“Egypt’s political crisis spiraled deeper into bitterness and recrimination Friday as thousands of Islamist backers of the president vowed vengeance at a funeral for two men killed in bloody clashes earlier this week and large crowds of the president’s opponents marched on his palace to increase pressure after he rejected their demands,” AP reports.
Opposition leaders rejected President Mohamed Morsi’s offer of a national dialogue to resolve a conflict that has pitted the largely secular and liberal forces against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.
“The substance of the president’s speech was arrogance towards the demands of the people, defending mistakes instead of correcting them, justifying the violence of his group and an invitation to a fake dialogue” tweeted Amr Hamzawi, an opposition figure.
But Morsi’s reported readiness to postpone the referendum, would be a “positive step,” ex-Hamzawy says.
The National Salvation Front refused to talk unless a decree granting Morsi ‘dictatorial’ powers was first revoked and the December 15 referendum on a controversial draft constitution cancelled.
“President Morsi had a choice to either bring the country together or tear it apart. Today it seems clear that he has made his decision and civil war seems looming,” said Nadine Sherif of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Morsi and the Islamists have squared off against a broad liberal and secular opposition over the framework of the country’s new constitution and the balance of power nearly two years after a popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak from power, ending three decades of his autocratic rule. Politicians and analysts say a near constant stream of protest and toxic rhetoric from both sides is cementing a dangerous ideological divide that is likely to outlive the current crisis.
“We maintain our demands to revoke the decree and cancel the constitution,” opposition activist George Ishak said. “Morsi promised a constitution that would have national consensus. This constitution doesn’t and now it is bloodied.”
The hostilities have threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum with concerns about political coercion, The New York Times reports:
The feasibility of holding the vote also appears uncertain amid attacks on Brotherhood offices around the country and open street fighting in the shadow of the presidential palace.
Though Mr. Morsi spoke of opening a door for dialogue and compromise, leaders of the opposition and the thousands of protesters surrounding his palace dismissed his conspiratorial saber rattling as an echo of Mr. Mubarak. And his tone, after violence many here view as a national tragedy, seemed only to widen the gulf between his Islamist supporters and their secular opponents over his efforts to push through the referendum on an Islamist-backed charter approved over the objections of other factions and the Coptic Christian church.
“I never thought I would say this, but even Mubarak was more savvy when he spoke in a time of crisis,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Observers fear that the crisis may degenerate into a violent civil conflict.
“Things will get out of control unless the president tries to break this vicious cycle and reaches out for the other camp and tries to reach a compromise…. things can slip away very easily,” said Mazen Hassan, a political science lecturer at Cairo University.”
Both sides of the conflict have distinct strategic choices to makes, says one analyst.
“If Morsi makes the argument that in order to not only tackle Egypt’s ‘deep state,’ but also to uphold Egypt’s societal unity he needs to take drastic steps, he can still turn this crisis into an opportunity,” says Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution:
A new decree that rescinds his supra-legal power, cancels the referendum, and builds a revolutionary legislative council made up of the key political forces of Egypt is still an option. It is no more extraordinary than the decree that he issued giving himself freedom from judicial oversight — and would be far better received.
“The opposition also has a choice,” he suggests:
They need not accept the argument of the MB that the president should simply be trusted not to abuse his power: the MB would never advocate such an approach were it Shafiq, Hamdeen Sabahi, Aboul Futouh, or Amr Moussa in power. But it would not go amiss for the opposition to reaffirm that their goal is not to get Morsi out of his job: just for him to do his job. Moreover, they need to do theirs, which is to hold the government to account effectively and constructively.
“This is a pivotal moment in the Egyptian transition and in the history of Egypt after this revolution,” says the Atlantic Council’s Michele Dunne.
“What we’re seeing now is extreme polarization between Islamists and non-Islamist political forces and also between some of the parts of the government that contain people who were still there during the Mubarak regime, for example, the judiciary,” says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Morsi’s Islamist supporters are “resorting to religious rhetoric to galvanise support for the Egyptian president,” Borzou Daragahi reports from Cairo:
Pro-government clergy took over the pulpit at al Azhar mosque, the country’s premier house of worship, and urged thousands of supporters of Mr Morsi to fight not for a president or a new constitution but for their religion. “Now is the battle for Islam,” a Morsi supporter told thousands gathered at the mosque for the funeral for at least two members of the Muslim Brotherhood killed during street clashes with secular rivals this week. “Now is the time to fight for Islam.”
“They’re attacking Islam and they’re getting support from Europe and other foreign countries,” said a Brotherhood supporter.
But devout Muslims are also evident in opposition ranks, challenging the Islamists’ attempt to appropriate religious legitimacy for its authoritarian ideology and practice.
A cleric from Cairo’s prestigious Islamic institution Al-Azhar railed against Morsi through a megaphone, saying: “We will die here in the square, from illness or starvation, for the sake of our martyrs.”
Some liberals reportedly hoped or expected that the military would intervene to counter the Brotherhood’s power-grab, but they are likely to be disappointed.
According to a senior administration official in Washington, Morsi’s relationship with the military seems good. “We have not seen any cracks,” said the official.
The Islamist-drafted constitution explicitly protects the military’s considerable economic interests and provides for weak parliamentary oversight of the armed forces.
“I think the military could not have asked for a better outcome” in a draft charter, said Tom Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who focuses on comparative and international law. “It is hard to imagine a civilian-drafted document giving them any more autonomy.”
Viewed through the lens of the draft constitution that codifies such extraordinary powers to the military, said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian army at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Egypt’s political crisis appears to be a battle over the leftover crumbs, one in which Morsi will continue to have the upper hand.
“The real struggle for power in Egypt has to do with the military,” he said. “And as long as the Muslim Brotherhood is protecting that in exchange for the military defending it, you will get no progress. And Egypt will continue to be a military state.”