In November 2012, or just five months after he reached power, former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi took all by surprise when he issued a constitutional declaration that granted him absolute and far-reaching powers.
Riding high on US praise for his role at that time in mediating a ceasefire between the Islamist militant Hamas in Gaza and Israel, Morsi's decree granted him sweeping powers, such as elevating his decisions above judicial oversight, giving protection to the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly, which was writing a new constitution at the time, from a looming threat of dissolution by judicial order, and making the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Upper House of parliament, the Shura Council, immune to dissolution by the High Constitutional Court. Morsi, in violation of the Judicial Authority Law, also decided to remove the sitting prosecutor general and appoint a new one, only to be revealed later that he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi portrayed his decree as necessary to protect the revolution from threats and to cement the nation's transition to democratic rule. Morsi stated that his decisions were "final and unchallengeable" until a new constitution had been ratified and fresh parliamentary elections held.
The move quickly triggered public anger. All non-Islamist politicians immediately criticised the decree as dictatorial, granting Morsi sweeping powers destined to place the nation on the dangerous path towards civil war after months of turmoil following Mubarak's ouster in February 2011. Mohamed ElBaradei, the high-profile liberal ex-UN diplomat, said: "Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new Pharaoh." ElBaradei also wrote on Twitter stating that Morsi's decree directed "a major blow to the revolution and would have dire consequences."
On 24 November, just two days after Morsi issued his controversial decrees, ElBaradei and other Egyptian leaders from across the political spectrum decided to form what came to be called the "National Salvation Front" (NSF). ElBaradei, flanked by other prominent politicians from outside Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, including two former presidential candidates who ran against Morsi, the liberal Amr Moussa and the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, addressed a press conference held in Al-Wafd Party's headquarters, pledging to cooperate to stand up to Morsi's dictatorial practices. NSF leaders said they would organise mass protests to force Morsi to rescind his power grab, "and if he refused, the protests would escalate to ask for the removal of Morsi himself from power in a second revolution."
Wahid Abdel-Meguid, an Al-Ahram political analyst who was appointed at the time as the NSF's spokesman, recalls how Morsi's dictatorial decree helped bring Egypt's divided and fractious opposition into one front. "Before Morsi announced his decree on 22 November, the news about its seven articles were diffused by Brotherhood officials everywhere," said Abdel-Meguid adding, "But when Morsi released them himself, it left no doubt among secular forces that there should be a quick reaction to this serious development." "All saw the 22 November decree as the beginning of the 'Brotherhoodisation' project, or Morsi and his group grabbing as much power as possible to turn Egypt into the world's first 100 per cent Muslim Brotherhood state," argued Abdel-Meguid.
Abdel-Meguid said "what angered secular factions most was that just a few days earlier, Morsi had met with most of prominent leaders in person, pledging to hold a public dialogue conference over critical issues, such as the writing of a consensus constitution, respect for the independence of the judiciary, and the formation of a national unity government."
Abdel-Meguid recalls that politicians such as Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, chairman of the liberal Al-Wafd Party, were the first to contact ElBaradei and other prominent politicians to invite them to a meeting at Al-Wafd to see how they could stand up to Morsi and his Brotherhood regime. "In this meeting, all agreed that by issuing this decree, Morsi offered new proof that he was not a president for all Egyptians and that he acted under the direct orders of the Muslim Brotherhood's Office of the Supreme Guide, and that this was high time for all divided secular forces to team up in one front to stem the tide of an imminent Islamist dictatorship," said Abdel-Meguid.
The anti-Morsi NSF included a wide range of liberal, secular and leftist leaders, on top of whom were El-Baradei, Moussa, Sabahi, Badawi, chairman of the Lawyers' Syndicate Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Democratic Front Party Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, and chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party Mohamed Abul-Ghar.
Morsi's subsequent dictatorial practices gave the NSF national momentum and public approval. On 30 November, there was public outrage when the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly approved a rushed version of the draft constitution to avoid dissolution by the High Constitutional Court, despite a boycott by representatives of secular forces and Christian members. Morsi subsequently called a referendum for 15 December. The NSF said Morsi was trying to impose a constitution drafted by one faction and that was lacking national consensus, having been produced in a farcical way.
The rushed version of the constitution was followed by thousands of Brotherhood supporters imposing a siege on the headquarters of the High Constitutional Court in South Cairo to prevent it from issuing any order that might nullify the new constitution.
In reaction, the NSF responded by mobilising huge protests in front of Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace on 5 December. Opposition demonstrations were stepped up, and tens of thousands took to the streets chanting for Morsi's downfall and even his imprisonment. There were bloody clashes on 5 December when opposition demonstrators were confronted by Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, leaving six dead and tens injured. After he was ousted from power, Morsi was arrested and referred to trial on charges of inciting manslaughter at the Al-Ittihadiya Palace demonstrations.
