After Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi had issued a decree giving the presidential institution enhanced powers, on November 22, Egypt suddenly turned into an extremely volatile political zone. Street protests have been succeeding for days in the now famous Tahrir Square, the symbol of the revolution that overturned Hosni Mubarak last year, and the clashes between Morsi’s supporters and foes ended in people being killed and injured. The whole world asked itself whether Egypt had entered a new revolutionary phase that could end in a true civil war. Protesters highlighted the fact that, by assuming the enhanced powers, Morsi opened the way to the installation of a dictatorship similar to the one taken down by the revolutionists last year, yet of a totally different nature, this time with religious foundations and seeking to establish a state order grounded on the Islamic law.
It is known that Morsi represents the Muslim Brotherhood political movement consisting of several parties the most important of which being the one Morsi had led before he became president. Illegal during the former regime as it was allegedly trying to islamise the state, the political movement is today the most powerful political force in Egypt and its opposition revolves around the liberal and secular segments of the society as well as religious minorities (the Coptic Christians first of all), women’s organisations, in general groups that are dissatisfied with the precarious economic situation in the country. There are, however, some circumstances of the current crisis that need to be named in summary in order to understand that the political future of the most important Arab state is actually at stake. Morsi’s decree came up when he had acquired a crucial role in the realisation of a truce between Israel and Gaza Strip after days of violent collisions threatening to grow into a genuine civil war with grievous regional ramifications. Sure of the international visibility gained in this way, also through a fruitful cooperation with Washington, Morsi deemed that his political movement would be easily accepted by the domestic public opinion. But his calculation turned out to have been flawed. Moreover, apart from using violent repression, he answered the violent protests and besiege of the presidential palace by protesters by a mobilisation of his own supporters and counter-protests as well as by speeding up the preparation of a constitutional draft and setting the date for the national constitutional referendum on December 15 this year. It was again a ‘move’ the consequences of which were erroneously evaluated, as protests sharpened and the victims of violent clashes between the pro-and against Morsi sides became more numerous. The Army felt obligated to step in and on Saturday, December 8, it gave an ultimatum warning it was not going to let Egypt plunge into chaos and civil war. The threat of a military coup could not be underestimated. On Sunday, faced with that extremely volatile situation posing the risk of precipitating the entry of the Army to political life, President Morsi said he was ready to drop decisions made on November 22, nonetheless sticking to the existing time-table for the constitutional referendum. The opposition was unhappy with the decision and carried on with the protest. This is where Egypt currently stands and what could happen from here on is to be determined in the forthcoming days.There is yet another note that needs to be made on the circumstances leading to the revocation of the November 22 decree by Morsi. The National Salvation Front, founded by the opposition for the promotion of its anti-Morsi objectives, asked for a dialogue with the power after he revoked the decree. Saying he accepted the dialogue without strings attached, Morsi initiated a meeting and announced the withdrawal of the decree but the keeping of the decision regarding the constitutional referendum. The National Salvation Front led by representative national figures such as ElBaradei, former international high-ranking official, or former presidential candidates and Morsi’s electoral competitors such as H. Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, however said it opposed the referendum and advised people to continue the protests. A statement issued on Sunday by the imposing opposition organisation deemed as ‘farcical’ both the revocation of the decree and the decision to hold the referendum, stressing out that ‘the draft constitution does not reflect the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people’ that it consolidated the ‘presidential dictatorship’ and did not consider the ‘social and economic needs’ of the nation. On the other hand, presidential officials say a majority of the Egyptian people endorses Morsi’s policy, but that ‘a strong minority’ consisting of ‘a number of businessmen and media figures …have instigated the opposition protest seen over the past week.’ As a matter of fact, over 200 media representatives – TV producers and journalists – held a protest in the Tahrir Square in Cairo on Sunday, using slogans such as ‘Free presenters say the media will be free’ and ‘Free media is the property of the people’, denouncing claimed attempts of Islamist domination of national mass-media. So where is Egypt now headed to? Are we dealing with a transient episode of political battle, where representative figures of the national political spectrum dispute primacy, or a genuine clash, that could end in bloodshed, of political and social forces with irreducible programmes concerning the country’s path of development – Islamism versus secular liberalism? Or perhaps something much more important is at stake here, something that goes beyond Egypt’s future – liberal-democratic or Islamism -, in reality involving regional security to which the Egyptian-Israeli peace made in the late 1970s was a corner stone? The next days will indicate the direction Egypt and the region of the Middle East, so troubled ever since the ‘Arab spring’ kicked off in early 2011 will take.