It’s déjà vu on the streets of downtown Cairo, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators pack city streets and demand the resignation of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
Public anger with Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—has swelled in recent months as his party has grabbed increasing power and the country’s economic situation has deteriorated.
By Sunday, as many as a million protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square and surrounding city blocks. The massive outpouring marks the largest demonstrations since Egyptians ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 during the region’s “Arab Spring.”
By Monday, the Egyptian military had delivered an ultimatum to Morsi: Military leaders gave the president 48 hours to resolve the growing crisis before the military intervenes. Though it’s unclear what such intervention would involve, some experts say the ultimatum could turn into a military coup.
Meanwhile, leaders of the demonstrations leveled their own ultimatum: They gave Morsi until 5 p.m. on Tuesday (11 a.m. EST) to resign or face a massive call for civil disobedience by protesters.
As chaos mounts in Egypt, a larger question looms. If Morsi goes, who will replace him?
In one of the ironies of Egypt’s ongoing post-revolution crisis, a troubling dynamic has emerged. Secularists and religious minorities worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing power could end up facing the growing influence of Islamists considered even more hardline than Morsi.
Consider the alliance behind this week’s protests: Secularists opposed to Morsi’s presidency have banded with Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. The secularist National Salvation Front and the Islamist party Al Nour have both opposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab over the last year—a power grab often orchestrated by Morsi after his election a year ago.
But if the influence of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood wanes, the influence of strict Islamists could rise. During 2011 and 2012 parliamentary elections, the ultraconservative Islamists in the Al Nour party won 25 percent of the votes. Secularists in the National Salvation Front won less than 9 percent. If Egyptians turn away from the Muslim Brotherhood, many could turn towards Al Nour.
If Al Nour gains more prominence in coming months, secularists and religious minorities could end up fighting the same battles against a growing Islamist influence. Al Nour party leaders favor incorporating a strict interpretation of Islamic law into government practices. That could bring growing trouble for the country’s religious minorities—including Christians who make up 10 percent of the population.
For the next 48 hours, all eyes will remain on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian president may try to arrange a power-sharing arrangement with opponents that could keep him in office. But whatever the outcome, dark clouds remain for many who long for a country with greater political and religious freedoms.