Members of the opposition Black Bloc movement and the Muslim Brotherhood,… (Oliver Weiken / European…)
CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi casts himself as a leader navigating a landscape bristling with conspiracies by corrupt businessmen and shadowy figures plotting from inside a vast bureaucracy his Islamist inner circle has been unable to tame.
While protesters march, workers strike, students rally and the economy is in a scary tailspin, the president's more serious nemesis may lie behind the scenes in what is known as the "deep state." The courts, police, army and intelligence agencies were shaped over decades by the secular rule of deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Many police and intelligence officials in particular remain loyal to the old guard, fearing Morsi is moving the country away from its Western alliances and toward religious fundamentalism.
Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the government, accuse those connected to Mubarak of disrupting Egypt's transition. Talk of intrigue is so pervasive that the Brotherhood's website this month blamed "deep state corruption" for food poisoning that hospitalized nearly 500 students at Al Azhar, the country's premier Islamic university.
Recent actions by the judiciary suggest state institutions are in fact moving to put limits on Morsi, who pushed through an Islamist-backed constitution and ignored legal decisions challenging his authority. Court rulings also have delayed parliamentary elections and called for Morsi to reinstate the general prosecutor he fired during a power grab in November. These verdicts came as police and internal intelligence officers — the core of Mubarak's power — have staged work slowdowns and questioned Morsi's legitimacy.
Security agents, police commanders and even clerks wielding rubber stamps are part of an imposing government labyrinth that encompasses the Interior Ministry and an edifice known as the Mogamma, a parallel universe of hundreds of thousands of public employees tied up in a system of patronage and favors.
His political opponents respond that Morsi, who was elected in June, is exaggerating the strength of the previous power structure — and that he wants to simply replace it with one loyal to him. Critics say he wants a Brotherhood version of his predecessor's brand of control and cronyism.
The Brotherhood is backing a bill in the upper house of parliament that could limit judicial independence and force as many as 3,000 judges to retire. Judges claim the legislation is aimed at replacing them with jurists sympathetic to Islamists. Thousands of Brotherhood supporters demonstrated last weekend, calling for a "cleansing" of the courts.
Morsi and the Brotherhood have been "revealed as people who have no experience in ruling and are greedy for domination and power," said Hassan Nafaa, a respected political science professor at Cairo University. "There's a sentiment that the revolution was stolen and that there is an attempt at what many are calling the 'Brotherhoodization' of the state."
The 85-year-old Brotherhood, once regarded as the only uncorrupted voice against the old regime, is now often compared to Mubarak's disbanded National Democratic Party. A panel of judges, relying on a 1950s court ruling, has called for the Brotherhood's dissolution, saying it was never a legal entity.
Morsi, however, speaks of hidden hands maneuvering to weaken his government from within and without: "Whoever sticks his finger inside Egypt, I will cut it off," the president said recently. "I see the fingers of people getting inside who have no value in this world. They think that money makes them men."
The president is seldom specific in identifying outsiders arrayed against him, but they are said to include Israeli agents and, at times, American officials. Egypt and the U.S. engaged in a brief but telling Twitter war recently over Washington's criticism of Cairo's interrogation of a popular television satirist charged with insulting Morsi. The State Department said Egypt was restricting freedom of expression; the Brotherhood accused Washington of "flagrant meddling."
Conspiracies, real or imagined, are a dangerous topic in a country with deepening political and religious schisms, soaring inflation and joblessness, and an imploding economy.
The Brotherhood alleges that Mubarak loyalists and opposition leaders, who failed at the ballot box, want to spur a backlash against Islamist politicians. Antigovernment protests, including a growing number of labor strikes, have left scores dead and paralyzed Port Said and other cities in recent months.
Al Ahram newspaper quoted senior officials as saying Morsi "faces a coup attempt partially orchestrated and executed by the intelligence apparatus." The paper went on to say that the president is worried about "certain loopholes" within the intelligence community.