CAIRO – The freshly scrawled graffiti depicting Mohammed Morsi as a pharaonic Saddam Hussein tells the tale of high hopes dashed with record speed: Barely six months after becoming Egypt's first democratically elected president, the Islamist is widely accused of abandoning pledges of inclusive government for doctrinaire and authoritarian ways.
Some say it should come as no surprise: heavy-handed rule has a history in Egypt and in much of the region – as do unfulfilled promises of reform.
In the past three weeks alone, Morsi has given himself near-absolute powers; placed himself above any oversight; allowed or looked the other way when his supporters set upon peaceful protesters outside his palace or besieged the nation's highest court to stop judges from issuing an unfavorable ruling; and, ominously, indicated he was spying on his foes.
Borrowing a page from his predecessors' governance manual, Morsi justified his actions by speaking, albeit cryptically, of a "conspiracy" aimed at destroying state institutions and derailing the transition to democracy. He offered no evidence to back his allegation, saying only that he would do everything he can to protect the nation.
"I see what you don't see," he told state television a week after he touched off a political crisis Nov. 22 by issuing decrees that gave him sweeping powers.
The actions of the 61-year-old, U.S.-trained engineer have a lot to do with a political system that in six decades of de facto military rule has grown accustomed to having one man with all the power concentrated in his hands. Some in Egypt argue that one-man rule is an enduring legacy of pharaonic times when the leader was treated as a god.
In Morsi's case, critics and analysts believe his actions are dictated by the powerful group he hails from, the Muslim Brotherhood, although they only have anecdotal evidence to support that contention.
"In the final analysis, he is a dictator," said analyst and former lawmaker Emad Gad. "But he is only carrying out the will of the Brotherhood after he promised to be a president for all Egyptians."
Gad and others were surprised that Morsi made the power grab so quickly.
But Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, dismissed charges that Morsi embraced an autocratic style of governance, emphasizing the president's popular election.
"Those who claim he is a pharaoh or a dictator need to produce proof to back their argument or be quiet," he said.
The Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest Islamist group, had been outlawed for nearly 60 years until it emerged as the country's most powerful political force following Mubarak's ouster in last year's uprising. Critics accuse the group of monopolizing power as a prelude to its longtime dream of turning Egypt into an Islamic state.
The military officers who seized power in 1952, ending three decades of a Western-style democracy under a monarch and British occupation, promised to return to the barracks after six months. Instead, they founded decades of military rule with Gamal Abdel-Nasser emerging as the country's strongman two years later after a power struggle with an older officer.
Anwar Sadat, who succeeded him in 1970, jailed his rivals a year later to consolidate his grip on power, marketing his move a "corrective revolution."
Mubarak began his 29-year rule with a series of goodwill gestures toward the opposition, ordering the release of hundreds of Sadat's critics, promising a gradual move toward democracy and pledging to step down after two terms in office. Before his ouster, his son, Gamal, was poised to succeed him.
Such transformations are found elsewhere in the region. Syria's Bashar Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000 amid high hopes that the young leader would relax the police state that was established in nearly 30 years of iron-fisted rule.
Assad did not disappoint, but the so-called "Damascus Spring" he tolerated lasted less than a year before authorities began to arrest dissidents and jail them again. Assad is now fighting for his survival in a civil war that has killed at least 40,000 Syrians since March 2011.
Even the late Moammar Gadhafi brought hopes for a better life and development to Libyans when he seized power in a 1969 coup that toppled the monarchy. He rode a wave of popular support for several years before he began ruling the North African nation as a fiefdom, with his family dividing up its vast oil wealth.
So much hope had been placed on Morsi's shoulders during his campaign and the early days of his presidency that liberals found it hard to accept his latest grab for power. Many of them voted for him in June not so much out of conviction as out of a desire to see the defeat of Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi narrowly beat him, winning only 51 percent of the vote.
Morsi had fed these expectations by promising inclusion and equality, suggesting at one point that he might appoint a Christian as vice president. In the end, he gave the job to a Muslim judge, and the one Christian among his four assistants has quit in protest of his handling of the political crisis.
In fact, of the 17 people he named to a presidential advisory council, seven quit over the same issue. Most of those who remain on the panel are Islamists.
All those who quit, in addition to Vice President Mahmoud Mekki, said they were not consulted about the president's Nov. 22 decrees. Morsi has vowed never to infringe on the freedom of the press, but since coming to office, Egypt has seen a private TV station closed and several newspaper journalists and bloggers hauled before the courts. Brotherhood members or sympathizers have been named editors of most of the nation's 50-plus state publications, including its flagship dailies. Hundreds of Islamists are besieging a media complex on the western outskirts of Cairo to protest what they see as a hostile editorial line of the powerful, privately owned TV networks.
The spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, offered a rare glimpse of the vast influence he wields in Egypt when he criticized prosecutors for releasing most of the dozens of protesters who were arrested last week in clashes with Morsi supporters near the presidential palace. The prosecutors cited a lack of evidence in the release, but they still drew the ire of Badie, who has no official capacity in Morsi's administration.
Also Sunday, the man thought to be the Brotherhood's most powerful member, Khairat el-Shater, indicated in statements on TV that he had voice recordings of individuals allegedly plotting to destabilize Morsi's rule. El-Shater did not identify the individuals and did not say how or why he had access to the recordings. Like Badie, he has no official role in government.
Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters, however, must contend with a very different Egypt than his predecessors — one in which nearly every adult has a strong opinion on topics such as political leaders, the economy and how to reform the police force.
"He has made a huge mistake when he did not accurately read the Egyptian population in terms of whether or not they will accept what is essentially a return to authoritarian rule," said Tarek Radwan, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center in Washington. "He saw himself as having 'revolutionary legitimacy,' which allows him to take the drastic steps he did. He does not have that mandate."
Evidence of the new Egypt has been on display since the uprising that toppled Mubarak began on Jan. 25, 2011, with wave after wave of demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins that at times made the country look almost ungovernable.
In the past three weeks, tens of thousands of Morsi opponents have rallied in Cairo and elsewhere against the decrees and a draft constitution that they see to be favoring Islamists, restricting civil liberties and giving clerics a say over legislation.
And then there is all the graffiti – the unflattering caricatures and slogans against Morsi and the Brotherhood that the protesters have spray-painted on the walls outside the presidential palace.