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Morsi's power grab a rare chance for Egypt's opposition (+video)

President Mohamed Morsi's elimination of most of the checks on his power has galvanized the fractured opposition. But they still lack a strategy for uniting.

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Morsi says the move was not an attempt to grasp unlimited power, but was necessary to keep the judiciary, which includes Mubarak appointees many consider corrupt, from putting up endless roadblocks on Egypt's transition to stability. His critics say it places near dictatorial power in his hands.

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The president met yesterday with the country's highest judiciary body to try to keep judges from mounting a rebellion against his edict, but the resulting statement – that only Morsi's decisions on vaguely defined "sovereign matters" were immune from judicial review – did not satisfy opposition leaders, parties, and unaffiliated Egyptians, who gathered by the thousands in Tahrir Square today. 

The Muslim Brotherhood cancelled a large protest it had called in Cairo in support of Morsi, for fear the two groups would clash. Brotherhood demonstrations were reportedly planned for other cities, however.

On Nov. 24, dozens of political parties, opposition groups, and former presidential candidates announced that they would work together against the president's decree, and called for today's protest. Their ranks included popular figures such as Hamdeen Sabbahi, who garnered about 20 percent of the votes in the first round of presidential elections this year. 

"It's kind of a new degree of coordination and new degree of unity that hasn't been done before. So it's kind of new uncharted territory," says Mr. Sabry, who adds that the opposition is focused on the president's decree, and not the president himself. "The question is how to keep the momentum rising, while avoiding any form of violence or unintended consequences."

Since the uprising, secular groups have exhibited not just divisions, but what critics call undemocratic tendencies. When Islamist parties won the majority of the seats, some secularists hoped for military intervention in the political process to weaken Islamists. Some also cheered when a court, backed by the military, disbanded the elected parliament. Secular parties sometimes appear more concerned with defeating Islamists than with plans for Egypt's future, say critics.

Playing the long game

It's unclear whether Morsi's decree can mobilize the sheer numbers that would be needed to force him to back down, says H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow at the Brookings Institution. The opposition likely lacks both the popular support or institutional backing needed to force Morsi to reverse his decision.

Instead they may have to focus on long-term plans, such as mobilizing a "no" vote in the referendum on the new constitution if they don't support the document put forward and building a network of support for the next parliamentary elections, he says.

Most liberal, secular, and Christian members of the constituent assembly, about 25 percent of the committee, have resigned, saying that the assembly was dominated by Islamists who were determined to put their stamp on the constitution, and ignored suggestions by secular members. They say the assembly, which was elected by the now-disbanded parliament, is writing a constitution that will allow Islamists to impose their views on the population, and does not sufficiently protect rights of minorities and women. 

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