The protests over Egypt’s new constitution and the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopolizing of political institutions are threatening to spiral into openly violent conflict.
“In every scenario, Egypt’s most polarizing and volatile crisis since Mubarak’s ouster is likely to deepen,” reports suggest:
The past week, clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents left two dead and hundreds wounded and raised fears of further chaos. The Brotherhood and other Islamists plan their own massive rally backing Morsi on Saturday. Already on Friday, Brotherhood activists were passing out fliers calling for the public to come out and ‘‘support Islamic law.’’ A number of Muslim clerics in Friday sermons in the southern city of Assiut called the president’s opponents ‘‘thugs’’ and ‘‘enemies of God and Islam.’’
The draft constitution will spawn “all kinds of controversy — political, legal and dueling confrontations on the streets,” said Nathan Brown, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. “At this point, things seem to be escalating in all ways, and there are no real attempts to contain them. It raises concern about the stability of the political system.”
The growing polarization of Islamists and secular Egyptians, exacerbated by Morsi’s self-empowering edict, could even escalate into civil war, analysts suggest.
“The build-up of opposition to Morsi is fuelling worries of a possible descent into violence,” writes Heba Saleh:
The president’s Muslim Brotherhood organisation and hardline Salafi Islamist groups are planning a huge rally in Cairo on Saturday under the slogan “Legitimacy and Islamic Law”.
In his weekly letter to Brotherhood members, Mohamed Badie, the group’s Supreme Leader…. described the opposition as misguided, mercenaries and traitors: “Many of them have been misled by the tendentious media and some have been bought and their needs have been exploited by people with vested interests who are remnants of the old regime. There is also a minority who sold their consciences and betrayed their country and sought to strengthen themselves by resorting to enemies abroad.”
“The way out of this blockade is unclear,” says Hisham Kassem, a publisher and veteran democracy advocate. “If Morsi refuses to compromise, it could lead to a civil war.”
Many ordinary citizens were already outraged by Morsi’s contentious decree, he said. “People are furious all over……people who are normally not politicized, but see what is coming,” said Kassem.
The Islamist leader “misread the strength of opposition and the depth of attachment to the rule of law,” say Roula Khalaf and Heba Saleh
Morsi, moreover, did nothing to build consensus before issuing his decree – even his advisers and his justice minister appeared surprised….Most damning for him – and dangerous for Egypt – the Islamist who was developing into a national leader has been reduced to a controversial partisan figure, squandering much of the goodwill he had won in recent months.
Other analysts take a more charitable view of Morsi’s actions.
“He took short-term extremely dictatorial steps and said it was necessary to do because the judiciary was poised to disrupt the entire process, a process that was designed to build a democratic system,” said Nathan Brown, political science professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Brown said concerns that Morsi is becoming or has become a dictator are “exaggerated for now.” But he also said that while Morsi’s fears about the judiciary were well grounded, they, too, were most likely exaggerated since Morsi could have just appointed a new constituent assembly.
Yet other observers insist that the president’s actions reveal that the authoritarian impulse, if not totalitarian tendencies, of Islamist politics.
“Certainly the powers that he’s asserted for himself are total,” Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told CBC News.
“He has not only put himself above any judicial oversight but actually declared the authority to pass any law that would advance the revolution, which is such a vague term that it implies unchecked extensive powers.”
“So, is he Egypt’s dictator? At the moment, yes, on paper the most powerful Egyptian leader since the pharaoh,” said Trager who has extensively studied Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
“As shocking as Morsi’s actions are, they do not prove that Islamists cannot be democrats,” writes Tarek Masoud:
Morsi’s decision to grant himself unquestioned authority was not the final, spectacularly public phase in some hitherto clandestine Muslim Brotherhood plan to erect a holy autocracy. Instead, the Egyptian president simply did what Egyptian presidents have been doing for more than 60 years — that is, loosening institutional restraints on their authority in order to more easily fulfill their agendas.
“That Morsi is an Islamist is largely irrelevant,” says Masoud, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It’s likely that the autocratic temptation would have seized Egypt’s president regardless of his party or ideological orientation.”
Whatever the Brotherhood’s intentions, the reaction to Morsi’s controversial decree and to the disputed new constitution may have demonstrated the resilience of Egypt’s democratic forces.
“Morsi did not intend to restore a dictatorship,” writes the FT’s Khalaf. “The objective of the constitutional declaration was to speed up political transition – though with results that would suit him and his Muslim Brotherhood party, the country’s largest political organisation.”
Nevertheless, she writes:
The message from Tahrir this week was simple, however much Egyptians long for stability and for an end to the rollercoaster ride of political transition, they will not stand for a return to autocratic rule. Even if the uproar subsides as the president rushes to offer concessions, Mr Morsi has been warned. …Egyptians have drawn a line under their authoritarian past. No leader, whether Islamist or non-Islamist, should dare to rule them unchallenged.
“There is no doubt that Morsi has over-reached,” said Shadi Hamid, director of Middle East Studies at Brookings Doha. “If his role was to promote stability, he has led Egypt in the opposite direction. He could have achieved some of what he wanted through a less inflammatory decree. This was a real miscalculation of the mandate that he has.”