Mohammed Morsi probably never expected that a presidential decree, issued on November 22, granting him sweeping powers over Egypt’s judiciary would bring the country, in less than two weeks, to the brink of a second revolution.

After all, Morsi had pulled off a similarly dramatic feat in August, when he sacked Egypt’s military leadership in a tour de force that astounded local observers. More recently, Morsi marked his first foreign policy achievement by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. He was confident that the entire public would support him once again.

But it didn’t.

What sets the Egyptian crisis apart from garden-variety political impasses are the sides involved. Here, the struggle is not simply between two political blocs with opposing ideologies, but effectively between two branches of government: the executive versus the judiciary.

Protesters at Cairo’s Tahrir Square and at the presidential palace are not only distraught by changes inserted into Egypt’s secular constitution, hurriedly presented to Morsi on December 1, a day before the constitutional court could dissolve the assembly that drafted them. Many fear for the very character of Egypt’s fledgling democracy.

‘If it were not for the good nature of the Egyptian people, they would pick up arms and kill each other’

“One cannot compare Morsi’s ascent to power to Mubarak’s,” wrote columnist Amr El-Shobaki in Egypt’s independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “But fear that Mubarak’s regime will be reproduced in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood worries many Egyptians.”

Some Egyptians would believe anything about Morsi, an astonished supporter of the president wrote on his Facebook page. One demonstrator at the presidential palace told him that she opposed the new constitution because in it Morsi “will sell Sinai to the Palestinians.”

“Show me the clause that says that,” demanded the Morsi supporter, offended.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters and opponents clash outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters and opponents clash outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, December 5, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

On Wednesday afternoon, as Morsi supporters began to violently attack his opponents, tearing down their protest tents at the presidential palace, the shrill tone of Egypt’s anti-regime activists reached a new high.

“Morsi is a war criminal and should be put to justice for pitting Egyptians against each other,” activist Nawara Nijm told Egyptian daily Al-Youm A-Sabi’. “If it were not for the good nature of the Egyptian people, they would pick up arms and kill each other.”

Liberal blogger Mahmoud Salem wondered on Facebook whether Morsi could legally be deposed for suffering from paranoia and delusional thinking.

The president, for his part, has been trying to maintain an image of business as usual. On Monday, as his critics began to prepare for an advance on the presidential palace, Morsi found time to meet an assistant to Sudan’s president, who updated him on peace talks between north and south Sudan. From his window, Morsi may have already been hearing slogans used against his predecessor Hosni Mubarak last year: “Leave!” and “The people want to topple the regime.”

What sets the Egyptian crisis apart from normal political crises is the fact that the warring parties are not simply two political blocs with opposing ideologies. Worryingly, this is a struggle between two branches of government: the executive versus the judiciary

Morsi has claimed that the constitutional decree was necessary for Egypt’s political stability. In June, the Supreme Constitutional Court, a panel of judges appointed by Mubarak, dissolved the lower house of parliament and was preparing to do the same to the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly and the upper house of parliament. The decree, Morsi argued, was essential to maintain “the achievements of the revolution.” Besides, it was only a temporary measure until the new constitution was ratified by national referendum.

The Muslim Brotherhood then rushed to lambaste the president’s critics as remnants of the old regime: disgruntled liberals, Christians and nationalists who had lost their privileged status under Mubarak.

“We will demonstrate tonight and defend the [president’s] legitimacy against the forces of communism and secularism,” said Anas Al-Qadhi, a spokesman for the Brotherhood in Alexandria.

But the domestic forces challenged by the Brotherhood seemed this week stronger and more self-confident than the president had reckoned. Eight independent newspapers suspended their print editions on Tuesday in protest against the constitution; TV stations followed suit by blackening their screens.

On November 26, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Morsi to “share power” following his constitutional decree. Voices in the United States, at first wary of confronting Egypt’s first democratically elected president, began to cautiously weigh in on the crisis, on the side of the opposition.

“Mr. Morsi’s government appears content to steamroll, rather than seek accommodation with, secular opponents,” read an editorial in The Washington Post Tuesday. “In all, it’s not yet clear whether the regime is moving toward a rough but workable democracy or a new autocracy.”

The next benchmark is December 15, when the public is to ratify the new constitution in a national referendum. The opposition is mulling whether to vote no or to boycott the vote altogether. It is still not clear who will supervise the poll, how it will take place, or where the strikingly bitter political tug-of-war will have subsided in Egypt by then.