“Thousands of Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi gathered in Cairo on Friday afternoon as Egypt’s highest religious authority warned of the possibility of ‘civil war’ after days of escalating tensions and episodes of deadly violence,” The New York Times’ Kareem Fahim and Ben Hubbard report:
The warning from the religious authority, Al Azhar, the seat of Sunni scholarship in Egypt, came on the eve of mass protests organized by a coalition of Mr. Morsi’s opponents, calling on the president to step down. Mr. Morsi’s supporters have called for counterprotests, leading to fears of violent clashes between the two camps.
“One year is enough!” Mr. Morsi said repeatedly in a televised speech on Wednesday night, threatening to purge holdovers from the clique of former President Hosni Mubarak. He also offered no major concessions to those calling for his ouster, dismissing them as antidemocratic.
“This is the message he is sending, a threat pretty much that his tolerance and patience for so-called subversive acts and extra-constitutional activities will no longer stand,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “If you would rather work outside the system, we are going to come after you.”
The June 30 protests will mark a year in which the Muslim Brotherhood has consolidated its hold on state institutions but Morsi has failed to deliver, says a leading analyst.
“From day three, day four in his government, he has done nothing to improve the situation, only make it worse,” said publisher Hisham Kassem. “He had a chance for things to pick up, for consensual politics. Instead, he went completely the other way.”
Kassem says Egyptians voted for him to address such issues as poverty and social injustice. Instead, he contends, they got a president trying to revive an Islamist state. The political divide between Islamists and secular-minded Egyptians is not the biggest challenge facing Morsi.
“It’s an economic crisis that will push Morsi out of power. It’s coming up and it has nothing to do with the peaceful demonstrations on the 30,” he told VOA. “He should look out for the bread shortage that is going to happen soon, or a shortage in power.”
A poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research indicated that Morsi’s approval rating is at 32% compared to 78% after his first hundred days in office, the Project on Middle East Democracy notes. A recent survey by Zogby Research Services showed that 74% of voters lack confidence in the Brotherhood, and 75-78% have little faith in the opposition parties, which have failed to offer a compelling alternative vision.
“It’s not enough to state that you are against Mohamed Morsi,” political scientist Amr Hamzawy tells The New Yorker’s Leslie T. Chang. “Citizens do not like to hear the same message every day, especially the negative message that their leaders are not doing well.” He blames a stunted political culture, bred of long years of autocracy.
“One of the duties of a political party is to articulate and spread a political program. But Egyptian political parties like to stick to generalities, to avoid the hassle and the damage of taking a stand on issues.”
Yet the Brotherhood had the advantage of “more than eight decades of political experience behind it,” says Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution:
The military dictatorship had atomized the feeble liberals, leaving them unprepared for the contest over the new order. Like liberals elsewhere in hard, illiberal places, they were sure they embodied their country’s spirit.
They were trounced by the Brotherhood and the hardline Salafis in the first parliamentary elections; the judiciary, a bastion of the old order, stepped in and dissolved the parliament. The democrats didn’t own up to the truth: While Egypt has a sophisticated intellectual elite, a modernist camp, and Europe isn’t too far away, it is a poor country with a high illiteracy rate and a population that the Mubarak dictatorship had been content to leave to darkness and the rule of superstition.
“The country has become ungovernable: the contempt shown Mursi by his secular detractors is as uncompromising as the assertions by so many Brotherhood preachers that it is impermissible — really, a religious sin — to advocate his ouster from power,” Ajami contends.
“The protests are a desperate throw of the dice. They offer no deliverance: Mursi will not cede power.
Hamzawy joined several other opposition leaders in signing a statement released yesterday asserting that they would not seek or accept the return of Mubarak-era officials as an alternative to Morsi’s Brotherhood regime.
“The revolution will not tolerate any opportunists who aim for personal gain,” the statement read, adding “We will not allow for the return of Mubarak [officials] or the military.”
“The struggle did not stop because we continue to face the same regime, even if it has a military or a religious facade,” said the statement, whose signatories included the April 6 Youth Movement, the Strong Egypt Party led by former Brotherhood official Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, writer Alaa El-Aswany, political scientist Rabab El-Mahdi, and former presidential contender Khaled Ali.
Some observers believe the protest organizers are calculating that widespread violence on June 30 will force the military to intervene, but that’s unlikely, says Eric Trager, an Egypt specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They want to use violence as a way to get the military involved,” he says, but the armed forces would be reluctant to do so.
“They don’t want to come back. They have no interest in [ruling Egypt]. They’re not good at it,” Trager says. “They like an arrangement where they can have influence behind the scenes. But they have a responsibility when things get out of hand. The question is, will things get out of hand?”
“The increasingly nasty war of words between Egypt’s camps has turned politics into what Khalil Anani, an analyst, describes as a zero-sum game,” The Economist notes:
The Brotherhood and its allies believe they are facing a conspiracy to reinstate the dictatorship that long oppressed them. Their enemies feel that if they do not stop the Islamists now, Egypt will lose any chance of being an open, modern, pluralist society. Non-Islamists accuse the Brothers of attempting a creeping takeover of state institutions, as well as of rank incompetence.
“It’s not a question of whether they are Muslim Brothers or liberals,” wrote Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent opposition figure. “They are simply not qualified to govern.”
From protest to politics?
Instead of holding protests, the Tamarod petitioners and broader opposition should reengage Egyptians in the political process and press the regime for concessions, says a prominent observer.
“There is no legal or constitutional mechanism through which Morsi, who was elected with 51.7 percent of the vote just a year ago, can be ousted,” Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid writes for The Atlantic. “Realistically, there is only one way he falls – if mass violence and a total collapse of public order provoke the military to step in. In this sense, for Tamarod to ‘succeed,’ Egypt must fail.”
The opposition should press for “major concessions” from Morsi, including “guaranteeing a fair electoral law with robust international monitoring, revising the most controversial articles of the constitution, and the formation of a caretaker national unity government until parliamentary elections are held later this year.”
The battle lines are now drawn between “an enraged opposition” and “an utterly incapable, confrontational ruling party that now counts some of Egypt’s most violent political elements as its core supporters,” says the Washington Institute analyst Trager.
“Rising food prices, hours-long fuel lines, and multiple-times-daily electricity cuts — all worsening amidst a typically scorching Egyptian summer — have set many Egyptians on edge, with clashes between Brotherhood and anti-Brotherhood activists now a common feature of Egyptian political life,” he said.
“Whatever happens on [Sunday], it can’t end well.”
POMED is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.