CAIRO - President Mohammed Morsi speaks darkly of imminent threats from a conspiracy of unnamed foreign enemies and corrupt businessmen. He vows to uncover counterrevolutionaries hiding under judicial robes. His advisers charge that loyalists of the former dictator have infiltrated the opposition, saying it would gladly sacrifice democracy to defeat the Islamists.
In a one-week blitz, Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood cast aside two years of cautious pragmatism in an effort to seize full control of the nation's political transition. Morsi decreed himself above the reach of the courts until completion of a new constitution. He went around the laws to install his own public prosecutor. And his Islamist allies in the constitutional assembly rammed through a charter over the objections of their secular opposition and the Coptic Christian Church.
This flash of authoritarianism has aroused a new debate about the Islamists' commitment to democracy and pluralism at a time when they dominate political life. Morsi's advisers call the tactics a regrettable but necessary response to threats to the political transition from the vestiges of the autocracy of former President Hosni Mubarak, especially in the news media and the judiciary. But his critics say they hear a familiar paranoia in Morsi's new tone that reminds them of talk of the "hidden hands" that Mubarak once used to justify his authoritarianism.
"I have sent warnings to many people who know who they are, who may be committing crimes against the homeland," Morsi declared on state television on Thursday, referring to secret information about a "conspiracy" and "real and imminent threats."
As judges walked off the job to protest Morsi's attempts to limit judicial power over the transition, his party's newspaper reported that lawyers filed complaints asking prosecutors to charge the Mubarak-appointed judge who led the call for the strike with "inciting to topple the regime," and to ban travel by the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor Morsi sought to remove.
The Brotherhood has adopted a tone of "open threats and intimidation," said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Critics note that the Brotherhood has already broken its pledges not to take more than a third of the parliamentary seats, run a presidential candidate or monopolize power.
Morsi's supporters say that revolution means breaking the old order, and that his extralegal measures are necessary to remove the grip of the old government so Egypt can build a stable constitutional democracy.
They point to the Mubarak-appointed judges of the top courts, which dissolved Egypt's first freely elected Parliament in more than six decades as well as a first constitutional assembly. On Sunday, the Supreme Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling that could dissolve the current assembly as well. Bakinam El-Sharkawy, an assistant to Morsi, called it a virtual counterrevolution.
Some observers say Morsi's worries are well justified, noting the pattern of judicial rulings and the military's reluctance to cede power. "There are serious fears of vested authoritarian enclaves in the state trying to undermine the elected institutions and trying to torpedo the constitutional assembly," said Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist at Barnard College in New York.
Still, she argued that in a moment of crisis, Morsi regressed to an older mode of leadership. "It is an old style of politics: 'Just let the big guys do the work, and we will tell you why later.'"