With a late-Saturday-night concession, President Mohamed Morsi tried to contain the largest sustained public uprising since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of anti-Morsi protesters have occupied both Tahrir Square and the streets outside the presidential palace calling for two main demands: the revocation of the Nov. 22 decree that Morsi used to grant himself sweeping new powers and a delay of a Dec. 15 referendum scheduled on a controversial and hastily completed draft constitution. Other (but not all) protesters have been adding a third demand that echoes the Tahrir revolution that toppled Mubarak: irhal, Arabic for leave.
Morsi’s late-night stratagem involves heavily modifying the constitutional decree that gave him so much power. The original decree is formally annulled but will likely be replaced by a second upcoming decree. However, the hastily drafted proposed constitution is still on track for a quick national referendum on Dec. 15. Will this be enough to satisfy the protesters outside the palace or the broad opposition coalition that has formed in the past three weeks?
Much of the motivation behind Morsi’s original decree was to place the Constituent Assembly — the body drafting the constitution — outside the authority of Egypt’s judiciary. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood believed Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court was about to dissolve the assembly. The ensuing controversy essentially bought the Constituent Assembly enough time to fast-track a draft and start the clock toward the referendum.
The National Salvation Front — which is led by Mohamed ElBaradei and includes former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and third-place presidential finisher Hamdeen Sabbahi — has steadfastly refused to even meet with Morsi until he rescinded his constitutional decree. All three politicians were absent from the several-hour negotiations on Saturday that produced this latest concession. Instead the talks were attended by a host of fringe politicians, like Islamist scholar Mohamed Selim al-Awa, who attended the Saturday-night press conference to announce the concessions.
But ElBaradei and the others also strongly oppose both the constitution and the manner in which it was drafted. So it seems unlikely this latest development will repair Egypt’s fractured political scene.
Despite the insistence on keeping the referendum on schedule, Morsi has already had to partially alter his plans. Voting for Egyptians living overseas was supposed to begin on Dec. 8, but the government announced Friday that the expatriate voting would be delayed until at least Wednesday. At the time, this delay was interpreted as a possible step toward a total postponement, but it may simply have been Morsi and his government bowing to the logistical realities of the situation. With the country up in arms, the prospect of holding the expatriate referendum would have been tricky at best. Earlier this week, at least 200 Egyptian diplomats signed on to a communiqué threatening to refuse to oversee the vote. This diplomat rebellion — somewhat lost amid the shouting over the past week — would have been unprecedented and could have discredited the entire process from the start.
Theoretically, even if the protesters maintain their numbers, Morsi could still ram the constitution through by sheer force of will, momentum and the Brotherhood’s legendary grassroots-mobilization machine. Despite the broad nature of the opposing coalition, opposition members are still not optimistic of their ability to defeat the constitution at the ballot box.
But even if it does pass, the lingering bitterness and mistrust born of this controversy could come back to haunt the Brotherhood at parliamentary elections — which will gear up once there’s a constitution in place. Morsi has reverted to his base and his Islamist allies in this time of crisis. But he has also managed to alienate some of his own voters. Many of those protesting against Morsi and calling for his downfall said they voted for him over the summer — viewing him as the lesser of two evils compared with Mubarak holdover and military candidate Ahmed Shafik.
Friday and Saturday witnessed multiple marches starting from different points around Cairo and converging on the presidential palace in the outlying district of Heliopolis. Meanwhile, a second set of protesters continue to maintain a long-term sit-in in Tahrir Square, about 10 miles (16 km) away. The sudden geographical expansion of the anti-Morsi movement has gripped the capital and quickly escalated the stakes of the confrontation. Even during the 18-day rebellion that ousted Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, the protesters largely kept to Tahrir and the immediate vicinity; it was only on Mubarak’s final day that they moved to the presidential palace.
The mood outside the palace has been largely festive and buoyant — with many protesters expressing their belief that Morsi and the Brotherhood have catastrophically overplayed their hand. But tensions spiked late Friday evening amid rumors that the Muslim Brotherhood was gathering its cadres at a prominent mosque about 15 minutes away — raising fears that it wasn’t so much a parallel protest as a preparation for a decisive assault. The night passed without further incident, but the threat and the fear remain — particularly if the protesters choose to maintain their sit-in after Morsi’s Saturday-night announcement.
Throughout the conflict, speculation has grown regarding the army’s role in things and the possibility of a military intervention if the situation continued to deteriorate. ElBaradei among others openly warned of the possibility. A military statement, read on state television over the weekend, urged both sides to pursue dialogue but left a hint of possible intervention. “The armed forces are watching with sadness and worries the current developments in the country,” the statement said. “We stress that dialogue is the ideal and only solution to reach an agreement that realizes the interests of the nation and its citizens. Anything other than that will lead us into a dark tunnel with catastrophic consequences, which we will never allow to happen.”
The state-owned daily al-Ahram reported that Salafi preacher Hazem Abu Ismail — who was disqualified as a presidential candidate and commands a legion of loyal followers — had called on his supporters to go and break up the sit-in outside the palace if the protesters had not left by Sunday. And the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide Kheirat al-Shater (largely regarded as Morsi’s patron in the organization) on Saturday described the protesters as dangerous saboteurs seeking to derail Egypt’s democratic process. “We will not allow the revolution to be stolen again,” al-Shater said during a press conference held for the Coalition of Islamic Forces. “There are those who want to spoil the democratic experience in Egypt.”
Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.