Egypt's New Rule

Egypt's elected president is felled by mass demonstrations. Can a democracy be run by protest?

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Photograph by Yuri Kozyrev-Noor for TIME; Color treated by TIME

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Across Cairo, people stepped into the street for yet another reason: a clear view of the sky, a new canvas for political expression in the days after the coup, available only to the military. Egypt's version of the Blue Angels repeatedly sketched the red, white and black of the national flag over downtown Cairo. They also drew massive valentines above Tahrir--a gesture that in its kitsch reminded some of the Mubarak era. Helicopter gunships dropped flags on the anti-Morsi demonstrators in the square but not on the pro-Morsi demonstrators on Salah Salem Road. Then, on July 6, five copters suddenly flew over the road, with giant flags flapping beneath them. The Brotherhood crowd cheered, taking the banners as an acknowledgment of their demands or perhaps just of their presence. It was impossible to say: a revolution announced on Facebook and sustained through Twitter had devolved to semaphore and smoke signals. That's another problem with the street: it's not that easy to make things out.

Sins of the Brothers

"Faust?" asks Ahmed Samih. The liberal activist is taken aback at the suggestion that endorsing the military arrest of an elected President amounts to a deal with the devil. "We made a deal with the devil before," he says, "and that was the Muslim Brotherhood."

That deal made Morsi President, elected with the support of Egyptian liberals and others deeply suspicious of political Islam but even more suspicious of the only other candidate to emerge from a primary, a former Mubarak-era Prime Minister. It was a choice produced by the liberals' incompetence: they failed to unite behind a candidate of their own.

Morsi made an impressive start: at home, he finessed the exit of an elder generation of generals, and abroad he won kudos for brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But then he seemed to make it his business to polarize the country. It started in November, when the President issued decrees placing himself above the courts, and accelerated in December, when the Brotherhood rushed out a controversial constitution without a national consensus. All along, Brotherhood officials made no secret that the presidency was a group effort--major decisions coming from the supreme guide's office--and theirs alone. Their majoritarian behavior infuriated allies and confirmed long-held perceptions of the Brotherhood as insular, single-minded and high-handed.

If he was dismissive of his political opponents, Morsi had no time for the military either. During the November crisis of his decrees, the President publicly brushed aside an invitation from General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to have lunch with political and civic leaders who were worried about the direction of the country. By the spring of 2013, sources close to the military high command were telling TIME that the generals were running out of patience with the President and might be willing to step in if his opponents mounted a big show of dissatisfaction.

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