It's not just Morsi, it's also the opposition

Both Egypt's President and His Opposition Adopt Extreme Positions -

My latest for Latitude — an excerpt:

If Morsi’s critics rightly oppose the decree, however, they also leave little room for compromise. They won’t address some of the underlying problems that the president’s admittedly extreme step sought to address. And they refuse to begin any dialogue with Morsi until the decree is rescinded.

Morsi is unlikely to cancel the measure outright. And the Egyptian judiciary, which is deeply divided about it, has given him leeway to implement at least parts of it as acts of sovereignty. That’s a somewhat mystifying legal doctrine, and it leaves plenty of room for interpretation. But will the opposition negotiate over what must go and what can stay? Also, can it hammer out a deal — of the kind Morsi should have sought in the first place — to ensure that the drafting of the constitution can continue without interruption?

Now that the opposition has an opportunity to humiliate the president, it is in no mood to compromise.

But this is wrong-headed. Over time, Morsi’s critics run the risk of appearing intransigent to the general public, especially if he starts making concessions. ElBaradei and others in the opposition need to make concrete counterproposals, notably about the future of the constitution-writing process.

Finding a consensus that everyone can live with should be the end goal both for Morsi and his opponents, some of who are guilty of the lazy hope that the intervention of third parties — judges, generals — will solve their problems. Just as it needs a president who listens, Egypt needs a loyal and constructive opposition.

The people demand plain language

Morsi fails to defuse anger over decree -

From Heba Saleh's FT report on the confusion about whether Morsi and judges are still at loggerheads about his decree:

“I do not know what ‘acts of sovereignty’ are,” said Khaled al-Sayed, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance party. “They [the government] should use plain language. We want [Mr Morsi] to withdraw his decree and we are going out tomorrow to demonstrate.”

Amusing that this "acts of sovereignty" business has everyone flummoxed (despite Nathan Brown's best attempt to explain). Someone better start speaking more clearly soon or it might get a lot less amusing.

Some criticism of ICG's take on the Morsi crisis, and a rejoinder

A Way Out of Egypt’s Transitional Quicksand - International Crisis Group

This alert put out by ICG has some decent suggestions about breaking the impasse that Morsi's decree has put Egyptian politics in, and rightly states that the opposition needs to act more maturely in defusing the crisis (I make a similar argument in a forthcoming piece). But this part is plain wrong:

Morsi’s decision arguably enjoys broad support from a citizenry yearning for stability. Opposition calls to rally in Tahrir Square belong more to the realm of nostalgia than to that of effective politics: the revolutionary zeal of 2011 has long exhausted itself, and any violence likely would rally a majority to the president’s side. Without meaningful grassroots popular backing, the non-Islamist opposition typically has resorted to obstructionist politics rather than formulate a positive agenda. Its demand for a complete rescinding of the declaration is unrealistic, as Morsi has staked much of his political capital on this move.

There is no reliable information on what the general public thinks of Morsi's decree, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is quite a bit of opposition to it. Likewise, the rallies in Tahrir Square appear to be more than nostalgia, since they are getting quite large numbers, and therefore there does seem to be some grassroots backing. The point about obstructionist politics remains, though — the opposition has yet to articulate how to solve the larger problems that Morsi tried to tackle with his decree.

Morsi's effrontery, according to Bloomberg

Egypt’s Mursi Poses Dilemma as U.S. Assesses Power Grab - Businessweek

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi poses a quandary for the Obama administration as it struggles to respond to the democratically elected Islamist leader’s power grab -- which he made without any advance notice to Washington.

The effrontery of making a dictatorial power-grab without consulting with Washington first! How dare he?

Is there even agreement on where Egypt's crisis is headed?

Some outlets report Morsi has sealed a deal with judges, others say he hasn't. Take a look at some of the headlines you'll find on the front page of a Google News search for "Egypt":

Bottom line: the Supreme Judicial Council has given an opening to Morsi, but there is still no deal that they accept or even one that Morsi has clearly outlined. The protests are taking place, the opposition still demands that the decree is fully rescinded, Morsi will not do that, so the situation is mostly unchanged unless some senior judicial figures start outlining the terms of a compromise of the opposition starts talking to the presidency about what a compromise could be. Indeed, judges alone cannot end this crisis, the opposition has to be willing to negotiate, too — and most importantly, Morsi needs to make whatever he has in mind clear. Right now, no one can figure out where things stand.

