In the latest round of Egypt's current crisis -- once again pitting Islamists against non-Islamists -- demonstrators gathered at the presidential palace in Cairo to protest President Mohamed Morsi's stunning decision to claim authoritarian, albeit temporary powers and his subsequent moves to rush through a controversial constitution. In a grim reminder of the country's precarious state, police clashed with protesters and fired tear gas.
But this isn't really about Morsi and his surprise decree -- though to be sure, parts of the decree employ language straight out of Orwell and seem almost designed to provoke and polarize. However, neither the decree nor the draft constitution are quite as bad as Morsi's opponents insisted. The opposition's sometimes bizarre comparisons to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, the 1933 Enabling Act, and the French Revolution suggest a legitimate fury (and an intriguing fascination with fascism), but make little sense as historic analogies.
Morsi could have read his Friday shopping list on national television, and it might have made little difference. The decree, after all, was only the latest in what Morsi's opponents see as a long list of abuses. Egypt's "original" revolutionaries are one such group that blast the Brotherhood's compromises small and large with the old state bureaucracy, lamenting how their revolution was sacrificed on the altar of expediency and gradualism. And it is true that the Brotherhood-appointed leaders of the Ministry of the Interior, the military, and the intelligence apparatus include men who were complicit in some of the worst human rights abuses of the Hosni Mubarak era -- and have gone unpunished to this day.
But these mostly younger revolutionaries, whose critiques have been admirably consistent, are a small minority. The rest of the opposition is an odd assortment of liberals, socialists, old regime nostalgists, and ordinary, angry Egyptians, each whom have their own disparate grievances and objectives. The liberals and leftists in the equation, led by figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and Amr Moussa, have little in common with each other -- besides a fear that their country is being taken over, and taken away, by Islamists. While they may be "liberal," in the sense of opposing state interference in private morality, their attachment to democracy is mercurial at best. Many of them welcomed the dissolution of Egypt's first democratically elected parliament, called on the military to intervene and "safeguard" the civil state, and even cast their presidential ballot for Ahmed Shafiq, Morsi's opponent and Mubarak's last prime minister.
Liberals' problem with Morsi's decree is not so much its authoritarian overtones, but that its authoritarianism is (or could be) in the service of an ideology -- Islamism -- that they view as an existential threat to Egypt. While Morsi has been extremely polarizing in power, the Muslim Brotherhood insists, so far correctly, that it has not actually overseen the imposition of any "Islamic" laws on the population.
But the Brotherhood too is missing the point here. Liberals, and so many others, fear Morsi and the Brotherhood not for what it has done, but for what it might do. Such fears, based on worst-case projections well into the future, are difficult to engage and impossible to disprove. To assuage them, trust is required -- and the heart of the problem is that there is little to go around Egypt these days.
Islamist distrust of the other side, justified or not, is what led Morsi to issue his Nov. 22 decree, people close to him insist. The Brotherhood saw an existential threat on the horizon: Looming in the near future were court rulings that would dissolve both the Constituent Assembly and the upper house of parliament. Brotherhood and FJP officials told me that they knew from sympathetic judges that rulings revoking Morsi's Aug. 12 decree, which established civilian control of the military, and even possibly annulling the presidential election law, were in the cards. Another prominent Brotherhood member, who has privately been critical of Morsi's presidency, went so far as to suggest to me that, if the president didn't act preemptively now, the closing of Brotherhood offices could be next in a new campaign of repression, followed by the dissolution of the group itself.
At the same time, the Brotherhood was well aware just how bad Morsi's decree looked. As one senior FJP official admitted: "Yes, the decree isn't democratic and it's not what you would expect after a revolution," but he claimed there was simply no other choice. The message was clear: The Brotherhood is in an existential fight and, as a result, the normal rules of politics would be suspended. One Brotherhood member I spoke to likened it to "shock therapy that runs the risk of leaving the patient dead."
In short, the Brotherhood sees its opponents -- whether liberals, the judiciary, elements of the military and state bureaucracy -- as fundamentally anti-democratic. Among other things, it points to the failure of someone as prominent as Mohamed ElBaradei -- a "liberal dictator" in the words of one Brotherhood official -- to stand up against the judiciary's dissolution of parliament, and blasts his recent warnings that the military may need to intervene "to restore law and order."