Protesters chant slogans against Egyptian President Mursi during a demonstration at Tahrir square in Cairo

On Friday, President Mohamed Morsi gave a heated speech outside the presidential palace, before an enthusiastic crowd. His supporters chanted “The people want God’s law,”  and also called for the dissolution of the Supreme Constitutional Court. An equally enthusiastic group of Egyptians amassed in Tahrir protesting against a constitutional decree issued by Morsi the day before through which he granted himself sweeping powers. The crowd in Tahrir chanted the same slogans heard there almost two years ago: “The people want to bring down the regime.”

Following Morsi’s speech, Muslim Brotherhood offices were stormed or set on fire in several governorates, including in the major cities of Suez and Alexandria.

insight hariri1 INSIGHT: Egypt   Divided Into Two CampsAfter the presidential decree was announced, supporters and opponents jumped into action, making their opinions heard, online, on television, and in the streets. Morsi’s supporters defended his move, saying it was a necessary and temporary evil needed to cleanse the judiciary of Mubarak-era corruption. The decree’s Article 6, which allows the president to pass any decree under the guise of protecting the revolution, national unity and security, was defended as nothing more than a precaution. To date, Morsi has done nothing to justify any concerns that he may abuse this power, they said. A comparison to the June power grab by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was dismissed with one response – the president was democratically elected, whereas SCAF was a self-appointed leader.

The comparison to SCAF, however, could still ring true. Democratic elections can only go so far in justifying dictatorial powers. The similarities to SCAF do not end there. In his Friday speech, Morsi resorted to SCAF-like rhetoric when speaking about protesters in downtown Cairo. He welcomed “a strong and genuine opposition,” adding “the faithful opposition is different from the hired thugs attacking the police right now,” referring to clashes ongoing at the time in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. He spoke of young children taking money in exchange for attacking the police, an accusation that had been made of protesters under president Hosni Mubarak and SCAF chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

 ”[T]he opposition must present a plan of action that goes beyond taking to the streets in protest or boycotting the political process.” – Nancy Messieh, Hariri Center, Atlantic Council

Once again, with Morsi’s decree, Egypt is a nation all but split into two opposing camps. Before the elections that brought Morsi to power, SCAF supporters amassed in the Cairo district of Abbaseya, while protesters took to Tahrir’s streets. Today, Morsi’s supporters gather before the presidential palace in Heliopolis, while the opposition once again finds itself in Tahrir, where confrontations continue, with reports of tear gas being fired into the crowds. The Salafist Nour Party has taken something of a middle ground, announcing its support for Morsi’s decree, but questioning the need for Article 2 in the document, which protects all laws and decrees made by Morsi from any political or governmental body.

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Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi speaks to supporters in front of the presidential palace in Cairo November 23, 2012 (Reuters).

Morsi’s speech touched on several key issues. He began by thanking God for “bringing all Muslims together to topple an oppressive regime and for taking us along the path towards democracy, freedom, social justice and stability.” He confirmed that he would not use his powers to reconvene the parliament dissolved by SCAF’s June decree, saying that new parliamentary elections would be held. He also defended his decree, saying that he would not abuse his legislative power, nor use it to seek vengeance on any one person or party. Morsi praised a “respectable” judiciary, saying that “It was affected by men who attempted to hide behind it,” adding, “I will uncover them.”

The speech itself was criticized for the location in which it was given. Morsi’s choice to speak from the presidential palace was seen by some, including Wahid Abdel Meguid, a member of the Wafd party and former supporter of Morsi, as a poor choice. “If Morsi wanted to unite Egyptians, he would have addressed the public from a neutral location,” he said. His speech offered an opportunity to address the nation, but left many feeling he was addressing his supporters alone. It also could have been an opportunity to reach out to the opposition he says he invites to continued dialogue, but appears to have only alienated further.

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Flames engulf a police vehicle after protesters threw a Molotov cocktail during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo November 23, 2012 (Reuters).

While Morsi’s move has divided the nation into two separate camps, the opposition finds itself in a hodgepodge of political ideologies and movements – united mainly by their opposition to the president, as liberals, leftists, revolutionary movements, and politicians who served in Mubarak’s regime, join hands. At a press conference Thursday night, standing firm against Morsi’s decree, Hamdeen Sabahi, Ayman Nour, Amr Moussa and Mohamed Elbaradei appeared together decrying what they described as Morsi usurping all state powers. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh also released a statement in opposition to Morsi’s move.

For the time being, Morsi’s opposition seems united. The decree has prompted further withdrawals from the Constituent Assembly, while Morsi’s advisers have also begun to distance themselves from the president. Advisers Samir Morcos and Sakina Fouad have resigned from their positions, both saying they were not consulted prior to the decree’s announcement. However, the opposition must present a plan of action that goes beyond taking to the streets in protest or boycotting the political process; otherwise Egypt will find itself in a similar if not worse position than it has been in for the past two years, going nowhere fast. At the same time, Morsi has placed himself in a precarious position. Going back on his decision could be perceived as a sign of weakness, particularly as far as the dismissal of Abdel Meguid Mahmoud is concerned, with this his second attempt to rid the courts of the Mubarak-era official.

This post was originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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 INSIGHT: Egypt   Divided Into Two Camps

Nancy Messieh

Nancy Messieh is the associate director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource, a blog following Egypt's transition.