How Morsi makes policy: Samer Morqos edition

Mursi decree "crippling to democratic transition" - Former presidential adviser Asharq Alawsat

This is how Morsi has ruled so far: with a kitchen cabinet of close confidantes, and without even consulting the advisor he appointed to be in charge of democratic transition questions on a matter that has everything to do with that:

Morcos stressed that he had accepted this position “in order to participate in the democratization process in Egypt, however what has happened, regarding President Mursi’s decision, represents a disregard of this process.” He also revealed that he was not consulted on this new constitutional declaration, which ultimately places control of the legislative, executive, constitutional and judicial authority in Mursi’s hands, adding that he only learnt of this when the decree was officially announced on television. Morcos asserted that this decision “violates all the democratic norms and traditions” as well as the special portfolio – democratic transition – that he was appointed to oversee.

How could this man not resign?

Decoder: Morsi, the judiciary and acts of sovereignty

We are happy to have another piece of legal analysis from Nathan Brown, on the legal issues at stake in the fight between the Egyptian judiciary and President Morsi.

Egyptian politics, for all its bare-knuckled power struggles, has also been strangely, almost bizarrely, legal. In fact, it has become increasingly so: President Morsi managed to handle the army but the judiciary is proving far more troublesome. In a country where those with gavels are more powerful than those with guns, it is not a surprise that contestants speak in legal language. And that language is growing more abstruse. What remains of the Constituent Assembly has drafted a new article on the Islamic shari`a that few people have the training to understand.

And now, in the midst of what looks like mortal combat between the presidency and Islamists on the one side and a set of judicial actors and non-Islamist forces on the other—a confrontation set off (predictably enough) by a series of presidential edicts published in the Official Gazette—we may be seeing the shape of a compromise emerging. It is hard to tell what that compromise is, however, not only because the political struggle is so knotty, but also because the language used is unfamiliar and abstract.

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Questions about the crisis over Morsi's decree

I am busy with a project that is taking all my time, but these are the questions I am asking myself regarding the crisis over Morsi's 22 November decree:

1. Does Morsi feel he could back back down on some of the provisions of the decree without damaging his credibility as leader?

2. Is the opposition willing to make demands that are not absolute, like canceling the whole decree or having Morsi step down (which no political leader demands but the crowds in Tahrir chant.)

3. Will the judges' strike, which began in Alexandria and Beheira governorate, spread to a national judicial strike?

4. What are the prospects towards a more general strike?

5. What is the military thinking? Does it believe it could ultimately intervene, claiming to defend the constitutional order or the revolution, and if so how?

6. Will the US and EU move to freeze their recently announced aid packages, citing lack of good governance? What does this mean for the IMF deal?

7. What are the prospects for escalation on either side? We've seen FJP offices being attacked and Muslim Brothers ordered to surround, somewhat threateningly, the Cairo High Court, as well as tasked with defending their branches (a task which should fall to the police) — how quickly could this turn into direct confrontations on a larger scale?

8. Are the dynamics here winner take all — i.e. either Morsi backs down or his decree remains intact?

Feel free to add your own questions in the comments...

What's a possible way out of Egypt's crisis?

Egypt’s Morsi: Back Down or Crackdown? | Atlantic Council

Tarek Radwan writes:

Given such a charged climate, Morsi is left with a choice: either back down or crackdown. If the president decides to rescind his declaration, he risks appearing weak to his Islamist supporters in the face of a largely secular popular opposition (though some moderate Islamists, such as those from Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh’s Strong Party have joined in the protests). If he decides to crack down on popular protests and political opposition figures, he risks a severe escalation in popular anger. A crackdown could also hurt the already ailing economy and threaten the country’s stability even further in the face of an impending IMF loan that Morsi hopes will open the floodgates of other international loans and foreign investment. 

