A divided Egyptian nation begins voting Saturday on a controversial, hastily drafted constitution promoted by President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood organization from which he hails.
But with his popular support plummeting, Mr. Morsi needs all the help he can muster from the country's religious extremes if that constitution is to pass. The result of it all could be a regime that is much closer to the rigid Salafist style of Islam.
Recent protests and clashes have suggested a struggle between religious and secular forces, but that notion is incomplete. Egypt is a conservative society, with the majority of its 80 million citizens being religious and patriotic. That religion, however, is generally a more moderate Islam, rooted in Sufism that eschews extremism.
The secular and Christian Egyptians who strongly oppose this constitution for failing to provide adequate protections for freedom of expression and for non-Islamic religions, represent only a minority of citizens – they cannot defeat the document on their own. They are being increasingly joined, however, by moderate observant Muslims who have turned out spontaneously in the past two weeks to register their protests. Together they pose a serious challenge to the Islamist agenda.
The Muslim Brothers who drafted the document are well organized, but they too are supported only by a minority of the people and cannot pass the constitution by themselves.
Having chosen not to accommodate the constitutional demands of the secular and Christian opponents, and having long ago been spurned by the Sufi-based moderates, Mr. Morsi and the Brothers have turned to the more extreme Salafists for support. These puritanical groups, which garnered roughly 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, were displeased that the draft constitution being voted on does not specifically say that Egyptian law will based on Islamic sharia.
To secure their support, Mr. Morsi and his government have hinted at a willingness to interpret the ambiguous new constitution in a very Islamic way.
Just this week, for example, the government banned the broadcasting of any "romantic" songs or videos on its 23 state-owned television and radio outlets, a move designed to salve a Salafist complaint against publicly funded "obscenities."
It was "throwing a bone to a dog," said Hisham Kassem, a former publisher and human-rights activist, who pointed out that the real meat being offered the Salafists could be found at a place called Media Centre, headquarters for several major media organizations.
Hundreds of Salafists have laid siege for the past nine days to this media complex located in 6th of October City, a satellite community outside the capital, a few kilometres west of the pyramids and the Sphinx. Most participants are men in their 30s and 40s, in long beards and dressed in flowing galabias; a small percentage are women, dressed head to toe in black robes and niqabs.
Their goal is to intimidate the men and women working in the broadcast outlets, people who, the Salafists say, are corrupt and biased against Islam. "They do their job not to please God, but just to become famous," one speaker at the protest said Friday.
Each day, in a threatening ritual, the crowd slaughters a farm animal – a bull, a camel, a sheep – made up to represent one of the many on-air news presenters who work at the site. The animal, its face covered with a mask of the TV personality, is held on its side on concrete tiles heavily stained with blood, while a butcher slits its throat. The crowd cheers, calling out the name of the presenter – on Friday it was Wael Ibrashi of Dream TV – and shouting the ritual "Allahu Akbar" (God is great).
The animal then is strung up beneath a banner that shows President Morsi and the Salafist demand that he "purge the media."
"The Muslim Brotherhood is using the Salafists to deliver a message to the liberals," said Emad Gad, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The message is: Stop attacking Morsi."
The extremism, however, does not please all Islamists.
"Morsi should be the Mandela of our nation, bringing people together," said Najeh Ibrahim, a physician and founder of the radical Gamaa Islamiya movement. "Instead he is polarizing the country."
"This extremism is threatening the Islamic project in Egypt," Dr. Ibrahim said, the very thing Mr. Morsi is, so heavy-handedly, trying to promote.