CAIRO - For the first time in Egypt's post-revolutionary political scene, the Muslim Brotherhood's ascendancy is under serious threat. But as a diverse array of political players challenges the Islamist movement's efforts to centralize power, the Brothers are showing no sign of backing down.
The trouble began last week, when President Mohamed Morsy issued a package of sovereign decrees that sacked the nation's prosecutor general, appointed a new one with a mandate to re-open cases against deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle, and -- most importantly -- declared both his own decisions and the assembly drafting the country's new constitution immune from judicial oversight. As scholar Nathan Brown put it, Morsy's edict amounted to a declaration that he was "all powerful ... just for a little while."
Unsurprisingly, Egypt's opposition wasn't about to sit back and let Morsy decide when he would allow rival political voices a seat at the table. Public reaction was swift and fierce: In less than 24 hours, protesters flooded Tahrir Square. In cities across the country, offices of Morsy's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) -- the Brotherhood's political wing --were attacked and burned. One teenager died in the ensuing clashes. The group is poised to hold its own rally on Saturday, which it says will be a "million-man march" in support of the president's decision and efforts to "cleans[e] the country of former regime cronies."
Morsy is no Mubarak with a beard, his advisors insist. He has merely acted to pre-empt a plot by Mubarak regime holdovers and opposition politicians that would have seen the country's high court dissolve the constitutional assembly and annul the president's election victory -- a judicial coup that would throw the country into chaos, they say.
Pressed for evidence of the plot during a prerecorded television interview aired on Nov. 29, Morsy declined to provide any. He warned of "enemies" outside the country and said he had obtained knowledge about a plot, even though it had yet to turn into "proper evidence." "When I have this information and I feel my country is under threat, I have to make difficult decisions," he said.
The decrees, their fallout, and the Brotherhood's reaction are emblematic of the group's views of the Egyptian political scene five months after winning the presidency and nearly two years after the revolution opened the path for their political dominance.
Victories at the polls have buoyed the group's confidence -- some would say arrogance -- and solidified its pre-existing conception of Egypt's non-Islamist opposition as tiny and irrelevant -- a constituency that can if necessary be outvoted and outmanned on the streets to push through the Brotherhood's agenda. For the Brotherhood, the prospect of losing its political majority seems so unlikely that the possibility has not even entered into its strategic calculations.
"Should we show you our might?" said Hazem Kheir Eddin, an FJP political adviser who writes for its media outlets, when pressed about the Brotherhood's margin of victory in the recent elections. "If you can mobilize half a million men, we can mobilize 20 million men."