With neither choice offering a good 'out' to the current crisis, one should expect something that lies somewhere between either extreme. In true Muslim Brotherhood pragmatism, Morsi will first try to calm the situation – as evidenced by initial attempts from Prime Minister Hisham Qandil in his public statement asking protesters to accept the president’s decision and “move on.”. If that fails, and if the judiciary finds momentum in its calls to strike, Morsi will likely turn to negotiating with prominent judges and opposition leaders. In the end, a settlement that neither rescinds the decree but works on a solution that negates absolute control seems the most logical endpoint based on previous patterns of behavior when faced with enormous public backlash. 

The problem is that neither Morsi's camp nor the opposition is yet articulating a position whereby a compromise could be reached: yes to the more positive parts of the decree about securing justice for police victims and extending the deadline for a new constitution, no to absolute power for Morsi against judicial overview, and perhaps a compromise on the matter of the dissolution of the Shura Council and Constituent Assembly. 

Morsi cuts the Gordian knot

To break the deadlock, Morsi wields a clumsy hammer - The National

My piece on Morsi's decree and the aftermath — here's the conclusion:

Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood - mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse. And he made this decision at a time of unprecedented polarisation - over the constitution and religion's role within it, over the performance of the cabinet, and indeed over the poor excuse for a transitional framework to democracy that the country inherited from 16 months of disastrous military rule. Mr Morsi's political capital is simply not as plentiful as he seems to believe, as the furious reaction by opposition leaders and protesters on Friday showed.

The question now is what next. Mr Morsi and his supporters say the move is necessary, and the opposition is being irresponsible, bent on sabotaging anything he does out of anti-Islamist spite. That is partly true: there are many, from conservatives nostalgic of the Mubarak era to angry revolutionaries, who simply cannot stomach that Mr Morsi is president and his Muslim Brotherhood are the dominant political power. Opposition groups, the revolutionary movement and civil society feel cheated by the Islamists' majoritarian view of democracy, and they are also right to be worried about the Islamists' views on the application of Sharia and their lack of enthusiasm for civil liberties.

The central problem in Egyptian politics today is trust, or the absence thereof - and Mr Morsi has not invested much time in creating more of it since elected. This new wave of protests is the price he is paying for his negligence.

Cutting the Gordian knot, ultimately, is cheating. Getting away with it depends on being perceived as either wise or powerful. The next few weeks will test Mr Morsi on both counts.

The president, the prosecutor, and the press

Over the weekend in Egypt, as if the fighting that took place in Tahrir Square between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (or impostors) and their detractors was not enough, a major institutional type of Mortal Kombat also took place between, on the one side, President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other, Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud and the judicial establishment. On the latter’s side — out of convenience as much as principle, as Mahmoud is not a popular figure — were secular political parties who seized on this to denounce what they saw as the Brother-President’s all-out attack on the rule of law.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s the lowdown.

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Egypt: Morsy Tells Local Community in U.S - I Have No Power to Interfere in Constituent Assembly Works

Egypt: Morsy Tells Local Community in U.S - I Have No Power to Interfere in Constituent Assembly Works

This is B.S., because Morsi clearly has moral authority to help strike a compromise agreement between political leaders, and is able to dissolve this assembly and appoint another. If he is to be the "president of all Egyptians" he claims to be, one would think he would have gathered political and civil society leaders around the table for this. But perhaps he believes, accurately, that the gap between Islamists and secularists is too great for compromise and wants to see his fellow Islamists get their way.

Haaretz: Listen to Morsi

Listen to Morsi

From today's Haaretz editorial:

The time when Israel could enjoy peaceful relations with Egypt while freezing progress with the Palestinians and building settlements is over. It's also possible that we're approaching the end of the era in which we enjoy the United States' blind support for a government that consistently works against the American position on settlements and publicly criticizes its president. But the choice between welcome initiative and cursed inaction is still in Israel's hands.

