Whether truly remorseful or swayed by the whirlwind of anger against him, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has appeared over the last two days to soften the dictatorial edge of the alarming edict he issued last week that put himself and his new administration above the law and the courts. More likely it's the latter. Morsi's motives may not yet be clear, but his power grab was clearly wrong.
Morsi's retreat comes on the heels of a groundswell of angry protests that drove Egypt's pro-democracy groups back to Tahrir Square for a fresh round of massive demonstrations like those that toppled Egypt's long reign of dictators and ignited the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East. Morsi's turnabout, in any case, requires unrelenting international pressure in support of reform. Without scrutiny from democratic nations, the potential for durable political reform -- and, ultimately, peace -- in the Middle East will surely wither.
The newly installed Egyptian president unleashed his power grab in part, his spokesmen say, to ensure that the nation's judiciary, which is still suspect for its holdover contingent of puppets for ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, would not again move next week to suspend the Islamist-led constitutional assembly. The assembly, the second, is supposed to be writing the documents that will underpin the election of a new democratic parliament.
In this context, Morsi casts himself as a defender of the democratic process -- never mind that the constitutional assemblies were not supposed to contain candidates for the eventual parliament. He promised to retract the edict supporting his power grab when the new parliament takes office.
Leaders of the 49 percent of the Egyptian electorate who voted for Morsi's opponents are reasonably skeptical, however. They contend Morsi's prevailing Muslim Brotherhood party still has majority control of the constitutional assembly, and if left alone will draft a conservative Islamist-oriented constitution that would suppress the democratic and religious rights of Morsi's political foes, women and Christians.
There's ample reason for their concern. The Muslim Brotherhood may not still deal in the violence and extremism that once marked its opposition to Egypt's past two dictatorial presidents, but its members largely remain ultra conservative and at odds with the more progressive forces with which they united to force Mubarak from office.
Morsi's critics, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei and two other candidates who opposed him in the presidential election, have fairly denounced his power grab as over-reaching and unjustifiable. His edict, in fact, amounted to an insufferable derogation of the democratic process at the heart of Egyptian reform.
Washington, of course, is grateful for Morsi's refusal just days ago to be drawn by Hamas into its fight in the Gaza Strip against Israel. But the Obama administration correctly recognizes the dreadful precedent Morsi appeared to set with his decree holding his office above the law. Its policy is to urge Morsi to retract that mistake, and to ensure that the constitutional assembly has a fair share of his opponents' parties.
With a population of 90 million and its pivotal power in the Middle East to change the political dynamic in favor of peace and economic cooperation, Egypt is well-positioned to resume the mantle of leadership. Morsi can best make use of his legitimate power by collaboration with his domestic political adversaries, and with democratic leaders elsewhere. He should start on that path by withdrawing his closed-fisted edict.