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Did Egypt's President Morsi overplay his hand?

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

(Read caption) Egyptian protesters demonstrate outside the presidential palace in Cairo, December 4. They are protesting against President Mohamed Morsi's decree widening his powers and they encircled the presidential palace after riot police failed to keep them away with tear gas.

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On Dec. 15, Egypt is scheduled to hold a referendum on a new constitution that had already sharply polarized the Arab world's largest nation. But after today's events, it's hard to not conclude that something is going to have to give between now and then.

President Mohamed Morsi is surely pondering his next move as he watches the tens of thousands of protesters swirling around the gates of the presidential palace (he is sleeping elsewhere in Cairo tonight). He may also be assessing his own dubious achievement of accomplishing in six months what took Hosni Mubarak 30 years of misrule: Bringing an angry crowd to the state palace in Heliopolis.

What brought them there this time?  

Last week, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood approved a new Egyptian constitution over the objections of almost every secular-leaning political faction in the country. Shortly before that he'd seized extraordinary powers for himself with a presidential decree, a move that had his opponents saying it appeared Egypt had swapped one dictator for another.

He brushed off the complaints, insisted the move was necessary to pass a constitution without interference from Mubarak-era officials and institutions, and promised a speedy resolution. A document was indeed rushed through, filled with vagaries and contradictions. The draft, with its specific limits on free speech when it comes to "defaming" religion and expanded role for Islam in the country's laws, must have felt like a victory to him, like being close to a finish line.

Protests from secular groups? Well, they lost the election of the (since dissolved) parliament, they lost the presidential election, and his Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) exuded confidence that their discipline and organization would muster enough "yes" votes in the constitutional referendum. A dictator? Isn't democracy about the choice of the people, and then abiding by it?  That was the line taken by his spokesmen.

But the fight over the constitution has energized a secular opposition that had seemed exhausted and badly divided just a few months ago. While poor organization and personality-driven political approaches have hamstrung the secular opposition since the fall of Mubarak, with the organized and popular Muslim Brotherhood marching from electoral victory to electoral victory, the appearance in recent days of Morsi as the leader of Egypt's Islamist bloc, rather than as the leader of all Egyptians, has clearly rattled large numbers of Egyptians.

Will Morsi's opponents be able to make that count for much going forward? After the past two years, the safe money remains on the Tahrir revolutionaries and secular political figures like Mohamed ElBaradei failing to create an organized political force. But the passion is there. Today, in protest of the draft constitution and Morsi's extended powers, about a dozen Egyptian newspapers refused to publish, and while the protest near the presidential palace was the largest, there were at least half a dozen other protests around the city.

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And every day, things happen that make Morsi's "dictator" label hard to shake. Earlier today, an Egyptian prosecutor began an investigation into Mr. ElBaradei, failed secular-leaning presidential candidate Amr Moussa, the leaders of two secular political parties, and the head of the country's Judges Club, who had called for a judicial strike over the draft constitution, for "espionage."

Rigged lawsuits and trumped-up legal cases were a favorite tool in Mubarak's Egypt for punishing political opponents, and it appears the habit remains in the Morsi era. 

It seems hard to believe Morsi will hold the course, at the least making token concessions to his opponents between now and Dec. 15, particularly if the Cairo crowds continue to swell. While the Brothers are hugely popular throughout Egypt and could probably deliver a referendum victory, an Egypt more politically divided and angry than ever is not the most auspicious start to a new era.

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