As protesters clashes, President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt announced a referendum on a proposed constitution. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.
TAHRIR SQUARE, CAIRO -- This was the place where the revolution began: the roundish square where Egyptians celebrated Mubarak's fall.
This is where they are shouting on bullhorns again, outraged because they say the Muslim Brotherhood has stolen the revolution and is railroading though a constitution that could lock in Muslim Brotherhood rule for 50 years, bringing more Islamic law. They cry -- not against Islam -- but that an extremist interpretation is being forced down their throats by a president who critics say is acting every part the tyrant.
This is also a warning, they claim, of what may happen across the Middle East. The era of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have arrived. President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood's President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them.
"President Obama is supporting a terrorist," a man told me amid chants of "Leave! Leave!" in Tahrir Square and "Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader." Before, it was "Down, down with Mubarak."
Morsi's decree divides Egypt
Egypt was torn in half just over a week ago when Morsi made himself more powerful than Mubarak ever was, and the kings before him. Morsi declared himself above judicial oversight, his decisions final and unassailable. He made himself, according to critics, a new pharaoh on the Nile. Imagine if, after five months in office, an American president announced that he could pass any law he pleased regardless of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine if he said his decisions were final and inspired by God.
After issuing a decree making himself more powerful than the courts, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has sparked a wave of anger – some of which is directed toward the United States. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Morsi last night apologized for the power grab and said he didn't want the extra authorities, but that they were necessary for the good of the people and to safeguard the revolution. Dictators always say stuff like that. Burn down the village to save it.
At first Egyptians were shocked that Morsi would make such an obvious and, according to Egyptian judges, blatantly illegal move. It's clear now, as some analysts have long feared, that the brotherhood is making sure it doesn't lose power again by taking control of Egypt's constitution. The Brotherhood wants to write the rules of the game. Now they've done that too.
Protected by the president's new-found supreme and unquestionable powers, Morsi ordered his Islamist allies to finish writing the constitution and get it on his desk by the end of this week. They did it, even though many independent legal experts, Christians and opposition politicians boycotted the drafting process. The Brotherhood called the new constitution "a jewel." Many Egyptians say it leaves too much room for the implementation of Shariah law.
The constitution also empowers the people and government with a duty to uphold moral values, a vague clause that could pave the way for vigilante morality police. The constitution barely mentions protecting women's rights. According to women who were originally involved in the drafting process, and who subsequently left because they felt they were being ignored, clauses specifically demanding that women be protected from violence and sex trafficking were dropped because Islamists feared it would conflict with their desire to allow child brides.
The constitution has long been the Muslim Brotherhood's lodestar and, in the past, they have been willing the kill for it. In 1954, not long after a group of 'free officers' carried out a coup against the British-backed monarchy, a Brotherhood assassin tried to kill President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser, a leading free officer, favored a mostly secular, pro-military constitution. The Brotherhood, an Islamist group that supports the return of Arab and Islamic unity and the revival of ancient Muslim glory and Shariah laws, couldn't accept the new rules.
The Brotherhood's assassination attempt failed. The gunman's eight bullets, fired while Nasser was giving a speech in Alexandria, all missed. The Brotherhood was banned. The group went underground, at times tolerated but more often repressed by Nasser's successors: presidents Mubarak and Anwar el-Sadat. When the revolts started against Mubarak, the Brotherhood saw that fate had given them another chance.
Muslim Brotherhood's calculated rise to power
Looking back now, it all seems so obvious, yet many Egyptians refused to see it coming. In fact, many of the secular revolutionaries backed the Brotherhood, arguing they were better allies than the hated military. The Brotherhood played its cards well.
The Brotherhood was late to join the anti-Mubarak revolts in 2011. When students and liberals initially occupied Tahrir Square, it looked like it might be a passing thing. The Brotherhood either didn't appreciate its significance, or wanted to wait to see who was winning.
I remember watching the Brothers march into the square. They arrived in a large group of perhaps five hundred. Nearly all were men. Many had beards. Most were dressed in poorly cut dark suits. They occupied a corner of Tahrir near a Kentucky Fried Chicken. They came with microphones and wood to build a platform. The other protesters in the square seemed happy to have the support of the new arrivals.
The protests continued to grow. Labor unions went on strike. The military enacted a coup against Mubarak. President Obama withdrew his support for Washington's long-time Arab friend. And Mubarak the president was no more.
The Brotherhood first said it wouldn't seek the new presidency at all. It promised to exist solely as an influential member of civil society. Back then, many Egyptians feared the Brotherhood. It was a semi-secret group. It had a small office in a Cairo apartment building with a sign on the door the size of an index card. Mubarak-era officials had often described the Brotherhood as a group of terrorists. One security official I know called the Brotherhood the most dangerous group in the world. But in the heady 1960s-like days after Mubarak's resignation, the Brotherhood's bad reputation only seemed to give the group more credibility. They'd been oppressed by the man. It was a new day. Everyone, it appeared, deserved a new beginning.
The Brotherhood went to work. It organized its considerable finances. It built a big new headquarters with far bigger signs on the doors. It sent its representatives around the world, especially to Washington, on a charm offensive. We've been oppressed, they claimed. We were slandered by a tyrant. We're not what you've heard. We can unite the Sunni world against Iran. We can help bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. There were many promises of a great future.
Even then, the Brotherhood's focus on the constitution was clear. The Brotherhood insisted the constitution be drafted only after a new president was elected. The military was overseeing a transition back then. The Brotherhood argued that the military couldn't be trusted to oversee the creation of such an important document. Many Egyptians agreed -- a decision some sorely regret today.
Morsi won the election by a narrow margin and then five months into his term, made himself a dictator and ordered his Islamist friends to quickly finish the constitution. Morsi has said he'll drop his extraordinary powers as soon as the constitution is approved in a referendum in December. Islamists are convinced they'll be able to use their grassroots network of activists to win the referendum like they won the elections. Western diplomats tend to agree.
Yet the United States has remained mostly silent on all this, urging both sides to stay calm and work it out. Washington's policy seems to be that what's going on is simply democracy in progress as Egyptians learn to use their new rights.
But in Tahrir Square people seem convinced the Brotherhood isn't testing its fledgling wings. They say Morsi knows exactly what he's doing, Washington be warned.
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