New Internationalist

Egypt: what happened to democracy, freedom, stability?

2013-07-02-egypt-tahrir-590.jpg [Related Image]
Anti-Morsi protest in downtown Cairo Gigi Ibrahim under a Creative Commons Licence

The day before Mohamed Morsi was sworn into power as Egypt’s first civilian President in 2012, he came to a packed Tahrir Square and opened his jacket to show the jubilant crowd that he was wearing no body armour. A ‘man of the people’, he promised them ‘a new life of absolute freedom, a genuine democracy, and stability’.

His one-year anniversary as president, 30 June, was a date that many had marked in their calendars, but not as one of celebration, with talk of a ‘second revolution’ to overthrow the ‘illegitimate’ president. Egyptians began stocking up on food and fuel, wary of the possibility of an even more turbulent phase in the coming weeks, perhaps months.  

As it happened, the date itself drew an unprecedented number of Egyptians into the streets. Numbers in a group can be difficult to judge, but when ‘millions’ seems a safe estimate, you know you are witnessing something historic.

For now, the main opposition groups, themselves an amalgamation of uneasy alliances, have managed to rally around the ‘Tamarod’ (Rebel) campaign’s call for mass protests.

Angry at his mishandling of the economy; his November declaration; and his inability to establish security, they are asking for Morsi to step down and for early elections to be called. In two months they managed to gather 22 million signatories (although this figure is impossible to verify) – 9 million more than voted for Morsi in last year’s elections.  

But statements from the Tamarod campaign have caused confusion as to the level of support it actually has. The movement’s willingness to apply the maxim ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to its full potential has alienated many Egyptians who don’t suffer from such short-term memory loss.

While walls still bear graffiti with sentiments such as ‘Fuck SCAF’ (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) and ‘Down with the military rule’, the Tamarod campaign has been fawning over the military and, incredibly, the much-hated Interior Ministry.

Seas of red cards have been waved around in places like Tahrir. One side reads ‘Red card for Mohamed Morsi. Leave’; the other proclaims: ‘The army, the people and the Interior Ministry are one hand.’ This is a sentiment that leaves many of my Egyptian friends exasperated.

Nevertheless, that so many people are willing to overlook the historically disastrous and often deadly relationship between the army and the Interior Ministry speaks volumes as to how much ire Morsi has managed to inspire in his first year of premiership. ‘As long as Morsi leaves, I am happy. He must leave, for Egypt[‘s sake], that is the most important thing right now,’ says Mohamed Sharif, a protester in Tahrir Square.

Meanwhile, the pro-Morsi, pro-Muslim brotherhood camp is incensed at the idea that early elections could ever be called for. Although many that once voted for him have now become part of the opposition, the majority of his support base see it that Morsi won a fair election and is thus guaranteed four years in office. If the opposition forces manage to annul this constitutionally bound law, then it sets a troubling precedent that may portend a never-ending cycle of constant calls of illegitimacy for succeeding presidents – a point made by Morsi himself.

Were Morsi to stand down and call for early elections, however unlikely that currently is, then a backlash would be almost certain. A very sizeable group, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, would feel aggrieved. Having spent the vast majority of their existence in persecution, they would see this as yet another example of unjust discrimination.

Many of the anti-Morsi groups are wary of calling for military intervention, a scenario that the army has not ruled out. Still others would be happy to see it happen, if only because it seems the only plausible way that Morsi would heed the calls of early elections.

At the time of writing, at least 10 people have been killed and over 500 injured since 30 June. The deaths occurred within Cairo and south of Cairo in the cities of Beni Suef and Assiut, but the overall level of violence, particularly when the numbers are borne in mind, are much smaller than many had anticipated.   

For now, the unexpectedly high turnout for the 30 June protests has inspired the Tamarod campaign to send President Morsi an ultimatum: resign by Tuesday, or face a mass campaign of civil disobedience.

Late on Sunday evening the Presidential spokesperson asserted that the only way out of the current political impasse would be dialogue. Inviting all the major opposition parties, he said that ‘dialogue is the only way to reach a consensus’, adding: ‘The presidency aims to reach serious national reconciliation to pull the country out of its current state of polarisation.’ The problem with this route is that calls for national dialogue have been rejected again and again and again in the past.  

Then, on 1 July, the head of Egypt’s armed forces, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, took everyone by surprise and issued his own 48-hour ultimatum. Choosing his words carefully (he never said Morsi had to go), he said that the ‘unprecedented turnout’ signalled that the parties must come together to ‘meet the people’s demands’ or face a military-imposed roadmap for the country’s political future.

Morsi was quick to rebuff this statement and labelled it an effective coup d’état that would never succeed without the backing of the Americans. However, as time passes, it seems that Morsi’s future has crossed a Rubicon and those out protesting know it.  

Five ministers have now resigned following the protests, including the Foreign Minister. Pro and anti-Morsi groups have met this breaking news with anger and delight respectively so now, as each side becomes more desperate, more clashes seem likely. It seems beyond doubt that the next few weeks will be momentous for Egypt’s future.

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