On Tuesday night, trails of tear gas curled over the tens of thousands of protesters surrounding Egypt’s presidential palace. “No to Islamic dictatorship,” “leave, Morsi, leave,” the crowd chanted. As security forces withdrew, protesters swarmed forward, covering the walls of the palace in revolutionary slogans and graffiti: “By order of the revolution, consigned to the dustbin of history,” read one. With the protest escalating, President Mohamed Morsi hurriedly left the palace by a back door—an exit with echoes, his opponents hoped, of Hosni Mubarak’s rushed departure almost two years earlier.
In the 48 hours since, at least six have been killed and over 700 injured in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters outside the palace. Five of Morsi’s advisers have resigned (in addition to the three that left last week) and tanks have moved into the surrounding streets—though the army has been careful to declare its political neutrality. Numbers on the streets have matched those reached on 27th November, when over 100,000 protesters packed Tahrir Square—the biggest protests since Mubarak stood down. Is this, as Morsi’s opponents claim, a second Egyptian revolution?
Morsi’s recent moves to consolidate control of Egypt’s political transition have violently divided a country already polarised into Islamist (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi) and non-Islamist camps. A declaration issued on 22nd November granted the president sweeping powers to “protect the revolution” and set his decisions above the reach of the law. A week later, a draft constitution was approved in a marathon 16-hour session by the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly. It will now be put to a referendum on 15th December, a vote that the Brotherhood, with its superior organisation and reach beyond Egypt’s urban centres, has every chance of winning.
The fallout from these events has revealed a deep rift over the legacy of the 2011 revolution. Morsi and his supporters believe they are dismantling the “deep state” created by years of authoritarian rule, and dismiss protests as the actions of “regime remnants” seeking to reverse the gains of 2011. From this perspective, Islamist parties are heroic liberators battling persecution from their old enemies. “The Muslim Brothers are victims of repeated acts of humiliation, violence and even murder,” claimed the Freedom and Justice Party, the group’s political wing, in a statement. Perhaps more dangerously, many of their supporters are convinced they are fighting for Islam against the forces of unbelief. “I’m with Morsi not for Morsi, but because he stands for sharia and I’m for sharia and Islam,” said shopkeeper Ahmed el-Sherif, who joined tens of thousands on a Brotherhood-organised march last week.
The protesters say they are guarding Egypt against the return of Mubarak-style tyranny. They argue that the constitution is regressive and that Morsi has lost legitimacy after the violent suppression of protests. “Morsi is saying, ‘I don’t want people to be killed,’ but he hasn’t told the police and his followers to stop shooting kids,” said Heba Salem, a media researcher who took part in the 2011 revolution and has returned to Tahrir to protest against Morsi. “He is completely, completely like Mubarak.”
While the Brotherhood talks of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy, non-Islamists are equally suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strongmen and their influence over Morsi. “It’s Khairat al-Shater and Mohammed Badie, not Morsi, who are running this country,” said businessman Seif Massoud, as he marched towards the presidential palace from the affluent suburb of Medinat Nasr under banners declaring “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” referring to Badie’s role as head of the Brotherhood in Egypt.
The previously fragmented opposition has united to form an alliance led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He has warned that the country is facing “civil war,” with Morsi “fully responsible” for the violence. “We hold opposition figures, namely ElBaradei and [former presidential candidate] Hamdeen Sabbahi, fully responsible for the escalation of violence and inciting their supporters,” responded the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokespeople.
As the two sides tussle, Egypt’s economy continues to unravel and the slow work of improving its citizens’ lives is neglected. Much of the structure of the Mubarak-era state remains in place, as Morsi’s supporters claim, with institutions such as the hated interior ministry barely touched by reform. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarian reflex is still to quash all expressions of grassroots democratic spirit that could revitalise the country. “Crowds do not dictate the course of the country, elected bodies do,” Brotherhood adviser Gehad el-Haddad said of recent protests. Morsi has repeatedly reassured his crisis-stricken nation that he is “a president for all Egyptians,” but his current course is unlikely to convince the many who disbelieve him.