As demonstrators massed outside Cairo’s presidential palace last week, 20-year-old Mohamed Shawky—a veteran of Egypt’s revolution with scars to prove it—was caught up in an angry crowd, pressed against a tall concrete barrier erected by authorities to control the mob. Like thousands of others, Shawky was protesting the country’s proposed new constitution. His answer was vague when asked what specific part of the document angered him. “The whole thing,” he said, “from A to Z.” Pressed, he eventually revealed why he was against the draft charter: “Because the Muslim Brotherhood made it.”
With the constitutional referendum underway—voting has already started but won’t conclude until Dec. 22–the country is in the midst of its worst unrest since last year’s ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. On one side of the divide stand President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, the ruling Islamist group that enjoys deep popular support among conservative Egyptians, along with more hardline Islamic Salafis. On the other, opposition activists, Coptic Christians, and secular liberals have joined forces with those Muslims who worry about the Brotherhood’s growing power.
Morsi and his allies argue that passage of the constitution is necessary to restore stability to Egypt and to calm foreign investors, who are jittery about the country’s seemingly unending chaos. The opposition, meanwhile, insists the document doesn’t represent the will of the people, since its language was approved in a special, Islamist-dominated session, after most of the draft assembly’s non-Islamist members had walked out. They fear it will give religious authorities too much legislative control and force Sharia on Egypt. Accusing Morsi of acting like a pharaoh after he tried to extend his authority in a power grab that was later abandoned, they have (somewhat confusingly) called for both a “no” vote and an out-and-out boycott of the referendum.
Increasingly, protesters are also calling for Morsi to resign. At rallies outside the presidential palace, the demand is now “the fall of the regime,” a chant once aimed at Mubarak.
Preparing for further violent clashes, Morsi has ordered the military to stay on high alert, but many worry about widespread chaos should the constitution pass. “Morsi has managed to unify the opposition,” says Mahmoud Salem, a prominent activist who blogs under the name Sandmonkey. “They now have unity and purpose which is to stop the new Islamist dictatorship.”
A leading figure for the opposition has been Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose rhetoric in recent weeks has ratcheted up dramatically.
“I’m playing hardball now,” says ElBaradei, during an interview with Newsweek at his home near the Great Pyramid of Giza outside Cairo. After years of subtle international diplomacy as a nuclear negotiator, the professorial-looking ElBaradei is seemingly invigorated by this newly discovered pugilistic side of himself. Egyptians “understand I mean business,” ElBaradei says. “The Islamists know that I can throw a counterpunch that’s stronger than their punch. And they’re off balance right now.”
In the past ElBaradei worked with the Brotherhood in joint opposition to Mubarak. But the Brotherhood hijacked the political process after convincing liberal activists of a common cause, he says. “We got the revolution, and I haven’t heard from them ever since.” And instead of showing itself as a moderate, democratic force, the Brotherhood consolidated its power. The power grab by Morsi, though, was an overreach. “His legitimacy is eroded,” ElBaradei says. “He’s on the brink.”
ElBaradei, a onetime presidential contender, insists he doesn’t want to bring Morsi down. His warnings of the risk of “civil war” or a military coup if Morsi doesn’t back down don’t mean he supports such ideas. “I’m not legitimizing it. I do not want to see it,” he says. “I’m reading what I see.”
Still, ElBaradei has fired off several declarative darts aimed at Morsi and the Brotherhood, calling the November decree “dictatorial” and accusing Islamist members of the draft assembly of being Holocaust deniers, music haters, and opponents of democracy. When Brotherhood supporters cracked down on the protesters camping outside the presidential palace in early December, ElBaradei demanded that Morsi bear “full responsibility” for the violence, and most recently he claimed that Egypt was in danger of having “a new dictatorship with a religious flavor” and “going back to the dark ages.” Showing no signs of softening, ElBaradei has repeatedly refused Morsi’s invitations for dialogue over the current crisis. As a precondition for any talks, he insists that the referendum be pushed back.
“The opposition has committed itself to what seems like the point of no return,” says Paul Sullivan of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. “This may lock them into a long-term and potentially quite violent confrontation with the Brotherhood and the Salafis.”
Islamist leaders warn ElBaradei’s combative behavior could spell trouble.
“The way ElBaradei deals with us is like we are from another planet,” says Nader Bakkar, the chief spokesman for the Salafis’ formidable Al-Nour party. The bloc is independent of the Brotherhood and often considered its rival. But the two groups are both deeply invested in passing the draft constitution. “My concern is about the rules of the game,” says Bakkar. “What kind of game are we playing?” He points out that Muslim Brotherhood offices—including the group’s main headquarters in Cairo—were torched during the recent dispute. “If Islamists burned 20 [opposition] offices, the United States would be here the next day, saying ‘You are terrorists,’ ” he says.
If Morsi is pushed from power, Egypt will face an even deeper crisis: the possibility that any elected president could be ousted by street protests, he says. “When some key figures of the liberals in particular talk about no legitimacy for Morsi and another revolution, you are taking a very dangerous road,” he says. “Our liberal colleagues are not sticking to the clear rules of the game. I cannot anticipate what their next step is. And this is very dangerous.”
Mohamed Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood lawmaker who worked closely with liberal activists during the days of the revolution, argues his opponent should use more democratic means than protests. Once the constitution is made law, people will have the opportunity to vote the Brotherhood out of power. “I told him, you don’t even have to wait four years for the next presidential election,” Beltagy says. “Just have your party win the parliamentary elections in two months.”
At the presidential palace, one protester ruminated on the country’s division. “Morsi cannot leave because he is elected,” the man said, but added that if the opposition “elected a new president, the Brotherhood would come and make him leave, too. And we’d keep going in circles.”