Muslim Brothers Face off with the Liberal Street

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Giglio

Can a former diplomat take down Egypt's president?

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. …