The politics of post-Mubarak Egypt have broken

Demonstrators against a proposed Egyptian constitution in Cairo have devolved into confrontations between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's supporters, background, clash with opponents, foreground, outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Wednesday. Clashes began when thousands of Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi descended on the area around the palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters swept up to the gates of the presidential palace in Cairo, furious about a proposed Constitution that was written with limited, if any, input from the revolutionary political groups that spearheaded the protests that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Feb. 2011.

The protests prompted a hasty retreat through a back gate by President Mohamed Morsi, as angry protesters shouted the same slogans against him that swept him to power in June. Riot police had to hold back the protesters. 

Today, came the inevitable show of street power from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders insist they're defending a democratically elected president from an undemocratic mob. Brothers were out in force in Cairo today, clashing with President Morsi's opponents and helping to secure the area around the palace, where Morsi returned to work today.

Crisis averted? No.

Egypt's sputtering transition from a military-backed, secular dictatorship to, well, something else, has now hit its rockiest point in the nearly two years since it began. Morsi's spokesman and backers have not offered any specific compromise. His Vice President Mahmoud Makki today addressed the nation, saying a referendum scheduled for Dec. 15 will move forward. Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political wing, summarized Mr. Makki's remarks as "No moving of Referendum date, no cancellation of Constitutional Declaration. Crowds do not dictate course of country, elected bodies do."

What next for protesters?

If the Brother's stick to their guns, the protesters have little in the way of political alternatives but more protests, or giving in. That too seems unlikely, with fundamental questions at stake about the future of Egyptian society and surging distrust of Morsi and his movement. Politics conducted through shows of street power is always dangerously messy, and the stage is being set for a politically and economically paralyzing period of political confrontation, with the risk of real violence.

Michael Hanna at The Century Foundation is worried, and fears that Morsi has been emboldened by his successful role in brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel last month. 

"If approved in a hastily called referendum, that slipshod [constitution] will bound Egypt's political future and institutionalize its crisis. With a significant portion of the country's judges declaring a strike in response to Morsy's declaration and dueling protesters mobilizing on opposing sides, Egypt's flawed transition now risks tipping into outright civil strife and prolonged instability," he writes. "Rather than using his burnished reputation as a regional leader to forge a more consensual and stable transition back home, Morsy capitalized on the favorable international political climate by making an untenable and unjustifiable power grab that has plunged Egypt into crisis."

The US has been largely passive in the face of these moves, wary that too much criticism of Morsi could jeopardize his commitment, so far, to maintaining Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, as was demonstrated by the role he played in securing a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, when it appeared an Israeli invasion of Gaza was imminent.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments today are a case in point.

"The upheaval we are seeing now once again in the streets of Cairo and other cities indicates that dialogue is urgently needed," Ms. Clinton told reporters in Brussels. Clinton asked for "respectful exchanges of views and concerns among Egyptians themselves about the constitutional process and the substance of the constitution."

Dialogue? Morsi gave himself sweeping powers by decree last month, and used them to rush through the draft constitution he now wants put to a national referendum ten days from now. The draft was hastily finished in an all night session of a committee almost devoid of Egypt's secular political forces, and has raised fears that fundamental rights to free speech will be compromised in the new Egypt, as they were in the old, and that Islamic law will play an ever-larger role in Egyptian governance.

A beggar's choice

What's more, if the referendum doesn't pass, Egyptians will be left with Morsi holding executive and legislative power and insisting the courts have little remit to review his decisions. That's a beggar's choice for his political opponents, and no recipe for national consensus on the rules of the game.

And events in Cairo today have been about as far from a "respectful exchanges of views" as could be imagined, with Muslim Brotherhood protesters tearing down the makeshift tents of protesters attempting a sit-in near the presidential palace and engaging in rock throwing volleys with less organized secular-leaning protesters.

Street confrontations at the end of Mubarak's rule were generally between government security protesters and police, with one of the notable exceptions coming on Feb. 2, 2011, when leaders of Mubarak's then-ruling National Democratic Party organized an attack on protesters at Tahrir Square. Armed thugs, a few bizarrely riding camels and horses, charged into Tahrir, touching off a globally-televised melee that ended with 11 people dead.

The ruins of that battle, which saw the sympathies of millions of Egyptians shift towards the young protesters, marked the end of whatever hope Mubarak had of clinging to power. The crowds in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities swelled to unmanageable numbers all unified by a singular demand: "Mubarak, go!" The Muslim Brotherhood, cautious as ever, finally joined the protests in force. The military, which governed Egypt from the time Mubarak stepped down until Morsi's election this June, began publicly lining up behind the "legitimacy" of popular demands.

On Feb. 11, Mubarak was gone.

Consensus fractured

Today, the secular revolutionaries are comparing the clashes to the "Camel Battle" on social media. Reports from the streets of Cairo have protesters expressing optimism that the general public will react, much as they did in early 2011. But what's happening now is a face-off between two groups of civilians with different ideologies, not the Egyptian people and military as "one hand" against the regime.

Reporters on the ground say the Brotherhood's numbers on the streets today are greater than their opponents, and President Morsi remains the only popularly elected political figure in the country. But while his support is intense, it isn't meaningful. In the run-off round of the presidential election, he defeated Mubarak loyalist and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq by 13.2 million votes to 12.3 million.

That a former air force chief of staff who went on to serve in Mubarak's cabinet for eight years came so close to victory was a clear sign that the Brother's did not have a mandate for the Islamicization of Egyptian politics the group has craved since it was founded in 1928.

What stood for a political consensus for post-Mubarak Egypt, with all sides promising greater freedoms and a national healing after Mubarak's almost 30 years of at times brutal rule, has now been fractured. Whether Morsi has the will, or interest, in trying to put it back together again is the key question that now confronts Egypt.

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