Avigdor Lieberman put out a marker yesterday that Egyptians will take not of, ruling out any changes to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty that has become a major Egyptian demand with cross-partisan support.  But it's never been clear in the current Israeli administration who Lieberman speaks for; foreign and national security policy is in the hands of the Netanyahu-Barak tandem, and Lieberman is routinely ignored. Furthermore, there is a line of thinking among some Israeli officials that renegotiating the peace treaty would amount to a positive commitment by Morsi / the MB to the treaty itself — i.e. more of a buy-in then there currently is despite their repeated statements that the treaty would be respected. One might also expect the Israelis to make it a condition of renegotiating the treaty that Morsi sign it personally — because so far it appears he has no intention of meeting an Israeli official at all (indeed, there might be some strenuous avoiding of even an accidental meeting by the Morsi team at this week's UN summit).

Friedman: Shame on Egypt's president

Friedman: Shame on Egypt's president

Thomas Friedman writes (in the NYT, of course, although link above is a free access syndication):

I find it very disturbing that one of the first trips by Egypt's newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, will be to attend the Nonaligned Movement's summit meeting in Tehran this week. Excuse me, President Morsi, but there is only one reason the Iranian regime wants to hold the meeting in Tehran and have heads of state like you attend, and that is to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement — the exact same kind of democracy movement that brought you, Mr. Morsi, to power in Egypt.

I was not aware Morsi made a ringing endorsement of the Iranian system of government while in Tehran. Does this attitude mean that Friedman believes heads of states who call themselves democrats should not visit autocracies? I don't remember him making a fuss, say, when President Obama visited Cairo in 2009 when some of Morsi's friends were in prison. Or when Obama visited China. Or Russia. Or Saudi Arabia.

Also, why is he singling out Morsi out of all the NAM leaders? Why not the representatives of the other 118 countries attending? This wouldn't have anything to do with Israel and the nuclear weapons program issue, would it?

Update: A good reaction on Twitter:

Morsi's team

The new team of assistants and advisors appointed by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (see links below) can be criticized on many grounds: it is mostly composed of Islamists, and the reasons for various people being in these positions — or what exact powers these positions come with — are rather uncertain. While there are some good people there, one gets the impression that the council of advisors is there mostly to reward loyalist and political partners and give a few token positions to "frenemies" from across the ideological aisle. It's not even clear whether these advisors will be a real center of power (well, at least they will have the power that comes with access, presumably) or if the "kitchen cabinet" of the Morsi staff will be elsewhere. I would have liked to see what appointments are made on the staff of the presidential palace, under the chief of staff or Morsi's personal secretariat, more than these largely political appointments. I suspect they will be what their holders make of them, let's hope they use these positions and podiums wisely.

Of course, in any presidential system the holder of the office uses these appointments to reward friends and allies, and there is no reason to expect anything different here. By that standard, several of the appointments — Goweida and al-Sayyad — are a decent attempt to reach out. But these are still too few, and there are too many cronies, in the extraordinary times when the president should have been, as he claimed he would be, a uniter. In particular, there are very few representatives of the Coptic community: including Habib here is a joke considering he has very limited credibility with the bulk of Egypt's Christians, even if Samir Morqos is a good choice for the more prominent "assistant" position.

One question I still don't have answered is: does the lack of diversity in Morsi's team represent his desire for a mostly Islamist team, or the lack of potential partners outside the Islamist community — considering that many who were asked in July turned down the offers of a post?


Brotherhood Guidance Bureau proposes new governors

Brotherhood Guidance Bureau proposes new governors | Egypt Independent

The Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau has proposed a list of 50 new governors to President Mohamed Morsy, a source within the group told Al-Masry Al-Youm on condition of anonymity Tuesday.

Different sources close to the president told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Morsy would appoint eight new governors from the Freedom and Justice Party and five from the Salafi Nour Party.

This is hugely important in several respects.

  • First, this appears to break with past practice of chiefly recruiting governors from the senior ranks of the military and police (although I suspect some of these will still be there, particularly for border governorates).
  • Secondly, it's not clear what formal ties the MB's Guidance Bureau has to the president (aside from him being a former member of the Bureau and current member of the Brotherhood) and unusual in Egyptian history for a political party — even the ruling party — to be involved in these decisions.
  • Thirdly, the proportions described above, if you accept that a MB president will obviously choose some of his own, appear to either take the Nour Party's parliamentary elections resuits as a guide to their representation in governorates (even though that parliament was disbanded and the proportions might very well change by the next election) or arbitrarily assign them major rewards, which would be a sign of a (renewed) political alliance.
  • Finally, it's important to note that the governor positions are incredibly important in Egypt's administration and security governance. Control of these positions would give those parties that have them a significant advantage  in future elections, notably the ability to mobilize the administration and local police, as was carried out under the NDP.

