Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership and a widening array of opponents appear to be on a collision course Friday as a presidential address to the nation late Thursday night failed to meet opposition demands.
Coming just hours after violent protests outside the presidential palace left at least six dead and hundreds injured, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi expressed sorrow for the victims, but nothing except determination to press ahead with his controversial scheme to ram through a new constitution with a referendum next week.
“The constitutional decree and all its effects will end as soon as the result of the referendum is announced – be it a yes or a no,” said Mr. Morsi, referring to a Nov. 22 edict that accorded him powers immune from judicial review. “What I wanted by issuing this decree is to get to the stage of accomplishing the constitution, and the referendum on it to allow this great people [Egyptians] to express their will.”
“Nothing has changed,” said a skeptical Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a political analyst and former senior adviser to the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs from 2005 to 2007. “It’s full speed ahead.”
“This is Iran, 1980,” Mr. Choukri Fishere warned by way of analogy, referring to the year when the ayatollahs turned against the democrats and steered their revolution toward full Islamization.
“We may be in for a long and all-out confrontation.”
The mounting opposition has insisted that Mr. Morsi cancel his decree, postpone the referendum and redraft the constitution with input from secularists, women and Christians, many of whom had boycotted a constituent assembly in which they had been greatly outnumbered.
“Had he done this, the crisis would be over,” said Saeed Sadek, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo. “But Morsi is a captive of his own thuggish organization, and they don’t want to yield.”
Instead, the President offered only a half-measure – a conference this Saturday intended “to come up with a solution that shall save the nation.”
To that end, Mr. Morsi said: “I call for a full, productive dialogue with all figures and heads of parties, revolutionary youth and senior legal figures.”
The proposal was quickly rejected by opposition groups that called for protests after Friday prayers aimed at “the downfall of the militia regime,” a reference to what people see as the Muslim Brotherhood’s organized street muscle.
A communiqué from a leftist group urged protesters to gather at mosques and squares across Egypt, and to stage marches in Cairo, converging again on the presidential palace. “Egyptian blood is a red line,” the communiqué said, a reference to the deaths and injuries sustained in protests Wednesday and Thursday.
In the streets, as the President spoke on Thursday, crowds of demonstrators turned up their shoes as a sign of disgust, chanting for an end to the regime, just as they chanted against the former president, Hosni Mubarak, almost two years ago, while a mob of protesters set ablaze the four-storey headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.
It was only two weeks ago that Mr. Morsi was basking in glory, having helped negotiate an end to the rocket war between Israel and Hamas, and safeguarding, in the process, the interests both of his Hamas brethren and of Israel and its U.S. patron.
His decree of Nov. 22 changed all that and he has been in political free fall since then.
“The Muslim Brothers, who put him in power, and its Islamist allies are simply not interested in a compromise,” said Mr. Choukri Fishere, a professor at the American University of Cairo. “They are now about to seize power fully and redraft the rules of the game to enshrine Islamist control in the constitution itself.
“This is precisely why so many Egyptians, most of them ordinary citizens who have not been involved in politics, are protesting. They feel trapped by Islamists who came to power through the door of democracy only to shut it behind them.”
Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of al-Ahram newspaper, wrote Thursday: “The Egyptian revolution proved remarkable in its ability to deliver a fell blow to the Mubarak regime. … [But] its architects were wholly unprepared [to take power.]”
For the Muslim Brotherhood, “the revolution had not so much given rise to a new political and social order as it had created a power vacuum which needed to be filled.”
The result, Mr. Shukrallah argues, has been a suicidal march to chaos caused by the movement’s arrogance.
“The domestic power vacuum, underlined further by the pathetic demise of the [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], strong Western, particularly American, backing, regional support from oil-rich Qatar … no less than the growingly Islamist stamp on the Arab Spring – all of which seemed to give credence to what Western pundits had begun parroting repeatedly: The Islamist moment had arrived finally in the Arab world,” he wrote.
“For an international movement – who sees the Muslim-majority world from Morocco to Indonesia as its ultimate constituency – the seductive force of such a compulsion cannot be overestimated.”