According to Abdel-Meguid, after its successful start 24 November 2012, the NSF entered a new stage by joining the Tamarod (Rebel) movement in February 2013. Tamarod, which included a group of young revolutionary activists, aimed at collecting signatures from Egyptian citizens asking for the removal of Morsi from power and fresh presidential elections. In March 2013, the NSF announced that all secular forces had decided to boycott the expected parliamentary elections. "Tamarod came after street protests failed to dissuade Morsi and his Brotherhood to scrap their monopolistic practices," said Abdel-Meguid, adding that "As a result, the NSF found out that collecting signatures was an effective tool for forcing Morsi and his group to submit to the demands of the people."
In May 2013, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood continued issuing politically provocative decrees. They included the Islamist-dominated Shura Council deciding to amend the Judicial Authority Law, aiming to get rid of all judges not loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi also refused to appoint a new prime minister in the place of the unpopular Brotherhood loyalist Hisham Qandil. Most of the new members of the cabinet and provincial governors belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The National Council for Human Rights and the High Council for the Press were also reformulated, being left under the tight grip of Morsi's Brotherhood.
The NSF and Tamarod reacted by announcing that they would call for huge protests 30 June 2013. NSF leaders said that Morsi had lost legitimacy and that he must go.
On 15 and 26 June, Morsi delivered two fiery speeches in which he declared that Egypt would join a war of jihad against the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad and that he was the legitimate president of Egypt, refusing to bow to any pressure. Morsi and Brotherhood supporters organised two huge sit-ins in Cairo and Giza on 28 June, anouncing that they would fight against removing Morsi and that "legitimacy is a red line."
A number of NSF leaders responded by asking the army to intervene to save the country from falling into civil war.
The army, led by now-President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, said in a statement on 23 June that it would give one week for the two camps (Brotherhood and opposition) to reach reconciliation. El-Sisi said the army would not keep silent and that "it is better for its soldiers to die than to stand still while Egyptians are being terrorised". A month later El-Baradie made it clear that the army intervention was simply to avert a civil war.
On 29 June, Tamarod, in a press conference in the Journalists' Syndicate, said it had succeeded in collecting 22 million signatures in support of removing Morsi from office. ElBaradei's NSF in a televised speech urged all Egyptians to turn out in millions to "put the revolution on a sound track." Tamarod and ElBaradei called for the removal of Morsi and the holding of early presidential elections, the appointment of the chairman of the High Constitutional Court (HCC) as an interim president, and the suspension of the Islamist 2012 Constitution.
On 30 June, most NSF leaders participated in the huge protests that swept Egypt for three days. On 3 July 2013, El-Sisi announced the removal of Morsi, the appointment of the HCC's chairman, Adly Mansour, as interim president, and the suspension of the 2012 Constitution. ElBaradei was appointed vice-president.
But the blazing start of the NSF was in contrast to its fading end. ElBaradei decided to resign in protest to the forced dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins on 14 August 2013. ElBaradei, in a letter to Mansour, said he could not bear the responsibility for decisions he disagreed with, or "the responsibility for one drop of blood." "The beneficiaries of what happened today (14 August 2013) are those who call for violence, terrorism and the most extreme groups," said ElBaradei.
Just as he hammered the first nails in the coffin of the Morsi regime, ElBaradei's resignation was the first nail in the NSF's coffin. It was followed by the decision of his Al-Dostour Party to withdraw from the NSF.
Abdel-Meguid agrees that ElBaradei's resignation dealt a definitive blow to the NSF. ElBaradei, Abdel-Meguid argued, was like the center point, or the magnet, that attracted NSF leaders together. "But when he left, the NSF suffered from a kind of a shock or an internal collapse," said Abdel-Meguid.
According to Abdel-Meguid, the NSF continued to fight for democracy with most of its leaders having participated in the writing of the new constitution, officially ratified on 18 January 2014. "The writing of a new liberal constitution was the most important task for the post-ElBaradei NSF, and after it achieved this, there was a dominant sense that it had completed its job," said Abdel-Meguid.
After the new constitution was passed, the NSF was found unable to field a presidential candidate. Amr Moussa, a prominent member of the NSF, chose to support El-Sisi, while Sabahi, another leading NSF official, decided to run against El-Sisi, primarily depending on young revolutionary forces and some leftist and liberal factions for support.
Even as preparations for the upcoming parliamentary elections are set to begin before 18 July, leading factions of the NSF have failed to coordinate for the polls. They have not been able to reach agreement on two recent laws regulating the polls.
Abdel-Meguid believes that coordination could come once the window for candidacies is open. "In the long run, and as its name has become associated with fighting tyranny, the NSF could be reframed at any moment to stand up to any attempts at grabbing power or creating a new Pharaoh in Egypt," said Abdel-Meguid.