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Protesters, opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, wave the Egyptian flag and shout slogans against him and members of the Muslim Brotherhood at the Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo's Moqattam district July 1, 2013. (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS)
Protesters, opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, wave the Egyptian flag and shout slogans against him and members of the Muslim Brotherhood at the Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo's Moqattam district July 1, 2013. (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS)

Evan Hill

Egypt’s anti-Islamist uprising: How did it come to this? Add to ...

Security forces stormed Tahrir Square and brutally dispersed a small sit-in of a few hundred people -- almost all of them relatives of the revolution’s martyrs or those who had been wounded. They had been forgotten by the state, and they were angry. The revolutionaries were infuriated at the attack, and the result was the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a five-day brawl with the riot police near the Square that left more than 40 civilians dead. The end of the fighting was precipitated by army intervention, the construction of a large concrete wall, and the arrival of a human chain of Muslim Brothers who cajoled or forced the protesters off the street.

The revolutionaries and marginalized young men and women who had joined the fight were filled with righteous anger. They felt betrayed. They had shed blood, supposedly on principle: to force police reform, to snatch some justice for those who had lost sons or daughters or their own health during the revolution, to hold the army to account for abuses under its rule. To them, the Brothers had thrown it all away for political gain. The temporary constitution had paved the way for parliamentary elections, due that month, a critical step that would help decide who ruled post-revolution Egypt. The Brotherhood could not let them be delayed. They went on to dominate the vote. Mohamed Mahmoud cleaved a rift between the two sides that never healed.

Over the course of the following months, it became obvious: The Brotherhood was dutifully, purposefully playing for keeps. Under the temporary constitution they helped to pass, the new parliament would be tasked with choosing those who would write a permanent founding document for post-revolution Egypt -- the holy grail. The Brotherhood would go to almost any lengths to secure it. But what they saw as predictable hardball and democratic combat -- which they were almost guaranteed to win -- the opposition saw as a series of betrayals.

The Brotherhood ran for more seats in parliament than some of their prominent members had first promised, then dominated the ministries once elected. The opposition hardly contested the second legislative election, for the less-powerful upper house, which was similarly dominated by the Brotherhood and Salafi parties. When the time came to select the constituent assembly, the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc helped gerrymander its 100-member makeup so that if push came to shove, the Brotherhood and its backers would not be outvoted. The Brotherhood pledged not to seek the presidency, then fielded a candidate, and fielded another – Mohammed Morsi -- when the first was disqualified.

After Mr. Morsi took office, he failed to form -- or could not find those willing to join -- a cabinet that some had hoped would involve figures from across the political spectrum and prompt a national reconciliation. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, felt battered by the forces of the old regime. In the days before Mr. Morsi’s victory, the Supreme Constitutional Court used an electoral technicality to annul the lower house of parliament, erasing the Brotherhood’s gains and the country’s most crucial elected body. The court docketed a case to rule on the legitimacy of the constituent assembly. Other courts planned to rule on the legality of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Their entire project was now at risk.

The beginning of the end came in November, almost a year to the day after the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battle, when Mr. Morsi issued a package of sovereign decrees -- just four months into his term -- that essentially placed himself and the assembly above judicial review. He and his allies argued that to stand by and do nothing would leave courts packed with Mubarak appointees free to undermine every step of the transition. The opposition, which may have once been inclined to agree, did not take his side. There had been too many betrayals; trust had evaporated.

Protesters took to the streets, calling the president a “new pharaoh.” The remaining liberals, progressives, leftists and Christians in the constituent assembly walked out. Mr. Morsi gave them two extra months to resolve their differences, but the assembly rushed the draft constitution through an overnight session and passed it. Opposition politicians increasingly believed that Mr. Morsi did not even call his own shots -- that decisions of national import were made in the Brotherhood's secretive Guidance Bureau. In Egypt's new constitution, human-rights groups and other critics saw gaping loopholes, lax protections for minorities, women and children, and troubling roles for religious oversight from conservative Sunni institutions.

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