Amr Darrag is on a call when a second phone in his Cairo office begins to ring. He’s been awake since 6 a.m., and the stack of papers on his desk swells with every passing minute. A leader in Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Darrag is also part of the 100-member committee scrambling to draft the country’s new constitution—a pending document that has hit every possible bump in the road since Egyptians toppled President Hosni Mubarak last year.
“We have a couple more days until we finish our mission,” says Darrag, secretary-general of the Constituent Assembly. “Those who are not interested in stability in Egypt or want to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of the scene are trying to stop us from issuing the constitution. The courts want to dismantle the assembly. The president had to stop these tricks or the country would fall into chaos.”
On Nov. 22, as Americans sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, Egypt’s first post-revolution president, Mohamed Morsi, issued a decree exempting all of his decisions from legal challenge. The move was a stunning power grab that quickly earned him the nickname “Egypt’s new pharaoh”—a title once bestowed upon his defunct predecessor. Hundreds of thousands of disbelieving Egyptians flooded city streets from Alexandria to Aswan with a familiar cry: “The people want the fall of the regime!” Tahrir Square came alive once again with tents and bullhorns and a howl so loud—so impassioned—that it was dubbed the “19th Day” of last year’s revolution. Angry female protesters returned in masses to Tahrir, resilient after months of deteriorating security that included repeated incidents of harassment and sexual assault.
Morsi also declared that the courts cannot dissolve the Assembly, which many say is unfairly dominated by his fellow Islamists. As tensions built nationwide, the Assembly slammed together the first finalized draft of the constitution last week—a text that could set the course for Egypt’s future and that few have been privy to see.
“He shot himself in the foot,” says Steven A. Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Perhaps ‘new pharaoh’ is an overstatement, even though Morsi is no democrat. Somewhere within the councils of the Muslim Brotherhood, someone thought this decree would play well in Tahrir.”
Play well it didn’t. As antagonized protesters violently clashed with pro-Morsi demonstrators, the president defended his decision, insisting it is temporary and geared toward eliminating the bureaucratic hurdles obstructing Egypt’s unraveling transition. The comment inspired the snarky headline in independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm: “Morsi is a ‘temporary’ dictator.” The Brotherhood brushed off the protests as merely “politics,” distinguishing it from the 2011 revolution, when “united Egyptians revolted against autocracy.” The organization warned, via Twitter, that a revolution without the Muslim Brotherhood is no revolution.
But that was a tough sell to make to those who descended on Tahrir, driven by lingering memories from 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s chokehold. Less than two years after Egyptians earned their first taste of democracy, the country once again has a president with near-absolute power and no constitution to dictate otherwise (the decree was ironically introduced as a “constitutional declaration”). There is no Parliament, since the military generals dissolved it in June. Then the generals were replaced by Brotherhood loyalists—as were the heads of most state-run media organizations.
Egypt’s military said in a statement that it would not prevent protesters from voicing their opposition, an indirect slight to Morsi, who is the country’s first-ever civilian president. Meanwhile, dozens of casualties were reported last week amid violent police crackdowns, as pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators squared off. “Mubarak’s repressive regime is alive and well,” Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter of the déjà vu police brutality.
For the secular parties quickly eliminated in this year’s election, the time has come to do something about it. “Unity” was the catchphrase of the hour, as opposition leaders and former political rivals including Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and ElBaradei marched through the throngs in Tahrir, arm in arm, calling for Egyptians to rise up against tyranny once again. However, history has shown that the secular movements—even unified—are no match for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has traditionally commanded a deep-rooted, far-reaching influence, even in its decades as an outlawed organization.
“This past week Morsi has done the impossible and mobilized a completely new section of the population—what we previously called the ‘Feloul’ [remnants of the last regime] and the ‘Couch Party,’” the inactive segment of the population, says secular activist Bahaa Hashem. “Most of those who were against the demonstrations in 2011 feared instability. Irony really does have a way of kicking you in the backside!”
In the immediate years following its last revolution in 1952, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the coup that purged Egypt of colonialists, abolished the multi-party system in an alleged effort to cleanse the country of monarchial influences. It was a tradition that was carried on by his successors—if not by law, then in practice. While the Muslim Brotherhood has managed to stay organized over the years through its grassroots work, it headed into uncharted waters this year with its official entrance into politics. Its inexperience prompted many to question whether the organization has what it takes to rule over a country of 91 million people, 25 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
As part of the new decree, Morsi fired Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, who had his fair share of critics for failing to carry out harsher sentences on Mubarak-regime stalwarts. The move ignited a war between the executive and judicial branches, with the judges declaring a strike. At a press conference last week, judiciary spokesman Maher Samy lashed back: “The court will not be intimidated by any threats or blackmail and will not submit to any pressures practiced on it from any direction, regardless of its power.”
