Morsi is not a gambling man

President Morsi's package of decrees issued on Thursday night and today's resulting protests seem every bit a bizarro-world inversion of the dramatic moment this past June when, on the eve of presidential elections, Egypt's ruling generals attempted to seize constitutional powers, only to be checkmated by a motivated and organized Muslim Brotherhood.

Like the generals, Morsi seems intent on walling off the constitution-drafting process from outside influence, declaring not only the constitutional assembly but his own decisions immune from judicial oversight.  

With the assembly dominated by Morsi's own Brotherhood and Salafis further to the right, secular, liberal and leftist forces have decried the president's decision as a fatal and dictatorial overstep, even as Morsi's advisers argue he could've done much worse had dictatorship been his goal.

A variety of political forces are now arrayed against Morsi, and on Friday they mounted impressively large protests. More are promised on Tuesday.

But the Brotherhood believes it has a trump card: Morsi's popular legitimacy. In the Brotherhood narrative, Morsi enjoys support from the country's only remaining elected bodies: the presidency, Shoura Council and - by extension - the constituent assembly, which was chosen by the now-dissolved and similarly Brotherhood-dominated People's Assembly.

This, of course, fits with the Brotherhood's strictly majoritarian view of politics: Having received the most votes, they believe they have the prerogative to make decisions.

Of course, there are some significant problems with this view, not least that the Brotherhood's presupposed majority exists only if one focuses on (and believes) the numbers released after the second and final presidential runoff, in which Morsi defeated Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafik. In the first round, with a wider variety of candidates, Morsi received fewer votes than the non-Brotherhood candidates combined, and it is not hard now to find Cairenes who are confident the Brotherhood would lose a snap election.

And yet, the Brotherhood is not the military. It has enjoyed electoral victories. And the opposition is unlikely to control the protests like the Brotherhood did. Some of those who rallied in the square today are already critiquing themselves as the "Gezira Club" crowd, an upper-class assortment that disconcertingly overlaps with the much-maligned Muabrak regime remnants, or felool, who would've preferred Shafik to Morsi.

The Brotherhood knows it can summon a vast number of supporters into the streets. It has made legitimate efforts to satisfy demands of the revolutionaries, and it is not likely to order any obvious crackdown on dissent. Any serious popular challenge to its decisions will come only if trade unions and workers movements strike and join the "Gezira Club," as some are hoping. 

President Morsi and his influential advisers want to finish the job of drafting the constitution and move on to winning future elections. They've decided that they can stretch the bounds of Egypt's profoundly strange transition to do so, and they may be right.