Following his phenomenal diplomatic success in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas,Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has unexpectedly ignited a war in domestic politics. His declaration on November 22 arrogating extraordinary powers to the office of the president over the judiciary and other public institutions blocking the revolution has triggered mass unrest across Egyptand kick-started a cycle of confrontation and realignment among different political factions.
Massive crowds hailing from different ideological camps chanting, "Morsi is the new Mubarak" (i.e. former strongman Hosni Mubarak who was toppled and jailed after the first winds of the Arab Spring), and that the "revolution is incomplete" are demonstrating that nothing is settled yet. When such turbulence hits Egypt — the weathervane and natural leader of the Arab world — the impact will ripple throughout the Middle East.
Historically, post-revolutionary situations are always unstable and riven by either new forms of dictatorship or anarchy. The fluctuating fortunes of different factions and actors after the fall of dictators is best recalled from the fate of France after the revolution in 1786, when Jacobins launched a reign of terror and Napoleon Bonaparte relaunched a monarchy. Be it Robespierre — the kingpin of the Jacobins — or Vladimir Lenin in Russia, resorting to complete domination of the polity and even "revolutionary terror" in the aftermath of an autocrat's fall has been justified as essential to prevent reversal of direction.
President Morsi's latest gamble to concentrate political powers and place his decrees above questioning or annulment by courts has likewise been defended by his Islamist Muslim Brotherhood base as necessary to break through the frustrating roadblocks to justice and constitutional change thrown up by holdovers of the Mubarak regime. More than one-and-a-half years after Mubarak was overthrown, Egypt still lacks a new constitution thanks to lawsuits and wrangling over the composition of the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. From the perspective of the Brotherhood, if Morsi does not act decisively and grab powers, the expectations of a clean break from the past in terms of social and economic transformation can never be met.
But for secular and liberal opponents of the Islamists, as well as Egypt's omnipotent and anti-Islamist military establishment, Morsi is becoming a menace who will enforce sharia law on Egyptian society and Islamise institutions to entrench the Brotherhood as a new permanent ruling entity. Indeed, the examples of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and, more recently, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq, are warnings of how new Shahs and new Saddam Husseins with different names can emerge from the contentious politics that follow the end of one-man rule.
The protesters who swarm into public spaces demanding revocation of Morsi's new executive authority are also mindful of the succession of personality-based regimes that Egypt has endured since Gamal Abdel Nasser stormed to power in 1956. Nasser was a true revolutionary but also an uncompromising president who did not hesitate to crush opposition with maximum state power.
Though Morsi lacks the charisma and the pan-Arabic heroic aura of Nasser, there is also a deeply held suspicion within and outside Egypt that the Brotherhood will use democratic elections to consolidate itself and then begin restricting the civil and political rights of citizens and the opposition. Comparisons of Islamists with fascists (after all, Hitler came to the helm via democra-tic elections in Germany) are also cause for anxiety that Morsi will be the figurehead behind which mullahs will march in and impose a conservative theocracy in Egypt. For the Egyptian army, the possibility that Morsi might misuse his position to unleash civilian dominance over the military, a la the Islamist Justice and Development Party in Turkey, is sufficient cause to rouse opposition.
Speculation about the ulterior motives of the Islamists — and debate as to whether the Brotherhood is a truly moderate political force, or a wolf in sheep's clothing that will reveal its true intolerant colours after monopolising power — are critical to the endless confrontations Egypt is witnessing. This underlying fear of Islamists and questions of whether they are genuinely democratic in a liberal sense pervade the entire Middle East. Egypt is the test case for the thesis that Islamism and democracy can coexist. Every move Morsi makes to override what he derides as a "minority" of obstructionists will be scrutinised warily by citizens and establishments in the region.
The best-case scenario for Egypt, which Morsi's sympathisers present, is that the appropriation of powers by the president will be temporary and only a means to an end. Once general elections are held after the long-delayed constitution is enacted, a new undisputed parliament will fill the space of the presently absent legislature and balance the executive might of the presidency. If Morsi and the Brotherhood are indeed acting as midwives for a checks-and-balances polity with diffused power in various institutions, the present brouhaha may indeed look like a storm in a teacup in hindsight.
But then, revolutions have never been linear in trajectory. Emergency after emergency is the nature of revolutionary politics, until equilibrium is reached at an undefined future juncture. Egypt will keep churning and the world has to hold its breath until allegiances and institutions eventually attain fixity and produce order.
The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.