Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi seems unshaken by the massive protests that shook Cairo on Tuesday night. He has shown no interest in retreating from his recent power grab and the Islamist group Muslim Brotherhood is planning to hold even larger pro-Morsi demonstrations on Friday.
It didn't take long before it was almost impossible to get through Tahrir Square, in the heart of Cairo. People were streaming in from all sides. Hundreds of thousands responded on Tuesday to calls to demonstrate against Mohammed Morsi, Egpyt's Islamist president, and his recent power grab. New decrees issued by Morsi grant him almost unassailable new powers and give his controversial constitutional assembly, dominated by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, virtual immunity as well.
Morsi has succeeded in driving his people back into Tahrir Square after only five months in office. But this time, though he remains Egypt's first democratically elected president, demonstrators are marching in opposition to him rather than against deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Teachers, lawyers and professors were among the protesters on Tuesday -- many of them had not been back to the square since the February 2011 pro-democracy rallies that forced Mubarak out.
One man was carrying a poster bearing the image of a couch. The caption said "Ana Hisb al Kanabe," or "I am the Sofa Party," essentially shorthand for the silent majority. "But Morsi brings me back to the streets!" it said.
Today's Egypt is deeply divided. Opposition activists are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood is laying the groundwork for a new dictatorship, and the mood of rage and the angry slogans on Tuesday evening were reminiscent of last year's revolution. "Down with the regime of the religious leader," some were chanting. Others preferred a quote from Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country's most famous former leader and staunch secularist: "One has no peace with the Muslim Brotherhood." One protester could be heard shouting: "Beat it means go -- or do you not understand that, Morsi?"
Answering to His People
Morsi must now find a response, and his choices are limited. Either he revokes his edicts, or he mobilizes his own backers to launch counterdemonstrations. For the moment, it appears unlikely that the president will choose the first option. Indeed, Morsi has invested a lot of political capital in the decrees. Should he reverse them, the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly, which is dominated by Islamists, will also be called into question.
As such, the Muslim Brotherhood seems determined to pursue a course of confrontation. "The opposition thinks that the meaning of Tuesday lies in the number of protesters, 200,000 to 300,000," one Brotherhood tweet said. "But it should brace itself for the millions who will take to the streets for the new president!" A new date has not been set for the Brotherhood's demonstration, which had originally been planned for Tuesday.
The Brotherhood reiterates that even if Morsi only won the election by a slim margin, he won it all the same. They also insist that the make-up of the constitutional assembly mirrors that of the elected parliament, which a court dissolved in June.
Neither side seems interested in negotiating a compromise. Indeed, Essam el-Arian, deputy head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, made it clear on Wednesday morning that the decrees will not be lifted. Speaking with the broadcaster al-Jazeera, he stressed a claim that Morsi had already made: that the authoritarian powers the president had seized would only be temporary, lasting only 12 weeks until the new constitution was presented and voted on in a referendum.
A Growing Worry
Such assurances are not enough to placate the opposition -- especially because its membership on the body drafting the constitution has been steadily declining. The more members who withdraw in protest, the more influence the Brotherhood will have over its final wording.
All this has heightened worries that Egypt is headed toward a new phase of violence and clashes. On Tuesday, an upset young man on Tahrir Square named Mohammed pointed toward his right eye, which was bruised and swollen shut. "In Mansoura, where I come from," he said, "we have already had fights with Morsi supporters this week."
"The way out of this blockade is unclear," says Hisham Kassem, a political analyst who joined demonstrators on Tahrir Platz on Tuesday. "If Morsi refuses to compromise, it could lead to a civil war," he said, adding that this was a growing worry.
On Tuesday evening, Morsi opponents raided the Muslim Brotherhood's party headquarters in Alexandria and Mansoura, some three hours east by car, before setting them on fire. In Mahalla el-Kobra, a city in the Nile Delta, street fighting between Morsi backers and opponents left at least 100 wounded.
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