A protester wearing a police helmet watches from a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo November 30, 2012. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Egypt’s turbulent transition is in the midst of one its most chaotic and divisive periods since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The leaders of the assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution are hurriedly forcing through a final document amid an uproar by the body’s non-Islamist members. A quarter of the assembly has withdrawn in protest and a growing national strike by judges threatens to bring the country’s judicial system to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, culminating in one of the largest demonstrations in post-Mubarak Egypt. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood in several governorates have been ransacked and firebombed and protesters have faced off against police amid clouds of tear gas in downtown Cairo.

President Mohammed Morsi ignited the political firestorm on November 22, when he issued a controversial constitutional decree granting himself sweeping and unchecked powers. The declaration stipulated that, until a constitution is approved and an elected parliament in place, all presidential decisions since taking office in July are “final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity.”

The decree puts Morsi—who already had executive and legislative authority—beyond the reach of the judicial branch, adding, ominously, that “The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” The decree also denies judges the power to dissolve either the Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing the country’s constitution, or the Shura Council—Parliament’s largely toothless upper house. Both bodies are dominated by Islamists, with the Muslim Brotherhood holding the most power.

In two moves viewed more favorably, Morsi also replaced the public prosecutor—a longtime revolutionary demand—and established a new court to try those responsible for violence against protesters. (To date, almost no one has been brought to justice for the killing of over 1,000 protesters during the revolution.) But these actions are like a “drop of honey in poison,” as Egyptians say, given the larger power play by the president.

In a joint statement, twenty-two Egyptian human rights organizations condemned the decree, saying Morsi, “who now possesses authorities beyond those enjoyed by any president or monarch in Egypt’s modern history, has dealt a lethal blow to the Egyptian judiciary, thereby declaring the beginning of a new dictatorship.”

The declaration sparked mass protests in Tahrir Square and in cities across Egypt the next day. More than a dozen Muslim Brotherhood offices were attacked over the weekend, with clashes breaking out between protesters and supporters of the president. A 15-year-old member of the Brotherhood’s youth movement was killed when he was struck in the head with a rock during clashes in the Nile delta city of Damanhour.

The backlash on the street suggests a miscalculation by the new president of the strength of his mandate. Morsi won the presidency on a razor-thin 51 percent majority. Many who cast their ballot for him did so mainly to vote down his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who represented a return to the former regime.

By issuing the decree, Morsi succeeded in uniting his opposition, bringing together the fractured non-Islamist groups. More than twenty groups joined a newly formed National Salvation Front—a coalition against the declaration—including former presidential candidates, secular liberal and leftist parties as well as members of the former regime.

Culminating in a massive demonstration in Tahrir on November 27, the protests brought hundreds of thousands to the iconic square, marking the biggest challenge to the ruling party to date—not only to Morsi himself but also to the Muslim Brotherhood and its one-party majoritarian mindset.

Protesters included the disparate groups of the National Salvation Front as well as revolutionary youth groups including the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists, professional associations including the lawyers and journalists syndicates, and protesters more sympathetic to the former regime. Many said they were protesting in Tahrir for the first time.

“I am here for Egypt,” said Karim Abdel Rahman, a 29-year-old bank employee in Tahrir. “We had enough, after thirty years of injustice and ignorance and oppression, to return to it again less than two years after the revolution began. The Brotherhood have no wisdom.”

Forcing the Transition

Morsi made it clear that he issued the decree because he feared the Supreme Constitutional Court was about to disrupt the transitional process by disbanding the current Constituent Assembly in an upcoming hearing, on December 2. Both a previous assembly and a newly elected Parliament have been dissolved in the past.

Morsi’s decree not only revoked judges’ authority to dissolve the assembly, it extended the authority’s tenure—set to expire in mid-December—by two months. The body has been heavy criticized for being dominated by Islamists and not fully representing Egyptian society. Before Morsi’s decree, it also faced disintegration after a quarter of its members—including church figures and key secular representatives—pulled out, accusing the Brotherhood and other Islamists of using their plurality to pass the constitution hastily and without serious debate.