Freedom and Justice Party chief Essam el-Erian described the response as “harmful to the democratic transformation process.” The strike threatened to add to a growing backlog of court cases at a time when law and order are crumbling and amid mounting pressure to prosecute businessmen and politicians linked to the ousted government.
Morsi’s decision was reportedly a preemptive block on rumored intentions by the court to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. In response, more than two dozen on the committee—mainly secular and Christian members—tendered their resignations. With almost one third of the constitutional committee gone, the predominantly Islamic members who remained vowed to finalize the constitution within days to end the political crisis—a move that has the opposition crying foul.
“The Egyptian street is no longer with [the Brotherhood],” says Emad Gad, an official with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party who held a seat in the dissolved Parliament. “We are not saying [Morsi] has to go, but he will not last in office if he turns his back on the opposition.” Gad hails the judges for joining the protest, expecting this would create enough pressure for Morsi to rescind the declaration.
“I do understand the concerns and I have the same [ones] because we have a bad history of dictatorship,” says Darrag. “If this doesn’t change after the constitution is finished, then I support the people to go into the streets and do whatever they want.”
But Egypt literally can’t afford to wait much longer. The country’s benchmark stock index plummeted 9.5 percent after Morsi granted himself sweeping powers. Economic growth slowed to 2.6 percent in the third quarter, down from 3.3 percent a year earlier. Tourism, once the nation’s bread and butter, has slowed to a trickle. Foreign investors, who once deemed Egypt a cash cow for its robust natural resources and large consumer base, are anxiously waiting on the sidelines for calm to return. This raises red flags, in particular, for officials from the International Monetary Fund who are scheduled to reach a final decision on a nearly $5 billion financing agreement for Egypt this month. The loan rides on the assurance that the government’s economic-reform program will not be derailed by political upheaval or a breakdown of law and order, IMF officials have said.
The revolution has cost Egypt $70 billion in lost economic output and put pressure on its currency and public finances, says Simon Williams, HSBC chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa: “There are allies overseas and investors in the region ready to put money to work, and policymakers at home with plans for reform—but without political order, there can be no economic recovery.”
In many ways, Morsi was an embattled president even before he was named the winner in June. Deemed one of the most unlikely candidates from the get-go, he just barely squeezed by to the runoff and edged out his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, to win with 51.73 percent of the vote. The victory was bittersweet for many activists, particularly those with secular political aspirations, who wanted to see the government free from anyone linked to the ousted regime but didn’t want an Islamist head of state. Morsi, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Southern California, had been considered a soft power in the Muslim Brotherhood. Prior to the runoff, there had been significant buzz around another Brotherhood contender, Abdel Monem Abou al-Fattouh, who is regarded as an Islamist reformer.
But Morsi quickly earned the approval of many skeptics, forcing Egypt’s distrusted generals out within weeks of winning the election and taking a resolute stance on certain foreign-policy issues, including the Syrian government’s brutal response to protests. Only a day before passing the decree, he successfully brokered a truce deal between Hamas and Israel, which includes a promise by Hamas to end the smuggling of weapons and ammunition from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza. The ceasefire earned Morsi a reputation globally as a serious political player. But the fanfare was short-lived—critics of the decree said he was merely playing off the victory.
“An explosive cocktail of a budding dictator losing popularity day by day, a deteriorating economy, and a changing political culture that pushes Egyptian people to be more daring and challenging to their own government will not lead to stability,” notes Said Sadek, a secular activist and professor at the American University in Cairo. “We will enter a period of instability and more popular revolts as the economy crumbles and his government fails to meet the basic needs of the people.”
While Morsi promises to be a president for all Egyptians, his critics accuse him of favoring his Islamist allies and failing to honor his election platform, which called for the establishment of a coalition government. What most of the parties can agree on are the potential dangers of pitting state institutions against each other, particularly at a time of extreme vulnerability. A country that once found itself unified, regardless of political and ideological differences, is now more divided than ever.
“The major result of the revolution is that leaders should not take the people for granted anymore,” says the Brotherhood’s Darrag. “They can’t issue decrees anymore without being questioned, and so we encourage people to go to Tahrir. It is normal for any transition to take time after a long period of dictatorship. In the end, Egypt will come out healthy and the people will be more alert than ever.”