Egypt's Tahrir Square is once again making headlines all over the world. Protesters have filled Cairo's downtown to the brim twice in the past week -- just as they did last year, during the heady 18-day revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. This time around, however, the square was packed with Egyptians opposed to a power grab by the country's Islamist movements.
The message was clear: There are movers and shakers on the Egyptian political scene, and they are not Islamists. At long last, Egypt's non-Islamist opposition has a chance to get in the driver's seat -- building a powerful political machine of their own and changing the direction of their country.
How did it come to this?
On Nov. 22, President Mohamed Morsi issued a constitutional decree that turned Egypt's balance of power on its head. Two of the declaration's six articles may ostensibly address the demands of Egyptians: One orders a retrial of those implicated in the killing of protesters during the revolution, and another sacks the prosecutor general -- a remnant of Mubarak's regime. Both actions, however, only served to sugarcoat the rest of the articles, which effectively transform the president into an omnipotent leader.
The declaration not only gives Morsi, a longtime leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, the authority to issue any necessary decision or legislation without overview from any other branch of government, it paves the way to set up revolutionary courts. This "revolutionary protection" law essentially gives the president the power to put on trial anyone deemed to be enemy of the revolution, state, or regime. The ambiguity of its language is dangerous -- as tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians saw immediately.
The response was an immediate uproar by Egypt's infamously fragmented opposition -- and within a few hours, that well-known fragmentation was giving way to unity. The Nov. 27 marches and protest in Tahrir were the largest since the revolution's heyday, and were followed by another huge protest on Nov. 30 after Morsi refused to retract his decree. Disturbingly, many Egyptian provinces have also seen violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the Brotherhood. Clashes led to the burning of several offices belonging to the Brothers' political wing, and the death of a few protesters from both camps.
Many skeptics, including the Brotherhood, are convinced that the current unity between Egypt's opposition forces will be short lived. This could not be further from the truth.
Emergency constitutional decrees and similar measures are in themselves not foreign to democracies, and have been exercised successfully across the globe at numerous points in history. Egypt, however, is different: Egyptians well remember the country's disastrous experience with them during the previous dictatorship. Lest we forget, a major motivator for last year's revolution was the long-standing emergency law, which was in effect for 30 years straight and suspended Egyptians' constitutional rights. In fact, this was one of the common grievances that all factions of the revolution could agree upon.
But since Mubarak fell, Egypt's fractious non-Islamist groups have had a hard time maintaining that unity. Unlike the decades-old institutionalized Muslim Brotherhood and the hard-line Salafi movements, these groups only gained the space to operate freely less than two years ago. They have had to learn how to structure their political institutions, build their ground operations, and develop their policies -- not to mention negotiate their electoral alliances and navigate the various crises of Egypt's post-revolutionary landscape.