On November 28, less than a week after Morsi extended the deadline for the drafting of the constitution, the head of the Constituent Assembly, Hossam el-Gheiriani, sent another shockwave through the body politic when he announced that, in fact, the document would be finalized and voted on the very next day. “Come back to us so that we welcome you and you can be our partner,” he said to the boycotters, urging them to return for the vote “and not miss a glorious day.”

The move represented doubling-down on a strategy by the Brotherhood and its allies to force the transition process—in which they have enjoyed political dominance—to keep moving forward.

The current draft of the Constitution has been widely criticized for articles relating to the role of religion in the state, women’s rights, freedom of expression and other civil liberties. Most notable, however, are the provisions relating to the armed forces—a powerful state actor that looms large in the ongoing transition. The constitution thus far preserves many of the privileges enjoyed by the military, including a high degree of political and economic autonomy that preserves its longtime niche as a state within the state. The military budget is not subject to parliamentary oversight; instead the text establishes a National Defense Council—at least half of whose members are drawn from the armed forces—to determine the budget, and which must be consulted on draft laws relating to the military. The proposed constitution also allows for military trials of civilians—a significant blow to Egyptian human rights advocates who fought a tireless campaign against the practice following Mubarak’s ouster.

Morsi now has fifteen days to call for a national referendum on the constitution. Given the lack of an alternative if the text is voted down—along with the Brotherhood’s proven capacity to win a simple electoral majority—many expect it to pass, paving the way for parliamentary elections.

The President Versus the Judges

Morsi’s decree has hardened an existing confrontation between his presidency and the judiciary. As with many institutions of the former regime, calls to reform the judiciary have been widespread. Its ranks contain many Mubarak-era loyalists who have longstanding fears of the political rise of Islamists. Yet even many reform advocates view Morsi’s decree as an overreach.

On Saturday, November 24, thousands of judges decided to go on strike to protest the declaration. They were later joined by the Court of Cassation and the Cairo Appeals Court, the two highest appeals courts in Egypt. Unlike the Supreme Constitutional Court, their judges are selected by their peers and cannot be dismissed as Mubarak loyalists. Their decision to strike dealt a significant blow to Morsi.

While Morsi and the Brotherhood have lamented the need to reform the “corrupt” judiciary, there has been no coinciding call to reform other, more acquiescent, state institutions, most notably the Ministry of the Interior. The vast police and security services deploy the same tactics against Egyptian citizens to repress dissent that long characterized the Mubarak era: excessive force against protesters, the torture of detainees, and widespread and arbitrary detentions.

Several days before Morsi’s decree, on November 19 thousands of protesters marched on Mohmaed Mahmoud street—a central road connected to Tahrir Square—to commemorate the first anniversary of an uprising that led to the fiercest clashes between police and protesters in post-Mubarak Egypt. At least forty-five people were killed in six days of fighting and hundreds were injured, many being partially blinded by birdshot. To date, not one police officer has been held accountable.

The protesters were calling for justice and accountability, but the march quickly escalated, leading to clashes with police that are still ongoing, ten days later. At least two protesters have been killed. The police have fired seemingly endless supplies of tear gas and constructed two new walls, adding to the around the maze of barricades that line the streets of downtown Cairo.

“This fight started a year ago,” says Hossam Hamdy, a 21-year-old university student taking part in the clashes. “The people here won’t leave. We want retribution.”

Meanwhile, opposition forces have called for more protests in Tahrir on Friday, November 30, as an ongoing sit-in in the square continues. The Brotherhood and the main Salafi groups have announced their intention to hold a mass protest on Saturday in support of the president’s decisions, setting the stage for a potentially violent confrontation.

Regardless of what happens, the president’s power play is likely to produce a constitution that will have little legitimacy among a sizable portion of the population—and has deepened political cleavages in an already polarized Egypt.