I'm also struck that these appointments are taking place before the conclusion of a new constitution, which could (and should) shift the system towards the direct election of governors. It would hint at a continuation of the presidential appointment of governors, a system that considerably adds to the power of the presidency.

Monopolizing Power in Egypt

Monopolizing Power in Egypt

Michael Hanna is completely right in this Foreign Policy piece:

As a matter of democratic principle, the concentration of political power represented by President Morsi's constitutional decree is wholly objectionable. These actions are even more objectionable coming as they do in the midst of a transition that will define the parameters and fundamentals of a new political and constitutional order. As a result of the self-granted authority to appoint a new constituent assembly if the current body fails to produce a constitutional draft for ratification, President Morsi will have vast coercive authority to influence the drafting of the constitution. In light of the decisive role of his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues and other Islamist allies on the assembly, the work of the current assembly could be intentionally undermined in the hopes of a more compliant body selected by the president. While political constraints might curtail the practicability of this threat, it nonetheless might influence the contours of discourse and debate within the assembly.

Furthermore, the domineering approach of the Muslim Brotherhood to the transitional period and their exercise of political power should give pause to those beguiled by assurances of inclusion and broad-based political consensus. The track record of the Brothers during this period is characterized by promises broken and silence in the face of SCAF abuses, such as military trials for civilians and the application of the emergency law for most of the SCAF's tenure. The Brothers, in tandem with the SCAF, also sought to tarnish those intent on continuing the protest movement through mass mobilization and public actions. Their tenure in parliament was marked by unilateralism, lack of consultation, and consistent efforts to dominate all facets of the political process. While giving rhetorical credence to notions of inclusivity and consensus, their attempts to dictate the constitutional-drafting process belied any such assurances. With institutional aggrandizement as their lodestar, the Brothers managed to alienate nearly the entire Egyptian political class. With this recent history in mind, it is unreasonable to accord them unlimited faith and trust -- faith and trust that would be misplaced if accorded to the most enlightened of philosopher kings.

And he even offers some options:

As such, a constitutional decree could embed checks and balances on executive authority. This is complicated by the absence of a parliament after it was dissolved by the SCAF in accordance with a judgment by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), but there are imaginative alternatives if there is a will and interest in political balance. One such approach would be to vest temporary legislative authority in the currently-functioning constituent assembly. Another alternative would be to construct a broad-based council composed of diverse representatives of the political class whose ratification of legislation would be necessary for promulgation. The president could also issue a transitional decree enshrining individual rights to blunt concerns that this government will now consolidate power by silencing critics and muzzling expression. None of these options are ideal, but they are a qualitative improvement over dictatorial power.

I made a similar argument in my National column yesterday:

It might be argued that in the absence of a parliament, Mr Morsi had no choice but to assume these responsibilities - someone had to other than the military. But, considering the legal and constitutional limbo he is operating in, it might have been wiser to ensure power is shared or at least to engage other political forces.

The appointment of the new vice president, Mahmoud Mekky, a senior judge said to have Brotherhood sympathies who was a leader of the fight for judicial independence under Mubarak, reinforced the perception that Mr Morsi is not reaching out. Christians, women and personalities of diverse political backgrounds have not been promoted despite Mr Morsi's pledge to be a uniter.

In Mr Morsi's defence, he is not alone in bearing responsibility for this. Over the past month and a half, many personalities - from young revolutionaries to secular politicians - turned down offers from the Morsi administration, preferring to remain in opposition.

The calculus then may have been that, as long as Mr Morsi and Scaf were at loggerheads, it was better to be on the outside - or even simply that participating in an administration that lacked formal power was pointless. Well, the situation has changed. Being in government in today's Egypt is an ungrateful proposition, but one cannot simultaneously complain of a Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and reject offers of power-sharing without even testing if they are genuine.

