But the very next day, Morsi gave Egyptians a new reason to protest. He and his aides insist the Nov. 22 emergency decree putting his decisions beyond legal challenge was not a power grab, just a desperate attempt to preserve the democratic process. Their argument: the Mubarak-appointed judges of the Constitutional Court, having already declared the elected parliament illegitimate, were about to do the same with the Constituent Assembly. (The court had dissolved the first Constituent Assembly in April.) Far from seeking absolute power, say Morsi aides, the President is seeking to swiftly empower the legislative branch of government: a new constitution and elections for parliament will allow him to hand off authority. “If he was a new pharaoh, he wouldn’t be so keen on a new constitution and parliament,” says Darrag, who is also secretary general of the Constituent Assembly. “You can’t call a man a dictator when he’s trying to give up power.”
Darrag allows that the announcement of the emergency decree could have been more skillfully handled. “[Morsi] could have communicated his motivations better,” he says. “He made it too easy for his enemies to turn this into a weapon against him.” But he maintains that the new powers will be strictly temporary, expiring when the Constituent Assembly produces a constitution and a new parliament is elected.
The trouble with that argument is that the constitution-drafting process Morsi claims to be trying to save is, in the eyes of many liberals and religious minorities, not worth saving. Already more than 20 members of the Constituent Assembly— including those representing the Coptic churches and several liberal, secular parties—have resigned, most citing disagreements over the extent to which Islamic law should guide legislation. Many liberals would rather scrap the process and start again.
And then there’s the darker possibility. Some Western experts believe Morsi’s power grab shows that he is playing a longer game with the ultimate goal of a rigid Islamic state no longer open to democratic freedoms or aligned with Western interests. “He’s not, and never has been, a moderate,” says Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who interviewed Morsi repeatedly as an academic starting in 2010. “His function inside the Muslim Brotherhood was that of an enforcer [who] would weed out anyone who didn’t agree with [its] strict doctrine or tactics.”
Even the Cairo street seems a bit unsure of Morsi’s ultimate direction. In some pockets of Tahrir Square, it is hard to tell the protesters from the casual pedestrians. Vendors hawk roasted corn and yams, popcorn and Egyptian candy. On one corner, riot police toss tear gas at gangs of young men wearing handkerchiefs over their faces, and spectators look on with no sense of fear. In other sections, the anger at Morsi is palpable. “This is a blatant attempt to get himself the powers of Mubarak, and we won’t agree to it,” says Shaadi Mohammed, 23, who described himself as a “former fan” of the new President. “We united to kick Mubarak out. If Morsi isn’t careful, we will do the same to him.”
Which Way Next?
In his conversation with TIME, Morsi didn’t seem concerned by the street protests. “Egyptians are free. They are raising their voices when they are opposing the President,” he said. “We have a new Egypt now.” But do they? After the first spasm of outrage at the decree, some aides hinted that he would announce a compromise. That hasn’t happened. Once Tahrir Square filled up, it made a retraction harder: it might make him look weak. The other way out is to be true to his word and use the emergency powers to quickly deliver a new constitution, one that distributes power more evenly among the presidency, legislature and judiciary. This will first require him to bring back to the assembly the members who quit. Not easy, but not impossible for a man who persuaded Egypt’s top generals to walk away from power.
Yet with crowds back in the streets and the unpredictable forces of change at work once again, even Morsi may no longer know where he is leading his new country.
—with reporting by Ashraf Khalil And Karl Vick / Cairo And Jay Newton-Small / Washington