If Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was hoping to heal political rifts in the wake of Tuesday’s divisive constitutional referendum, his chief prosecutor does not appear to be helping his case. Talaat Abdullah, the public prosecutor appointed by Morsi last month, has announced an investigation of top opposition leaders — including Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei — on treason charges. The other two opposition figures targeted in the probe are Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, both of whom ran against Morsi in Egypt’s June presidential election.
The three have been instrumental in mobilizing various opposition parties to challenge Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. After Morsi announced a decree in November granting himself near-unlimited powers, ElBaradei, Moussa and Sabbahi formed a coalition known as the National Salvation Front — which has since spearheaded the campaign against Morsi and his Islamist-backed constitution. Though the constitution passed Tuesday’s referendum, many continue to oppose on the grounds that it could restrict the rights of Egyptian women and religious minorities.
The accusations against the three men were filed by two lawyers and, though an investigation has begun, no formal criminal charges have been leveled against them as of yet. The real question lies in the timing of the announcement. On Wednesday, Morsi made a point of calling for dialogue between his party and the various opposition factions. For Morsi’s chief prosecutor to subsequently announce an investigation of the key organizers of the opposition may seem puzzling on the surface, though it is not uncharacteristic of the president’s political style. Since his election, Morsi’s government has constantly contradicted itself: promising a new law one day, backtracking the next. Indeed, the back-and-forth looks, to a jaundiced eye, like the clumsy politicking of an inexperienced and confused administration. The Muslim Brotherhood, after all, was banned in Egypt for nearly six decades, and is likely still getting its bearings after a rapid ascent into power fueled by revolutionary sentiment. Remember, too, that they now face the complicated task of governing more than 80 million people. Their agenda is well established, but the methods necessary to gain broad-based political support are perhaps more obscure to them.
Morsi’s attempt to consolidate power by intervening into the operations of Egypt’s (so far) independent judiciary has been as clumsy as his other efforts. His appointment of Abdullah in November — a move made with blatant disregard for the usual protocol for appointing a public prosecutor — was met with instant outrage by the country’s judges. And it is the standoff between judiciary and the executive that serves as the true context for Thursday’s announcement of the opposition probe. Morsi realizes that he must find a way to neutralize the opposition in the run-up to Egypt’s parliamentary elections early next year. He is aware that the Muslim Brotherhood stands to lose a great deal of popularity as Egypt’s economic crisis intensifies; austerity measures are considered inevitable in order to address a bloated deficit and prevent a further downgrade of the country’s credit rating. By pitting the judiciary and the opposition against each other, Morsi is essentially handing over the task of scapegoating his political opponents to his governmental rivals. Should a criminal trial go ahead, however, the political gambit could backfire; prosecuting someone like ElBaradei — who enjoys both internal popularity and a high, high global profile — would almost certainly galvanize the opposition into organizing even larger street protests. It wouldn’t be difficult for National Salvation Front organizers to frame the proceedings as a return to the Mubarak era (putting political opponents on trial was a favorite tactic of the deposed dictator). Which makes it likely the threat of prosecution will suffice — for now — as a publicly conciliatory Morsi weighs his next move.