Morsi has lost the unique credibility that came of being Egypt's first democratically elected president and faces a broad coalition of opponents. And he has managed to unite all of the secular opposition in the country against him, having underestimated the reaction of a country freshly released from decades of authoritarian government.
The strength of feeling is manifest in the thousands who have continued to risk their lives despite deaths and wounding. The hostility to Morsi has stunned everybody in its intensity. Newspapers stopped publication for a day to protest the new constitution's lack of protections for freedom of expression. The private television networks followed suit. All reacted to the sense that the new constitution contains major loopholes in the protection of individual liberties, which could enable the Muslim religious authorities to wield new influence, not to mention that it still leaves too much power in the hands of the president.
Each side of the political battle now fears that it faces an imminent coup. Secular groups fear Morsi will allow Islamist groups and religious leaders to form a new authoritarian power, while the demand to stop the referendum has convinced Islamists that secular opponents seek to abort their role in the new democracy. A wiser president than Morsi would have at least delayed the constitution vote as a key gesture toward resolving the crisis.
The key may well be the role of the military, which at this point appears to back Morsi. He has been soliciting support among the military leadership on top of enshrining the military's autonomy in the draft charter to a degree that surpasses even the Mubarak days, a position the generals might well be reluctant to relinquish.
In addition, we must recall that he replaced 70 of the generals from the Mubarak years and has publicly flattered the military. He has given members the power to make arrests. All this suggests that there may be an understanding between the military and Morsi that may now allow him to call on the generals for help and get it. The military's spokesman recently said, "Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interest of the nation and the citizens. Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow." The clear implication is that martial law may be impending.
But resorting to the military to secure the vote would undoubtedly undermine Morsi's hopes that a strong showing for the constitution would be seen as a sign of national consensus and help end the political crisis.
What should be the attitude of the United States? The Obama administration has finally put forth its opposition to the unsatisfactory constitution and to its process. The sad fact, though, is that the U.S. government played a dismal role in the disintegration of the Mubarak administration instead of facilitating an orderly (and justifiable) end to the regime. After too many years of cooperation for peace and backing authoritarian leaders regarded as infidels by the Islamists, it now lacks the ability to influence the outcome greatly. And we're resented by the liberal forces for the way we misplayed Mubarak's retirement in such a manner as to open the doors to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Clearly, the United States must support those Egyptians who have sought to boycott the vote on the charter and pressure Morsi to put off the start of major constitutional changes with whatever influence we may have.
The influence we do have is on the military, given the billions of dollars in annual support that the United States has given it over the decades. This pressure must be exerted confidentially and subtly but clearly. Otherwise, the Obama administration will bear some of the moral responsibility for providing the Morsi government with the capacity to undo Egypt's nascent democracy, which Morsi would not have without critical support from the army.