opponents that he will balance everybody's interests and not just champion those of his core constituents.

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