From the balcony in his office building, Mahmoud Soheim was given a front-row view of Egypt’s revolution. He listened to the overwhelming chants of the revolutionaries the day President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. He watched as protesters stormed the American embassy. And this week, Mr. Soheim, a research director at Cairo Financial Holding, a downtown investment firm, was once again witness to history.
Many landmarks of Egypt’s almost two-year-old revolution – from Tahrir Square to the murals of killed protesters on Mohammed Mahmoud Street – lie within a few blocks of Mr. Soheim’s office. On Friday afternoon, at the end of a cataclysmic week that marked Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s greatest foreign-policy triumph and his most divisive domestic decree, protesters are back in and around Tahrir, chanting, waving massive banners bearing the faces of the revolution’s dead and occasionally running from tear-gas canisters thrown by security officers. Some protesters are calling for Mr. Morsi’s ouster, much the same way they did during the last days of his predecessor’s reign. In another part of town, Mr. Morsi’s supporters are engaged in a boisterous demonstration of their own, calling him a hero and a protector of the revolution. A country of 82 million people and infinite opinions suddenly seems polarized.
After almost two years, Mr. Soheim has become accustomed to the chaotic aftershocks of Egypt’s revolution. But like many Egyptians who rode a wave of euphoria that trickled into disillusionment, Mr. Soheim has lost faith in the country’s first freely elected president. Mr. Morsi’s election was supposed to mark the moment Egyptians stopped revolting and started rebuilding. So far, it has not.
“He has been President for six months, and he hasn’t done anything,” says Mr. Soheim, a smartly dressed man whose spare office smells heavily of cigarette smoke. “He’s not working for the country, he’s not working for the people, he’s working for the Muslim Brotherhood – and if you criticize them, they say you’re criticizing Allah.”
This week, Mr. Morsi cemented his position as the most important figure in Middle East diplomacy, after brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The deal, which seemed perfectly suited to Mr. Morsi’s brand of pragmatism and detail-focused problem-solving, garnered the Islamist President widespread praise domestically and moreso overseas. It also cast him in the role of the model post-revolutionary leader, one who could bridge the violent and generations-long divides marring the region. The White House, once wary of Mr. Morsi’s strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old Egyptian Sunni Islamist organization, rebranded him an ally and a partner for peace.
The very next day, Mr. Morsi unleashed a firestorm of protest when he unveiled a series of decrees that made his decisions immune to challenge by the Egyptian courts, or any other authority. He also extended similar powers to Egypt’s upper house of parliament and the committee charged with writing the country’s new constitution – both groups dominated by Islamists and thus likely to attempt to include principles of sharia law in the new constitution, something many in the Muslim Brotherhood strongly support. Within minutes of Mr. Morsi’s announcement, demonstrators in downtown Cairo were calling him, in the words of high-profile political figure Mohamed ElBaradei, a “new Pharaoh.”
On Friday in Tahrir Square, thousands of the President’s opponents demonstrated against his decrees, chanting, “Morsi is Mubarak” and “The people want the downfall of the Brotherhood.”
Addressing a supportive rally at the presidential palace, Mr. Morsi depicted himself as the protector of stability and said he welcomed a genuine and strong opposition. “I am the guarantor of that and I will protect for my brothers in the opposition all their rights so they can exercise their role.”
A long-time critic of the Mubarak regime, Mr. Morsi was forced early on to develop a keen survival instinct. Few question his loyalty to the Brotherhood, which gave him a launching pad into politics. It is the potent mix of those two factors – survival instinct and loyalty to the Brotherhood – that opponents fear may turn Mr. Morsi into an Islamist version of Mr. Mubarak. By most accounts, Mr. Morsi hasn’t been nearly as ruthless as his predecessor, but in a country still fresh off a revolution, his every action is viewed with an eye to the man he replaced.