Thousands of demonstrators raid the presidential palace. President Mohamed Morsi flees. The president's supporters drive them off. Fighting in the streets ensues. This is the story in Egypt right now. In many ways, these riots seem more extreme than they did under President Mubarak.
Both sides blame one another for the violence. There’s no saying who will win. It is a classic example of the unstoppable force hitting the immovable object. President Morsi’s supporters are probably more numerous, but they don’t have their backs against the wall.
For the liberals — who represent the majority of the opposition, along with Jews and Coptic Christians — this is an all or nothing type of battle. So far, the governments have reconsolidated power, but this has done very little to improve the rights of the average Egyptian.
The new constitutional reforms would give Morsi as much power to interfere in the private lives of his citizens as his predecessors ever had. He could be especially empowered by the article that declares, “The president may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”
With the people fighting in the streets, there’s only one institution with the power to resolve the crisis: the military. But they probably won’t. Throughout Egypt’s revolution, the military has managed to stand outside of the action for the most part.
Their candidate lost to Morsi in the presidential election, but this hasn’t seemed to upset them so much, since the Muslim Brotherhood has not sought to break their monopoly on foreign policy. Morsi’s constitutional reforms would likely give them more influence rather than less.
The military is strong enough to hold dictatorial sway if it wants to, but it has never showed much desire to make sure that the trains run on time. The generals prefer to let someone else run things, as long as that someone else knows who is in charge.
More importantly, they don’t want to lose legitimacy or the unspoken international consensus that foreign policy is best left to those in uniform. That is exactly what would happen if they stamped down on a large segment of the population, whether it were the majority that supports the Muslim Brotherhood or the sizable minority of liberals.
If the military continues to feel this way, Cairo might end up in the midst of a civil war in which no soldier will fire a single shot (at least until one side gains the upper hand). That basically means that battle for setting Egypt’s domestic agenda is on, with one side being democratically-supported and the other side supporting democracy.
So far, it’s looking like this battle for the Land of the Pharaohs won’t be fought out with guns or votes, but with bricks, bats and tear gas. The situation in Egypt is beginning to seem less like the Arab Spring than the Winter of our Discontent.