Anger has erupted on Egypt's streets and lead to a new occupation of Cairo's iconic Tahrir square — the centre of mass protests that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak last year.
Just days after being lauded by many for his role in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a series of constitutional decrees that provoked the protests. There were also large protests on December 1 in defence of Morsi and his decrees.
Many of the decrees were aimed at elements of the old Mubarak regime, whose candidate was narrowly beaten by the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi in the presidential election.
For instance, Morsi declared that all investigations into the killing of and brutality against protesters would be re-conducted. The public prosecutor who failed to prosecute anyone for protesters deaths was immediately sacked. This has been a call by many involved in the revolution.
Morsi also raised the pension of those who have been injured during protests since the revolution began on January 25 last year.
The key source of outrage on the streets, however, were two other decrees. The Egypt Independent explained on November 22 that one of these meant: “All constitutional declarations, laws and decrees made since Morsy assumed power on 30 June 2012 cannot be appealed or cancelled by any individual, or political or governmental body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected.
“All pending lawsuits against them are void … The president is authorized to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve and safeguard the revolution, national unity or national security.”
This decree makes Morsi formally unchallengeable until a new constitution is in place, alongside a new parliament.
The move was a pre-emptive strike against the nation's judiciary, many of whom were appointed under Mubarak. The judiciary, which had already dissolved parliament, was expected to move against the Constituent Assembly, the body drafting the constitution to be ratified or not under a referendum.
Predictlaby, the move sparked outrage among the judiciary, who launched limited strikes. However, it has also provoked opposition, for different reasons, from such diverse sectors the forces tied to the old regime, liberal and secular forces and the revolutionary left.
This fact, as well as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood retaining a lot of popularity (an October poll gave Morsi a 78% approval rating), makes the situation is vastly different from that when protests erupted in January last year.
The biggest protest so far against Morsi's moves took place on November 27, where 200,000 were in Tahrir square. One protester was killed after inhaling tear gas. Yet it seems clear that there is not unity on what those involved wanted.
Some protesting want the regime to fall, prompting the question of what will takes its place and whether that would have popular support. Others want all the decrees rescinded, others again want some decrees rescinded, but not all.
This confusion has led to alliances that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. A leader of Egypt's liberal faction, Mohammed El Baradei, told German newspaper Spiegal: “[Morsi] grabbed full power for himself. Not even the Pharaohs had so much authority, to say nothing of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.”
Believing Morsi is a worse dictator than Mubarak has led El Baredei to look favourably upon a military coup, saying: “I am sure they are as worried as everyone else. You cannot exclude that the army will intervene to restore law and order.”
A call to rescind the decrees also seems unlikely to be a uniting call, since that would lead to old regime figures escaping justice for the death of protesters and restoring judicial authorities tied up with the old regime who dissolved the elected parliament.
Many on the revolutionary left have expressed their concern at the unprincipled alliances that have formed and the dangers of letting in the old regime through the back door.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt on November 28, Hossam El-Hamalawy, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, said: “We have to put into consideration that there is a section of the feloul, the remnants of the previous regime, that also wants Morsi to go. And they are part of the current mobilisation ...
“Revolutionaries have to be very careful about this. The sons of Hosni Mubarak, the orphans of Omar Suleiman, and the loyalists of Shafiq can never be our allies.”
While some of Morsi's decrees go after the old regime, others are a directed against seeking to advance the revolution beyond the limited aims of the Muslim Brotherhood. Primarily, the decrees were delivered to ensure the Constituent Assembly survived, yet the assembly itself was appointed in an undemocratic manner and delivered a fairly conservative document.
The BBC reported on November 30: “Mr Morsi's decree of 22 November gave the 100-member panel until January to complete the draft constitution. But after the Supreme Constitutional Court said it would soon rule on the lawsuits, supporters of the president on the assembly decided to pass a rushed draft to head off the threat of dissolution.
“During a marathon session that began on Thursday and continued through the night, the assembly voted on and passed all 234 articles.”
The articles include some reforms, such as limited presidential terms to two, banning Mubarak's National Democratic Party, restricting the use of military tribunals and liberalising media laws.
However, there constitution also represents much continuity from the past. Islamic Sharia law is to remain the “main source of legislation” and the defence minister is to still be appointed by the military.
Religious minorities outside of Islam, Christianity and Judaism are not specifically protected, nor are women's rights.
The constitution also does nothing to protect workers rights or economic rights more broadly. This is not a particular surprise. The Brotherhood have moved to enshrine anti-worker laws and have sought a US$4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Conditions for the loan involve budget cuts, including the cutting of subsidies that help the poor. The tax rate for the rich and corporations will remain unchanged.
The declarations made by Morsi are also a way of heading off any opposition to the IMF deal that is sure to follow. The Financial Times quoted a Western-based observer as saying: "I look at the country from an economic point of view … Somebody has got to cut through the political infighting and to take decisions. This continued stumbling over partisan opposition from the judiciary makes it impossible to govern the country in the pragmatic way it needs.”
The assembly was not popularly elected, but appointed. Of those appointed, 39 were parliamentarians, six were judges and nine were “legal experts”. The people themselves have been by-passed in the process.
Morsi's response to the demonstrations have also showed much disregard for the right to protest. Like under Mubarak and the military regime that replaced him, the police responded to protests with tear gas and physical attacks.
On December 1, Morsi announced a referendum would be held on the constitution on December 15. This poses a challenge to opponents: do they continue to try and bring down the regime on the streets or do they try and defeat the constitution in a poll?
With the political weight the Brotherhood still enjoys, such a constitution would probably pass easily. Many liberals, who believe in secularism above all else, have been unable to accept that the Muslim Brotherhood retains support, even though its popularity seems certain to have been adversely affect by Morsi's moves and the protests.
It is for this reason they are flirting with very illiberal elements, such as the military, to bring down “the regime”. Such a course may remove a common enemy, but it would quickly lead to the marginalisation of all liberal and leftist forces.
The only way for the left to win popular support away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which has already begin showing its commitment to anti-worker neoliberal policies, is by being the most consistent defenders of democracy.
This would mean a total opposition to working with the old regime, saying no to a military coup, no to a re-empowerement of Mubarak era judges, and support for a Constituent Assembly re-assembled along democratic lines to push the revolution forward.