Egypt’s revolution has more twists and turns than the TV series Homeland. It is hard to tell whether we are seeing its continuation and resurgence, or a new uprising altogether. Ironically, this latest crisis was sparked by President Mohammed Mursi, the very person brought to power by the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
In November 2012, Mursi announced that all decisions, laws and declarations passed by him since taking office could not be appealed or revoked, and that Egypt’s Islamist-dominated, constitution-drafting body and the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) could not be dissolved.
These shockingly dictatorial decrees have generated understandable public fury. Hundreds of thousands have taken part in continuous and growing demonstrations throughout the country, the judiciary is up in arms, print and broadcast media went on strike, and six of Mursi’s advisers have resigned.
There has also been international condemnation. “We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay.
Mursi claimed, rather bizarrely, that these decrees were necessary to safeguard the transition away from dictatorship, and “in order to hold accountable those responsible for the corruption as well as other crimes during the previous regime and the transitional period.” However, this should be the job of the judiciary, and it is difficult to see how placing himself above the law would do anything but hinder the democratic process.
The attempted bypassing of the judiciary is due to accusations from the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi hails, that it is a remnant of the Mubarak era, a claim vehemently denied by judges. Mursi’s newly appointed prosecutor general has said that “revolutionary courts” will be set up that could see Mubarak, his sons and his top security chiefs retried “should there be new evidence.”
However, why retry Mubarak and his sons when the supposedly sympathetic judiciary sentenced them to life imprisonment for killing protesters? Six security chiefs were acquitted in the same case, sparking nationwide outrage, but if Mursi’s intention was to garner public favour over this issue, it has spectacularly backfired.
Indeed, his biggest crisis since taking office in June is entirely of his own making, a massive fall from grace for a president who successfully curbed the powers of the unpopular and authoritarian military, and has restored sovereignty and independence to Egypt’s foreign policy following Mubarak’s reviled subservience to the U.S..
In fact, the military - to which Mursi has ironically given powers of arrest - has said in a statement that it “won’t allow” Egypt to be forced “into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences.” This has raised speculation that it may seek to govern the country again if the crisis is not resolved soon.
Some analysts believe that Mursi’s intention was to use his foreign policy successes - including brokering the end of Israel’s latest assault against Gaza - to offset a popular backlash against his decrees. If this is the case, it clearly has not worked.
The democratically elected president - now referred to as “the new pharaoh” and Mursillini, after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini - promised to relinquish absolute power when a draft constitution is approved - replacing the one suspended after Mubarak’s ouster - with a referendum set for 15 December.
Although the public outcry forced Mursi to do so prior to this date, the damage is done, and he has refused to heed opposition demands that the referendum be postponed so that a more inclusive constitution can be drafted. This has led to vows that the revolution will continue, and even to calls that he step down.
“We do not recognize the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people,” the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said in a statement. “We reject the referendum which will certainly lead to more division and sedition.” Former presidential candidate Amr Moussa said holding the referendum on 15 December “puts the whole nation” in danger.
Though there are positive elements in the draft, there are serious misgivings among the opposition - which has boycotted the Islamist-dominated assembly that wrote it - regarding provisions on rights and freedoms, and because the process has been rushed to ease pressure on Mursi.
Christians - who comprise some 10% of the population - reportedly object to an article that narrows the meaning of “the principles of Islamic law” to the tenets of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence.
Some of the articles on freedom of expression and religion “are penal code provisions,” according to Human Rights Watch Egypt director Heba Morayef. “You don’t list all the things that you’re not allowed to do, you’re supposed to set up the rights and limitations.”
It is difficult to see how Mursi could really believe that after decades of totalitarian rule, and the popular struggle and sacrifice of removing Mubarak, Egyptians would accept another leader placing himself above the law, even temporarily.
After all, when Mubarak came to power, he too talked the talk of reform, only to walk the walk of dictatorship. This is the story of other Arab autocrats, past and present. Egyptian memories are not short, and their patience has been exhausted.
“We’re learning how to be free,” Mursi told Time magazine. “We’re learning how to debate. How to differ.” He was referring to Egyptians in general, but it seems that he himself has much to learn in this regard, not least since his insistence on forging on with the referendum as scheduled has rendered his calls for national dialogue somewhat pointless.
The large and public shows of support for Mursi may be to his detriment, giving him very little room for manoeuvre or further compromise without losing his support base. While he has done much to unify and galvanise a disparate and divided opposition, it would be naive to believe that he can count on the total and unflinching backing of his supporters.
While many, if not most, in the Brotherhood will stand by him, there are certain to be those who are very nervous at the popular backlash against the party, with several of its offices torched nationwide, and its members attacked. It was a long and arduous road to power for the Brotherhood, which would not want its gains jeopardised, particularly in such a short space of time.
Mursi’s Islamist credentials may also be hurt by criticism from Al Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic body, of his decree granting himself sweeping powers.
While there is no love lost between Salafis - who took a surprising quarter of parliament in elections - and the largely liberal, secular opposition, the former are also suspicious of the president, with accusations that he has not gone far enough in Islamising Egypt. In addition, Salafyo Costa - a web-based political forum founded by Salafis - has spoken out against Mursi and the Brotherhood, urging them not to mix religion with politics.
It is also worth noting that in a tight presidential race against Ahmed Shafiq, Mursi won votes from Egyptians who were not Islamist, but simply did not favour someone they suspected of being a relic of the Mubarak era. Mursi can say goodbye to their support.
The economic woes exacerbated by this crisis are of grave concern to all Egyptians. The country’s stock market has fallen, and the International Monetary Fund may well reconsider its nearly $5 billion financing agreement - vital to Egypt’s economic recovery - if it is not confident of the country’s stability and ability to implement the deal.
The current crisis is also diverting much-needed attention and resources away from the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula, which has become increasingly lawless.
“The Egypt of today is not the Egypt of yesterday,” Mursi said before his decrees. How right he is, and yet how badly he has misread the new Egypt.
At the time of writing, the constitutional referendum had not yet taken place, but the result - and even when or if it happens - is to an extent irrelevant, not just to this article, but to Egyptians generally. Whatever the outcome, Mursi has dangerously exacerbated the very divisions he vowed to heal, and his authority and legitimacy will be crippled throughout his presidency, the very duration of which is now uncertain.
“I will be a president for all Egyptians,” he said just hours after he was elected. This was a tall order from the start, given that he won with less than 52% of the vote. He has now rendered his pledge impossible - assuming it was sincere to begin with.
Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based writer and Arab commentator, is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya. This article was published in the Middle East magazine. Twitter: @sharifnash