Tens of thousands of protestors in Egypt gather to oppose the Islamist president in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and in cities around the country Sunday. They have launched an all-out push to force Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi from office on the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. Fears of violence were high, with Morsi’s Islamist supporters vowing to defend him.
Waving Egyptian flags, crowds packed throughout Tahrir, which is the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Chants of “erhal!”, or “leave!” rang out across the crowd.
On the other side of Cairo, thousands of Islamists gathered in a show of support for Morsi outside the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque near the Ittihadiya presidential palace, which the opposition plans to march on in the evening. Proponents of Morsi wore homemade body armor and construction helmets and carried shields and clubs – which they said were precautions against possible violence.
There is a sentiment among opponents and supporters of Morsi that Sunday is a make-or-break day, a moment of increasing worries that the two camps will come to a head. Of course, each side insists it won’t be the one to incite violence. Already at least seven people – including one American – have been killed in the clashes throughout the past week, mainly in Nile Delta cities and the coastal city of Alexandria.
The demonstrations are the culmination of instability that have been building since Morsi’s June 30, 2012 inauguration as Egypt’s first “freely” elected leader. The past year has seen multiple political crises, polarization-induced bouts of bloody clashes worsened by a steadily worsening economy, with power outages, fuel shortages, rising prices, steady lawlessness and crime.
The president’s supporters and his Islamist allies, include the Muslim Brotherhood and even more hard-line groups. They say street demonstrations cannot be allowed to remove a leader who won a legitimate election, and they accuse Mubarak loyalists of being behind the campaign in a bid to return to power. They have contended for the past year that remnants of the old regime have been sabotaging Morsi from the beginning, squashing attempts to deal with the nation’s woes and bring reforms.
Hard-liners among them have also given the confrontation a sharply religious tone, denouncing Morsi’s opponents as “enemies of God” and infidels.
On the other side is an array of secular and liberal Egyptians, moderate Muslims, Coptic Christians, and what the opposition claim to be a broad sector of the general public that has turned against the Islamists. They say the Islamists have negated their election mandate by trying to consolidate and monopolize power, infusing government with their supporters, forcing through a constitution they largely wrote and giving religious extremists a free hand, all while failing to effectively govern the country.
The opposition believes that with the amount of sheer numbers in the street, it can pressure Morsi to step down – perhaps with the added weight of the powerful military if it signals the president should go. Suliman Mohammed, a manager of a seafood company who was protesting at Tahrir, where crowds neared 100,000 by early afternoon, predicted:
Today is the Brotherhood’s last day in power. I came here today because Morsi did not accomplish any of the (2011) revolution’s goals. I don’t need anything for myself, but the needs of the poor were not met.
Another Tahrir protester, 21-year-old Mohammed Abdel-Salam, said he came out because he wanted early presidential elections.
If he is so sure of his popularity why doesn’t he want to organize early elections? If he wins it, we will tell the opposition to shut up.
Underlining the potential for deadly violence, a flurry of police reports on Sunday spoke of the seizure of firearms, explosives and even artillery shells in various locations of the country, including Alexandria and the outskirts of Cairo. Sunday afternoon, two offices belonging to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, were attacked and ransacked Sunday by protesters in the city of Bani Suef, south of Cairo.
In an interview published Sunday in The Guardian, Morsi – who has (or had) three years left in his term – said he had no plans to meet the protesters’ demand for an early presidential election. Morsi told the British daily.
If we changed someone in office who (was elected) according to constitutional legitimacy — well, there will (be) people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down. There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy.
Traffic in Cairo’s normally clogged streets was light at midday as many residents chose to stay home for fear of violence or a wave of crime similar to the one that swept Egypt during the 18-day, anti-Mubarak uprising. Banks were closing early and most government departments were either closed for the day or were thinly staffed. Most schools and colleges are already closed for the summer holidays.
The opposition protests emerge from a petition campaign by a youth activist group known as Tamarod, Arabic for “Rebel.” For several months, the group has been collecting signatures on a call for Morsi to step down.
On Saturday the group announced it had more than 22 million signatures – which they claim is proof – that a broad sector of the public no longer supports Morsi in office.
It was not possible to verify the claim. If true, it would be significant, as nearly twice the around 13 million people who voted for Morsi in last year’s presidential run-off election, which he won with around 52% of the vote. Tamarod organizers said they discarded about 100,000 signed forms because they were duplicates.
Morsi’s supporters have questioned the authenticity and validity of the signatures, but they have yet to produce evidence of fraud.
Morsi has other problems, as well, 8 lawmakers from the country’s interim legislature announced their resignation Saturday to protest Morsi’s policies. The 270-seat chamber was just elected early last year by less than 10 percent of Egypt’s eligible voters, and is dominated by Islamists.
A legal adviser to Morsi,too, announced his resignation late Saturday in protest of what he said was Morsi’s insult of Egypt’s judges in his latest speech on Wednesday.
A week ago, with the public sentiment and anxiety growing over the upcoming confrontation, Defense Minister General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, last week gave the president and his opponents a week to reach a compromise. He warned that the military would intervene to prevent the nation from entering a “dark tunnel.”
Army troops backed by armored vehicles were deployed Sunday in some of Cairo’s suburbs, with some soldiers dressed in combat gear stooding at traffic lights and major intersections. Army helicopters flew over Cairo on several occasions on Sunday, which added to the day’s sense of foreboding.
Morsi had called for national reconciliation talks in a Wednesday speech but offered no specifics. Opposition leaders dismissed the call as pandering.
Asked by The Guardian whether he was confident that the army would not intervene if the country becomes ungovernable, Morsi claimed he was “Very” confident. Yet, he did not know of el-Sissi’s comments made the prior week.