Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in a televised speech to the nation responding to rising unrest, refused to withdraw the presidential decree expanding his powers or to postpone the constitutional referendum planned for Dec. 15. He also expressed sharp criticism of opposition protesters, whom he suggested were agents or "thugs" paid by foreigners. His two major concessions were announcing that his decree will expire after the referendum and that he will hold a "dialogue" on Dec. 8, to which opposition figures are invited.
Here are five immediate takeaways from the speech and what it means for Egypt's worsening political crisis:
1. Morsi really, really wants the constitutional referendum to happen. His concession, to drop his specially decreed powers only after the vote, supports fears that he made the decree specifically to secure the referendum. Some analysts say that voters are likely to approve it almost regardless of its text, seeing it as a vote for the revolution. “By saying ‘yes,’ you’re saying yes to elected institutions, more stability, more normalcy, and therefore more security and more investments,” Omar Ashour told the Post's Abigail Hauslohner. “A ‘no’ vote is a vote for the unknown."
Here's why the opposition is so worried about this: the constitution-writing assembly is dominated by Islamists and widely criticized as unrepresentative of Egypt. Neither the constitution nor the referendum can be blocked by the nation's courts, according to Morsi's decree, which he conspicuously made just before the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly unveiled its final draft. As long the referendum still goes forward, and Morsi's decree remains in place, the Islamist president is probably going to secure the Islamist-friendly constitution as the law of Egypt.
2. On protesters, echoes of Hosni Mubarak. Morsi spent years in the opposition during Mubarak's reign, when the regime worked assiduously to delegitimize anyone who protested or opposed him. So it was surprising to hear Morsi repeating some of Mubarak's old lines. He suggested that protesters are "thugs" creating chaos, that they are only protesting because they are paid to do so, and that they are backed by unnamed foreigners. Mubarak made similar accusations during the 2011 protests, about the Muslim Brotherhood among others.
Morsi also strongly criticized opposition protesters for committing acts of violence but did not acknowledge that some of his own Muslim Brotherhood supporters had done the same, which is not likely to assure many opposition figures that Morsi is a fair broker.
3. The stick is on the table now. Morsi implicitly offered two paths forward for the opposition, which he variously welcomed with open arms to participate in the Dec. 8 national dialogue or condemned as "infiltrators" who would be "penalized." The language could suggest that Morsi is willing to place opposition groups or leaders in the "political differences" category if they do things his way or the "hired thugs" category if they continue to demonstrate. He called for the protesters to pull back, warning that they were "threatening the security of the homeland," as Mubarak did of protesters in 2011. That sort of characterization could, hypothetically, be used to justify more extreme measures. So could Morsi's insistence that "police interrogation" had proven that the protesters were paid by shadowy foreign sources. It sure sounded like he was paving the way for a crackdown, or at least keeping the option open.
4. The opposition faces a real dilemma. Does it participate in Morsi's Dec. 8 dialogue? If he's sincere about seeking input and possibly even offering it concessions – maybe by amending the constitution, for example, or sending it back to the assembly – then this could be a crucial opportunity for the opposition to secure some of its requests, though not the unlikely demand that Morsi resign. However, attending would lend Morsi's process and thus his constitution more legitimacy, which would be bad for the opposition if the constitution doesn't actually change enough to satisfy it. Still, boycotting seems like a certain loss for the opposition, allowing Morsi to ignore its demands and declare that he'd heard out the people when only supporters participate in his dialogue.
5. Things are probably about to get worse before they get better. Protesters responded to the speech by torching the Muslim Brotherhood's Cairo office, according to Al-Ahram. Morsi, in his speech, issued both an invitation and a challenge to the opposition, which so far seems to be responding only to the latter, and quite negatively. So both sides appear to be elevating the crisis, and neither is backing down. There is a possibility for rapprochement in the Dec. 8 dialogue, but it's hard to see that succeeding.
Bottom line: After all the harsh words, mutual mistrust, and clear antagonism between Morsi and his supporters versus the opposition and theirs, it's difficult to see the two sides coming to an accord in only two days' time. It could happen, but would probably require Morsi to open with significant concessions. If the Dec. 8 dialogue falls through, with the constitutional referendum only a week away, then both the opposition and Morsi may see cause to escalate even further as the vote nears.