Although massive demonstrations against recently elected President Mohammed Morsi continued yesterday, he has taken a critical step back from the power grab that caused chaos and is threatening to upend Egypt's fledgling democracy.
Morsi has backtracked from a decree that placed his official edicts beyond judicial scrutiny and prompted hundreds of liberals and secularists to take to the streets, claiming his grab for power rivaled that of the recently ousted autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
It's impossible to know whether Morsi has actually seen the error of his undemocratic ways or simply acted to quiet fierce opposition and an escalating anti-government violence by those who fear strict Islamic rule. Whatever the motivation, his changed stance could be good news for the United States if it results in Egypt becoming a stable, democratic ally in the volatile region.
Egypt is struggling to find the proper balance of power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of its new democracy. That's a tough challenge for a nation that just recently cast off three decades of dictatorship and, in June, made Morsi, with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, its first democratically elected president. Soon afterward, judges who are holdovers from the Mubarak regime tried to stymie the writing of a new constitution because the process was dominated by Islamists.
Morsi said the decree placing him above the law was an attempt to stabilize the country rather than a power grab. Once leaders achieve absolute power, however, it is often too seductive to relinquish. Morsi said Monday that now only "acts of sovereignty" that protect the main institutions of the state will be immune from judicial review, and only until a new constitution is written and new parliamentary elections are held in about two months.
President Barack Obama should urge and, if necessary, pressure him to keep that promise. Beyond that, the best course for the United States, for now, is wary patience as Egypt's new democracy tries to find its way.