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'Life or Death' Moment for the Revolution: Egyptians Erupt in Fury Against Brazen Power Grab

Egyptian protesters have gathered in Tahrir Square after a decree that said all presidential decisions would be immune from judicial review until the adoption of a new constitution.

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While many in the square were chanting “Morsi must go,” Mafouz was more moderate in his demands. “I don’t say that he has to leave power, but he has to rescind this decree that would give him dictatorial powers, and show that he will represent all the people, not just one sector,” said Mafouz.

“The ability of the Egyptian people to mobilize in this post-Mubarak era is astounding,” said Tighe Barry, an American with the peace group CODEPINK, as he looked around at the huge crowd that had packed the square so tightly you could barely walk. “I was in Egypt under Mubarak. In those days people were brutally beaten and thrown in jail for simply protesting. Now they come out en masse—young, old, men, women, religious, secular. It’s like a human tsunami.” Most people in the square did not seem connected to a political party; they gathered as individuals who felt a real stake in their country’s future. “This is a living revolution, a world-class example of grassroots democracy in action,” said Barry. “The world has much to learn from the Egyptians.”

During the revolution almost two years ago, those protesting in Tahrir Square were putting their lives at risk. The plaza was ringed by military tanks. Police, mostly undercover, were beating people up at the entrances to the square. Tear gas, rubber bullets and sometimes live ammunition from snipers atop buildings left many dead and injured. The government even sent thugs on camels racing through the packed square, crushing and terrifying the crowd.

Now, there was not a policeman or a soldier in sight. The square belonged to the people.

But the recent gathering had been threatened with a difference kind of violence—clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters. During the week several headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, had been set on fire and a young Brotherhood member was killed. Deepening the tensions, the Muslim Brotherhood had called for a pro-Morsi rally on the very same day as the opposition rally. At the last minute, they wisely decided to cancel it to avoid further violence.

Despite a few minor clashes, Tuesday’s mobilization had a festive atmosphere, with fiery speeches, drumming and chanting, while vendors hawked everything from Egyptian flags to baked sweet potatoes. People pitched tents all over the square, determined to make this an ongoing protest.

While clashes with pro-Morsi forces had been avoided, there was a group in the square who did not feel safe: women. Some of the women complained bitterly about being groped and harassed by young men. “When we were in the square during the revolution this was the safest place for women in all of Egypt, in terms of harassment from the men,” a young student named Nada Bassem told me. “Women even slept in the square without problems; everyone took care of each other. Now, this can be a dangerous place for women.” While there was a decent representation of women during the day, as the night wore on, few remained. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to make this square—and all of Egypt for that matter—safe for women,” Nada insisted.

Another issue casting a pall over the entire political scene is a miserable economy inherited from the Mubarak regime, one that has only worsened since the revolution. The chaos of the uprising dried up the flow of tourists, previously a considerable source of income, and many foreign investments. The country faces a massive budget deficit, crumbling infrastructure, soaring unemployment and rapidly declining foreign currency reserves. News of the decree and pictures of subsequent protests sent the stock market tumbling to its lowest rate since the revolution. And a controversial IMF deal that will probably lead to significant price increases could spark much more massive—and perhaps violent—protests.

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