CAIRO -- President Mohamed 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, Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood cast aside two years of cautious pragmatism in an effort to seize full control of Egypt's political transition. Mr. 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 in a stated drive to go after those who abused power or reaped profits under the old government. And his Islamist allies in the constitutional assembly rammed through a charter over the objections of their secular opposition and the Coptic Christian Church.
On Saturday, Mr. Morsi pushed forward with plans for the new constitution, setting a national referendum on it for Dec. 15.
"I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt," he said in a nationally televised speech, calling for a "national dialogue."
But his recent tone and actions reminded critics of the autocratic ways of his predecessor, and have aroused a new debate here about his commitment to democracy and pluralism at a time when he and his Islamist allies dominate political life.
Mr. Morsi's advisers call the tactics a regrettable but necessary response to genuine threats to the political transition from what they call the deep state -- 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 Mr. Morsi's new tone that reminds them of talk of the "hidden hands" and foreign plots that Mr. 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," Mr. Morsi declared in an interview with state television on Thursday night, referring repeatedly to secret information about a "conspiracy" and "real and imminent threats" that he would not disclose. "If anybody tries to derail the transition, I will not allow them."
In a speech to supporters that unveiled his new push to seize control of the transition's end, Mr. Morsi was even more zealous. "To the corrupters who hide under respectable cover, I say, 'Never imagine that I can't see you,' " he declared. "I'm on the lookout for them and will never let them go."
The Muslim Brotherhood mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters to rally on his behalf on Saturday at Cairo University. They chanted for legal action against the Mubarak-appointed judge who led the call for a judicial strike to protest Mr. Morsi's attempts to limit judicial power over the transition, and against the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor Mr. Morsi sought to remove.
The demonstrators denounced both men as remnants of the old government in disguise.
Across town, several thousand of Mr. Morsi's opponents rallied in Tahrir Square to oppose the draft constitution and what they describe as Mr. Morsi's power grab. In response to the referendum announcement, Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former United Nations diplomat, sent a Twitter message that the draft constitution "undermines basic freedoms and violates universal values."
"The struggle will continue," he added.
The Brotherhood has adopted a tone of "open threats and intimidation," said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Liberal 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.
Mr. Morsi's supporters, though, 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 in particular to the Mubarak-appointed judges of Egypt's top courts. The courts have already 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. The court "spearheads a scheme for the demolition of the Egyptian state," an Alexandria judge linked to the Brotherhood declared in the Brotherhood's newspaper and on its Web site.
In an interview, Bakinam El-Sharkawy, a Morsi political adviser, called it a virtual counterrevolution. "All the new democratic institutions that have been built have been under attack all the time, and ironically the old institutions continue," she said, arguing that some judges "still intellectually belong to the old way of thinking and to the old ideas, and maybe the revolution is not very appealing to them."
The Morsi team marveled to see figures from the old government re-emerge in the secular or "revolutionary" political groups, "reintegrated with almost no resistance," she said. Most gallingly, they watched many secular liberal or leftist leaders gravitate to Mr. Morsi's rival in the June presidential runoff, Ahmed Shafik, who was Mr. Mubarak's last prime minister and campaigned as a new strongman who could keep back the Islamists.
It was a very clear indication, Ms. Sharkawy said, that Egyptian politics was no longer about "a process of 'democratic forces against despotic forces,' or 'revolutionary against antirevolutionary -- it is purely partisan political conflict."
"In this very important moment you need the public prosecutor to neutralize the antirevolutionary forces, the corrupted forces," she argued, justifying Mr. Morsi's move to replace the Mubarak-appointed prosecutor as crucial to safeguarding the political process. "You can't just have a partial measure and wait to be attacked by everyone. You need to put down the road map and secure it."
Some more detached observers say Mr. 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, an Egyptian political scientist who teaches at Barnard College in New York. Some members of the former governing elite, she said, are trying to fire up opposition among more sincere "revolutionaries" who distrust the Islamists and politicians who see opportunity if the Islamists fail.
Still, Ms. Ghobashy faulted Mr. Morsi for not explaining himself to the public. In a moment of crisis, she said, he 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,' " she said, noting that Mr. Morsi had issued his decree temporarily exempting himself from judicial review without sending his spokesman to explain it to the public.
"I felt all over again like a nobody, the way Mubarak made 80 million Egyptians feel," she said. "It is profoundly insulting."
Moataz Abdel Fattah, a political scientist at Cairo University and a delegate in the constitutional assembly, said that even after all the liberals and Christians had walked out of the assembly, the Islamists had remained firmly "pro-democracy," honoring commitments to the former delegates and worrying about democratic accountability.
But they also assumed they would win fair elections, he said, "so the depth of the commitment to democracy remains to be seen."
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.