On Sunday, Mr Morsi should have called for a national conference to hammer out a compromise on the constituent assembly. He can still do so, and perhaps even delegate legislative power to that assembly or give it some kind of veto over new legislation.

I think it's very important to stress that there is no reason to expect magnanimity from the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. They appear to have a clear idea of what they want and how to implement it. Their opponents should also have a clear idea of what they want, be willing to get their hands dirty and take up opportunities to have a seat at the table. The various parties should now make their demands, and the conditions of their participation clear — personally, I think they need to demand that Morsi amend his recent changes to the constitution by withdrawing his power to appoint a constituent assembly and delegate legislative power to a new assembly. They better articulate that demand clearly and show a strong consensus.

Brotherhood considers mass demo Friday in support of Morsy

Brotherhood considers mass demo Friday in support of Morsy

From Egypt Independent, on plans for a march this Friday by the MB to back Morsi and to protect him against a planned protest on August 24:

Karim Radwan, a member of the group’s Shura Council, said the group is capable of protecting its offices against the thuggery that is planned for 24 August. “We only welcome constructive opposition that helps correct mistakes,” he said.

Khalid Saeed, spokesperson for the Salafi Front, said the Salafis reject any destruction on 24 August. “That is why we will help the Brotherhood secure their offices,” he said.

Anti-Islamist activists distributed statements last month advocating a second revolution on 24 August against the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for the downfall of Morsy and the Freedom and Justice Party.

Well of course physical attacks should not be tolerated, but what's wrong with people protesting against the Islamists or August 24 or any other date? It'll be interesting to see how Morsi and the MB handles this.

And, frankly, the idea of a march in support of Morsi (while reading the Quran apparently) this Friday, at this juncture, may do more damage than good, at least among Morsi-skeptics. But the MB probably doesn't care about that if they're still locked in a majoritarian rather than consensual mindset. The worrying thing thus far is that Morsi has not made attempts to reach out to non-Islamists after his arrangement with the younger generals. It would have been a reassuring move.

The age of incompetence

✚  The age of incompetence

A quite funny take by Z on what will happen in Egypt next, based on the key insight that everyone — the army, the Muslim Brothers, secular forces — is incompetent. I like this part what what will happen to Morsi:

I expect him to benefit from the incompetence of everyone around him. While everything around him is helping him become more confident, and street support for the Muslim Brotherhood automatically is channeled to him, it is only a matter of time until he realizes that he does not have to live subdued by the organization, but that he should get the place he deserves. We make pharaohs, and we make them fast, and he won't really be any exception.

While he has, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, sidelined SCAF (apparently), he will now more single-handedly sideline the Brotherhood.

Now that would be something!

A pre-emptive coup against a coup within a coup?

✚  No Reason to Celebrate, It's Just Another Coup

Wael Iskander offers a not unplausible explanation for yesterday's news in Egypt — what may have pushed some generals to go against Tantawi and Enan was that they felt a pre-emptive coup against a coup within a coup was necessary to prevent Tantawi & co. leading the military into an untenable situation.

So much of what has been happening has been conducted with much secrecy, that is why all we have today is analysis and speculation. However, it does seem that the likely scenario is a coup to counteract a coup as Hesham Sallam explained:
“Al-Assar, Al-Sisi and others led a coup against Tantawi and Anan in order to preempt a prospective coup attempt that could have gotten the army into uncertain political confrontations—specifically confrontations that could have led the military establishment to lose everything vis-à-vis the MB. Consistent with this theory is the fact that Al-Dostoor newspaper was confiscated yesterday after effectively making a public call for a coup--which suggests that some elements within the SCAF had been prodding their allies inside the media establishment to begin promoting the image of popular support for a coup”
It is clear to me that something was planned for 24 August 2012 and that is what was pre-empted. The Muslim Brotherhood (Morsi) had to have the support of some elements inside the army so as to come out with this decision.
There had been calls for mass protests against Morsi and the MB and the Brotherhood on the 24th, backed by some of the press and political establishment. Maybe this is what forced their hands.