The United States is in danger of falling off the fiscal cliff. Egypt is in danger of falling off a cliff, period.
It appears increasingly clear that the target of Egyptian protesters is not the new draft constitution, the hasty referendum scheduled for Saturday on that document, or even the powers claimed by President Mohammed Morsi by decree last month. The target is Mr. Morsi himself. That’s the wrong goal.
The Arab Spring revolt that ended the 30-year rule of strongman Hosni Mubarak was largely the work of liberals, social reformers, moderate Muslims, and Christians. Yet the fruits of that effort — a parliamentary majority and the presidency — were gathered by the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist groups, by virtue of their superior organization. They believe that advantage will carry them to victory in the referendum and allow them to win most of the seats in the next parliament as well.
The draft constitution has become in some ways a secondary issue. Instead, Mr. Morsi’s and his allies’ repeated overreach has led opponents to believe, with merit, that their intent is to turn Egypt into an authoritarian, Islamist state.
Mr. Morsi blundered when he gave himself broad powers and his decrees immunity from judicial review. Fatal clashes between his supporters and protesters hurt him even more.
The Islamists who dominated the constitutional assembly erred when they froze the panel’s liberal members out of the drafting process. They and Mr. Morsi made another mistake by rushing to place the proposed constitution before voters.
The missteps continue. This week, Mr. Morsi gave Egypt’s military authority to arrest civilians, protect the “vital facilities of the state,” and secure Saturday’s vote. It is unclear what that means, although military involvement always is worrisome. The authority, which amounts to a form of martial law, will last until the results of the referendum are known.
Mr. Morsi has rescinded the decree that gave him broad powers and sparked the latest protests. But he replaced it with an edict that still allows him to issue decrees that can’t be challenged. And he again refused to delay the referendum on the new constitution.
Reformers are concerned that Mr. Morsi has been wooing military leaders. The draft constitution protects military privileges, a sore point for many protesters. Egypt’s military controls broad swaths of the nation’s economy.
Yet the protesters offer few ideas of their own. Most opposition leaders refused to attend talks last week at the presidential palace to resolve the crisis. They seem to believe they can’t defeat the constitution at the polls, so they talk about a boycott and call for more protests.
More and more, the protests are focusing on regime change. Their statements carry dire warnings about chaos, violence, freedom under threat, and “acts of war.” The National Salvation Front, an alliance of opposition groups, said holding the vote will result in chaos.
Nonparticipation, obstruction, and protests are acceptable — if self-defeating in this case — responses to abuses. But violent revolution in a democracy is almost never the answer.
The inability of moderate groups that represent most Egyptians to organize voters is not a justification for regime change. They have to learn to work within the democratic system if they want to be worthy of its benefits.