The storm now rolling through Egypt was brewing when I visited last month.
Secular liberals and leftists who had spearheaded the revolution that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak faltered in the political process that followed. Islamists, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood, triumphed in parliamentary elections. And longtime Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi won the presidency — albeit narrowly, and in a vote where barely half of eligible voters cast a ballot.
Islamists also dominated the Constituent Assembly, tasked with rewriting Egypt’s constitution, and it was here that most liberals focused their anger. They feared the new document would entrench Islam as the political foundation of the new Egypt.
The Constituent Assembly reportedly ignored the concerns of its liberal members, and at least one quit in frustration. But it at least has the veneer of pluralism. Morsi’s decree, announced last Thursday, that expanded his powers and put his decisions beyond judicial oversight, was more nakedly authoritarian.
Morsi might have felt emboldened by the international attention and praise he received for his role in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. But he grossly misread the mood of his fellow Egyptians.
That he did so is odd. Many of the activists I spoke to were glum about their political prospects. They had been thoroughly beaten and lacked to organization and drive to rebuild. But almost all were consistent in their conviction that something had irrevocably changed within Egyptians. They were no longer afraid to stand up to dictatorship, and would do so again if necessary.
On one of the walls flanking Tahrir Square, a graffiti artist, Omar “Picaso” Fathy, was painting images of martyrs killed during the uprising against Mubarak almost two years ago. “People will not be fooled again,” he said. “They know how to demand their rights and will not let them be taken away again.”
Mohamed Zaree, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said: “If there is a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime, we know how we can bring it down.”
Often it seemed activists would make statements like this as if to console themselves. Morsi might be president, the implicit reasoning went, but he knows that if he acts like a dictator we will rise up. And knowing this will restrain his undemocratic impulses.
And then Morsi stepped into Mubarak’s dictator’s shoes. And Egyptians rose up against him, just as they did against Mubarak.
Morsi says his decree is temporary and is needed to push revolutionary legislation through the obstruction put up by Mubarak loyalists in the judiciary. It’s likely Morsi also wants to ensure the Islamist nature of the constitution that is currently being drafted. Once that’s in place, it will be more difficult to weaken political Islam’s hold on Egypt.
Whatever his reasoning, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians don’t accept it. Morsi has tried to convince them but will move on to other tactics this weekend. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a massive rally of its own on Saturday.