Morsi's Power Grab a Rare Chance for Egypt's Opposition (+Video)

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's recent power grab has brought thousands of protestors to Tahrir Square, the biggest show of popular frustration against Egypt's leader and the Muslim Brotherhood that backs him since his election in June.

But whether they can organize themselves enough to make him back down is unclear.

Egypt's secular and liberal opposition has been wracked by divisions since the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak 22 months ago, allowing Islamist parties to dominate the country's democratic transition. But last week's decision by President Morsi, an Islamist, to eliminate most of the checks on his power and protect a controversial constitutional committee from dissolution may have finally given the various opposition groups what they need most: a cause they can all rally around.

Unable to put aside personal politics and infighting and build sufficient grassroots networks to challenge the already-established Islamist groups, secular parties captured less than a quarter of the seats in the first elected parliament after the uprising. The opposition's current disarray means it is unlikely to successfully press Morsi to reverse his decision on its own, say analysts.

Now, many are waiting to see whether Egypt's opposition can work together long enough to mount a sustained challenge to Morsi and his backers, or if they will repeat the mistakes of the last year and a half.

For the moment, Morsi's decree has united most of the non- Islamist, and even some moderate Islamist, groups in Egypt and brought tens of thousands of people to Tahrir Square.

"This is a very big test for the opposition because they have a cause that they can defend. And it's a very strong cause and a big cause and a public cause, and I think it's a very good chance for the opposition to build its base and rally the streets and rally people," says Bassem Sabry, a blogger and writer. "But the test is not 'can the opposition band together in three days?' The question is how they can band together for three months, and another three months after that."

'Uncharted territory'

Last week Morsi issued a constitutional decree declaring his decisions immune from judicial review until a new constitution is written. He also declared that the committee writing Egypt's new constitution, and the upper house of parliament, are protected from being disbanded by a court decision. A court dissolved the first constituent assembly earlier this year, and a second case due to be decided soon could lead to the same outcome for the second body.

Parliamentary elections, to replace the body dissolved by the courts, are scheduled to take place only after a new constitution is adopted in a national referendum. In the absence of an elected parliament, Morsi holds legislative power as well as executive. By sidelining the judiciary, he removed nearly all checks on his power.

Morsi says the move was not an attempt to grasp unlimited power, but was necessary to keep the judiciary, which includes Mubarak appointees many consider corrupt, from putting up endless roadblocks on Egypt's transition to stability. His critics say it places near dictatorial power in his hands.

The president met yesterday with the country's highest judiciary body to try to keep judges from mounting a rebellion against his edict, but the resulting statement that only Morsi's decisions on vaguely defined "sovereign matters" were immune from judicial review did not satisfy opposition leaders, parties, and unaffiliated Egyptians, who gathered by the thousands in Tahrir Square today.

The Muslim Brotherhood cancelled a large protest it had called in Cairo in support of Morsi, for fear the two groups would clash. Brotherhood demonstrations were reportedly planned for other cities, however.

On Nov. 24, dozens of political parties, opposition groups, and former presidential candidates announced that they would work together against the president's decree, and called for today's protest. …