CAIRO // Already divided and wounded, Egypt may be staring at a period of renewed unrest following Mohammed Morsi's surprise move to grant himself near absolute powers.
A package of presidential decrees announced by Mr Morsi on Thursday has placed him above oversight of any kind and the language he used has been widely interpreted as a declaration of emergency laws. Mr Morsi yesterday sought to assure Egyptians that he did not intend to use his new powers to settle scores with critics and that they were necessary until a new constitution was in place along with a new parliament.
"I will never oppress anyone," he told thousands of supporters.
However, what Mr Morsi did might be a risky overreach that could potentially unite the opposition, turning them into the formidable force that once brought out millions to the streets across the country to press for Mubarak's to leave office.
Mr Morsi, after all, only narrowly won the presidency in June, garnering just under 52 per cent of the vote even with the fearsome election machine of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups behind him. His narrow victory was all the less impressive because his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, was a deeply divisive figure. Mr Shafiq was last prime minister of the dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was found guilty of not stopping the killing of protesters during the country's uprising. Mr Shafiq is facing corruption charges in a trial set to begin next month.
The signs are encouraging for the opposition, but they threaten more serious turmoil for a nation that remains deeply polarised, plagued by worsening economic woes and surging crime 20 months after Mubarak's fall.
Within minutes of Mr Morsi's announcement, the nation's main opposition appeared to have finally found a reason to work together.
In a rare joint appearance, the nation's most prominent, non-Islamist politicians - including Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi - hurriedly met late on Thursday and later addressed the nation in a news conference, strongly rejecting Mr Morsi's moves and calling on supporters to stage massive protests. As expected, clashes erupted between the two sides across much of the country yesterday.
Sustained protests by the opposition could force Mr Morsi's to rescind or water down some of the decisions he made. But that would significantly weaken him and tempt his critics to press on with the protests, perhaps forcing him to step down.
But Mr Morsi has hundreds of thousands of hard-core supporters to call on. They have over the years shown willingness to do the bidding of their leaders. Mr Morsi has also been going out of his way to win the loyalty of the police, a widely hated force that may see a chance to settle old scores with the secular and liberal groups that spearheaded the anti-Mubarak uprising.
While Mr Morsi's announcement of his sweeping new powers may have ignited life into the opposition, his ties with the US will likely go unchanged. He has won lavish praise from the US president, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, for brokering a Gaza ceasefire. During the eight-day crisis in the Palestinian enclave, Mr Obama spoke with Mr Morsi six times.
Mrs Clinton was also in Cairo on Wednesday and held extensive talks with Mr Morsi, but it is highly unlikely that she could have been privy to what Mr Morsi intended to announce the following day. ss
His high standing with the US administration is, however, surprising given Washington's long-time nervousness about the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt and the region.
With Egypt the recipient of US$1.55 billion in annual US military and economic aid, Mr Morsi could ill afford a misstep. There is also the important question of the must-have US support for Egypt's efforts to secure a US$4.8 billion standby loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The US's unexpected warmth towards Mr Morsi may be based on the US's fear of the ultraconservative Salafis in Egypt, whose brand of Islam is far more hardline than that of the Brotherhood and who are sworn enemies of the US.
For Washington, Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood can serve as a bulwark against the Salafis.
Salafis of all shades won 25 per cent of the vote in Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary election and their power is growing in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Mr Morsi's attraction as a US ally is also in no small part a result of how fractured the opposition in Egypt is, something that many in the West see as enough reason to assume that the Egyptian leader and his Brotherhood will be at the helm for many years to come.