With Egyptian protesters dying in the streets and some of his most trusted aides resigning, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is facing the specter of his country tearing apart at the seams, as regular Egyptians have rapidly lost confidence in his ability to lead.
The anger and outrage is entirely Morsi’s own doing, a reaction to his Nov. 22 decree that granted him unprecedented powers that placed him above the nation’s judiciary and then his gambit to push through the writing of a new constitution. For a nation that had just overthrown the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, Morsi’s recent actions are starting to feel all too familiar. Morsi addressed Egyptians last night in a speech during which he blamed the violence and protests on hired “thugs”—a tactic that drew the ire of his critics because it was one that Mubarak often used, blaming any criticism on mercenary forces.
Six people were killed and hundreds were wounded in the protests, prompting a call to Morsi last night from President Obama, who expressed “deep concern’’ about the deaths and injuries of protesters and said that “all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the White House said.
So the question now is whether it’s too late for Egypt to save itself. Has the conflict gone so far that it’s too late to pull back? Can Morsi possibly save his presidency, or has he completely lost the confidence of his people?
Though Morsi has sad that the majority of the population supports him and his bid to rewrite the constitution with the imprimatur of the Muslim Brotherhood, that claim seems belied by the massive demonstrations in recent days. On Tuesday, 100,000 protestors marched outside of the presidential palace in Cairo, a gesture being called “The Last Warning” by organizers demanding that Morsi rescind the decrees that have removed the country’s system of checks and balances. Though he was in the palace conducting business during the protests, Morsi did not confront the crowd of dissenters.
Both sides are unwilling to back down from its core demands, making a political solution appear increasingly unlikely. The opposition leadership won’t negotiate until Morsi withdraws the decree, but he refuses to rescind it. The opposition also wants to stop the Dec. 15 vote on the constitution by the Egyptian people, which Morsi also refuses. But with the unrest and protesters dying, it’s unclear how much legitimacy a constitution would have, even if it passed the referendum. And who is going to ensure that the voting can take place without more violence?
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Each side of the political battle is now convinced that it faces an imminent coup. Secular groups believe Morsi is forcing through a constitution that will ultimately allow Islamist groups and religious leaders to wield new power. And the demands to stop the referendum have convinced Islamists that their secular opponents seek to abort the new democracy.
Nadine Sherif of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said in a statement: “President Morsi had a choice to either bring the country together or tear it apart. Today it seems clear that he has made his decision and civil war seems looming.”
The real underlying issue at stake in this conflict is how much power the ultra-religious Islamists will have to embed their conservative beliefs into the nation’s constitution. As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi is eager to give Islamists as much power as possible, but he is being opposed by the more liberal secular forces in Egypt and also by a judiciary that is still loyal to ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.
The struggle is about the nature of the Egyptian lifestyle for years to come: Will the country allow Islamists to dominate the government, as has happened in other North African and Arab nations, which will likely lead to a diminishing of human rights for the citizenry, or will the more liberal secular forces win the day? The outcome could have a substantial effect on the day-to-day freedoms of the Egyptian public.