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When Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi was elected, some Egyptians jokingly refer to him as the Muslim Brotherhood's spare tire. He was the Islamist group's backup candidate after its first choice was barred from running. Morsi has proved more formidable than many expected. But critics say his latest moves could tear Egypt apart. NPR's Leila Fadel has the story from Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Just how unaccustomed to the limelight Morsi was became clear during his first press conference after being elected last summer. Unaware that he was being taped, he urged someone to call his relatives and tell them he was going to be on TV. This was the man Egyptians had elected as their first leader after decades of dictatorship. He refused to move in to the presidential palace, deeming it too opulent. His veiled wife became the target of jokes by secular elite Egyptians. But his man-of-the-people charm earned him support among much of Egypt's poor and middle class and legions of loyal Muslim Brotherhood followers. And his supporters and opponents soon discovered that he is an impressive force.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

FADEL: On inauguration day, he stood in Tahrir Square, before a huge crowd and threw open his jacket to show he was not wearing body armor.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: I am one of you and I always will be, he said. I will achieve the revolution's goals. It's a promise his critics say he broke by effectively putting himself above the law until a new constitution is in place. The critics complain that Morsi is now trying to push through a hastily drafted version prepared by an Islamist-majority body. The president has scheduled a referendum on the constitution for December 15.

IBRAHIM AL-HOUDAIBY: You're now stuck between two authoritarian options.

FADEL: That's Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, a political activist and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Houdaiby says he and other Egyptians face the impossible choice of leaving Morsi with absolute power or voting for a flawed constitution.

AL-HOUDAIBY: And this means that we're creating not only a pharaoh, but the equivalent of a god.

FADEL: He says that Morsi is rallying his supporters and demonizing the opposition, leading to what he called a frightening divide in Egyptian society. But Gehad el-Haddad, an adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood, says that Morsi faced a true threat from the nation's top constitutional court, all of whose members were appointed under the old regime. They've ruled against the Islamists and Morsi repeatedly over the past six months and were threatening to further delay a new constitution. Morsi's latest move, Haddad says, is just further proof that he's willing to do anything to protect elected institutions from remnants of the Mubarak regime.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: I think that the pattern has always been up and down. We enter into a stalemate of events where there's little progress happening, little (unintelligible) happening, insufficient change going on, but then he takes major steps to unblock the type of challenges that Egypt is facing.

FADEL: Tarek Masoud, a Brotherhood expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says those first impressions of Morsi as a subservient figure were dead wrong.

TAREK MASOUD, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL: This is one of the toughest politicians I've certainly ever encountered in Egypt or elsewhere.

FADEL: Masoud says even members of the Brotherhood complained about his stubbornness while he served in parliament during former President Hosni Mubarak's era.

SCHOOL: He would get into the most raucous fights with representatives of the National Democratic Party, with ministers in Mubarak's government. This is a very tough customer.

FADEL: That's exactly why the Brotherhood chose him, Masoud says. He would stubbornly pursue the group's broader goals. Early in Morsi's presidency, he shocked the nation by forcing the retirement of Egypt's top two generals and stripping them of power. Then he successfully brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, winning him international accolades. Observers and critics say the U.S.-educated engineer may have gone too far with his latest move against the judges. But he and the Muslim Brotherhood will likely get away with it, says Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center.

SHADI HAMID: They believe that they have the overwhelming majority of Egyptians on their side with both Morsi's decree as well as the constitution. Once they have a referendum vote, they'll be able to claim a majority.

FADEL: But political activist Ibrahim al-Houdaiby says Morsi and the Brotherhood have betrayed the revolution. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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