Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's assumption of greater powers last week can be seen either as an alarming development, suggesting a move on his part toward a form of dictatorial government characteristic of previous regimes, or as a less alarming temporary measure, designed to assure order in Egypt as it moves over the rough road to democracy after 60 years of military rule.
What is clear is that many Egyptians see his moves as undemocratic and have taken to the streets in the thousands to express their opposition to them. Protesters have included students, the unemployed and judges and other officials of the judiciary, an important constituency. It is likely that those objecting to his actions also include supporters of the old order, the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak whom Mr. Morsi succeeded.
The intent of Mr. Morsi's actions was clear. He does not want to see any division of powers in Egypt while it goes through its Arab Spring transition, in principle to democracy unless he really does intend to become a new dictator. The legislature is already dissolved. He has now put himself above the courts, taking away their right to change the status quo, particularly the role of the committee that is writing the new constitution, due to complete its work in February.
Mr. Morsi was artful with respect to the outside world in his choice of timing to make his grab. The United States, and every other power including the United Nations that had to rely on him to achieve the cease-fire agreement with Hamas and Israel, the two warring powers in the deadly eight-day Gaza duel, weren't in a position to say much.
The Egyptian president was the central figure in a successful negotiation, due in no small part to the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood that he heads in Egypt has good lines to Ismail Haniyeh and the other leaders of Hamas in Gaza, and to Israel, still yoked to Egypt in the 1979 peace treaty negotiated with then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
There are at least three reasons for America and Egypt's other friends not to be alarmed at Mr. Morsi's move, even though it was disconcerting. The first is that he himself came to power through democratic means, free and fair elections that he won in June. It is not unreasonable to imagine that he believes in achieving democracy in Egypt.
The second is that, in spite of the somewhat rocky road that Egypt has pursued since the beginning of the Arab Spring last year, it is a very old civilization, with a background of thousands of years of government, a sense of which continues to dominate even more radical changes there.
The third, more pragmatic reason is that the country and Mr. Morsi's government are still very dependent on international aid to keep Egypt moving forward. Also last week a preliminary agreement was reached with the International Monetary Fund for a loan of up to $4.8 billion over the next two years. To be disbursed in eight three-month segments, it will need to be approved by the IMF board all along the way.
The key measure of Mr. Morsi's intentions will come when the constitutional assembly finishes its work and makes its recommendations. Until then, there is reason to relax and watch what happens under his leadership.