The streets of Cairo are filed with angry Egyptians bitterly divided into two camps – the  pro and anti Morsi supporters.  Tanks and military troops have appeared on the streets of the Egyptian capital  and the recall of the anti-Mubarak  protests of January 2011 is  disturbingly familiar.

Fierce fighting  resulting in seven deaths and more than 500 people injured  has engulfed the county for a fortnight, ever  since President Mohamed Morsi hastily pushed through a draft charter  on November 30,   that would modify the existing  (and suspended  during the Mubarak decades ) 1971 Constitution.

Despite opposition from many groups who fear that the  Muslim Brotherhood , to which party the President belongs, is seeking  to ‘Islamize’ the country – the Morsi led faction is pressing for a national referendum on the modified Constitution on  Friday, December 15.

On Friday last (Nov 8) , Cairo was witness to a funeral march wherein the pro Morsi faction was morning the loss of its  martyrs. Blaming the deaths on ‘thugs’ and   anti-revolution / pro-Mubarak  groups,  the funeral chant symbolized the contours of the current contestation that has seized Egypt – barely a year after the end   of   the long dictatorial rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Egypt is Islamic, it will not be secular, it will not be liberal .With blood and soul, we redeem Islam.”

The current turbulence in Egypt is  of  considerable significance,  not merely in relation to the identity and orientation that the country will take but for the wider Arab and Islamic  comity of states. Egypt with its civilizational  pedigree (circa 3000 BC) going back to the Pharaohs is perceived as the  guardian of the soul and mind of the Arab people in much the same manner that Saudi Arabia is the  guardian  of  Mecca. Post the advent of  Islam  in the first millennium,  Egypt with its rich cultural tradition became the leader of the Arab and Muslim world – a position that  was diluted after the oil revolution of the mid 1970’s  that catapulted   Iran and  Saudi Arabia to greater prominence  in the Islamic and Arab world respectively.

With a population of almost 90 million including the diaspora, Egypt is the most populous Arab state and  has a rich and deep intellectual tradition  which is distinctive. Egyptians  are proud of their  Nile ancestry and represent one of the oldest riverine  civilizations  and  are very different from their nomadic Bedouin cousins of the desert.

The Nasser years  (1956 – 70 ) and the socialist  vision of that decade soon turned sour and the  Egyptian military retained power with  f Anwar  Sadat first   and then Hosni Mubarak introducing an authoritarian , secular orientation that limited  and shackled   the Islamic fervor led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In January 2011,  the  Tunisian led Arab Spring  suffused Egypt and the much hated Mubarak regime was ousted.  It was hoped that participative democracy would  replace the dictatorial rule  symbolized by the  long Mubarak era  (1981 – 2011 ) and at the time the streets of Cairo were   reminiscent of what is happening now.  

Pro and anti Mubarak groups clashed violently and Tahir Square became the symbol of hope and change.  The dictator was ousted  and Egypt had its first heady election on November 28, 2011. Ironically the  extended election  process that followed  which pitted the Muslim Brotherhood against the secular opposition led to the  victory  of  Mohamed Morsi as President by a slender majority .

In the months that followed his elevation,  President Morsi  soon began to  exude the same dictatorial tendencies – according to his detractors – and  appointed many of his  Muslim Brotherhood supporters to key positions in the government and judiciary. In the last month Morsi placed himself above any judicial oversight and despite opposition to his revised constitution,  managed to push it through in a far from consensual manner on November 30.

The secular opposition, the National Salvation Front,  led by former IAEA chide El -Baradei and  former Arab League Secretary General Abu Moosa  are rejecting the Morsi plan to  hold a referendum on December 15 and the next two days will be critical for Egypt. While the country is almost 90 percent Muslim (almost  all Sunni )  it also has an old Coptic Christian minority which feels threatened by the current  Muslim Brotherhood / Wahabi  majority intimidation.

Since the Constitution is the source of legitimacy for any democratic state,   each word carries grave import  and at the heart of the current contestation is the place of religion in this sacred document. Currently the relevant article notes: “"Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation."  
The interpretation of the legislation that was derived from this article allowed the minorities and the more liberal Muslims the space they needed to co-exist with their more conservative Islamic brethren.  However the revised charter has the following clause as an addition apropos the principles of  Sharia :   Article 219  states: "The principles of Sharia include general evidence and foundations, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines of Sunni Islam and the majority of Muslim scholars."

The liberal  spectrum that includes the minorities (Christian and women )  are dismayed that the clergy (Muslim scholars ) will now have a greater influence in the interpretation of  basic law – and hence the practice of  societal norms.  Women feel particularly vulnerable  and the struggle for the contour and the content of the Egyptian Constitution is likely to be  bitter and bloody.

The  outcome of this struggle in Cairo will have far reaching implications and the world may be witnessing the much heralded  Arab  Spring turning into a sullen and bleak Egyptian winter.