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Sunday Bloody Sunday: Egypt on the Edge

A stranger who happened on the streets of Cairo this week might have thought Egypt was preparing for war.

Already on Tuesday, the Egyptian army had been deployed to sensitive areas of the city such as “Production City,” where most Egyptian and international networks are located. Residents stocked up on most everything. Supermarket shelves were emptied of non-perishable items, mineral water, rice, and flour, as people prepared for the possibility of remaining indoors for several days.

The non-partisan political movement called “Tamarod” – “rebel” in Arabic – has in recent months generated  unprecedented opposition in Egypt to the country’s president Mohamed Morsi and to his Muslim Brotherhood movement. A petition sponsored by Tamarod, calling for Morsi’s resignation followed by new elections, has garnered tens of millions of signatures.

On Sunday Tamarod leaders and supporters will march across Egypt to bring down what they call the government of the “Supreme Guide,” a reference to the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Residents of Cairo remember well the events of January, 2011. An eighteen day revolution saw electricity and water sporadically interrupted. Gangs of looters attacked those who walked in the streets. To many Egyptians there is no doubt that this weekend will see clashes between supporters and opponnts of the Brotherhood – mass rival protests are planned and expected – and will bring about similar bloodshed. Brotherhood activists, as well as those drawn from other Salafi groups, have already warned that they will do all they can to protect the “revolution,” which is to say Morsi’s electoral victory in the presidential campaign, even at the cost of violence

Wednesday saw something of a “rehearsal.” Widespread clashes between pro and anti-government demonstrators in the city of Mansoura spiraled out of control. One person died and over 200 were injured.

In recent days Morsi partisans engaged in concentrated attempts to influence public opinion in anticipation of Sunday’s demonstrations. Morsi himself gave a speech on Wednesday, broadcast live and presented in front of hundreds of senior government officials including Prime Minister Hesham Qandil and Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. The speech fell flat. It was criticized for lacking substance and many took it as showing that Morsi remains detached from at least half the nation. While admitting mistakes in some areas, he put the onus of responsibility for Egypt’s current situation on the opposition and on “saboteurs of the old regime.” The speech underscored a commonly heard criticism of the Egyptian president: he lacks charisma and, especially, vision.

Friday saw more demonstrations. Some were in support of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, others were protest strikes were held by the opposition.

This weekend hundreds of thousands of Egyptians will spill into the streets. They will call on Morsi to resign and for early presidential elections to be held. For many Egyptians, the revolution is far from over.

The Rebels

The Tamarod, or rebel, movement draws on young Egyptians. It is not linked to any party, though opposition groups have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and call on their supporters to join the demonstrations.

Two months ago Tamarod activists began collecting signatures on their petition to force Morsi’s resignation and bring about early elections. Support for them has been exceptional by Egyptian standards, and indeed byany standards. Their goal was to get to 15 million signatures against the 13.2 million who voted for Morsi presidential election. One of the leaders said this week that the group could reach 20 million.

Videos of the activists posted to social media sites reveal young faces, both male and female. The rebels have succeeded where opposition parties have failed. They were able to produce unprecedented public dissatisfaction against Morsi and the Brotherhood, and then to channel the anger into planned, publicized protests scheduled for a single day. One of the founders of the movement, Mohmmad Abdul Aziz, earlier this week described Sunday’s action plan. Ten different committees will operate a command center to coordinate the protests and media activity, which will include publicity on social sharing sites and outreach to local and foreign press.

Tamarod leaders this week also revealed their plans for a post-Morsi Egypt. They seek to install a government headed by an independent president for six months, as new presidential elections are organized and then held.

The Muslim Brotherhood

According to data released this week by the Center of International Development in Cairo, there were 9427 demonstrations across Egypt in the last twelve months. That adds up to roughly 26 demonstrations per day. The economy has declined and the standard of living for the average Egyptian has worsened. The Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity has declined in parallel. It’s promise of Islamist governance – the group’s slogan is “Islam is the answer” – is losing prestige.

Prof. Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben Gurion University and an expert on Egypt, says that Qandil and Morsi’s erred in focusing insufficiently on the economy, and specifically in not introducing a robust economic plan.

“[Their’s] was a patchwork program… rather than something comprehensive. The economic crisis in Egypt is not limited to just unemployment, or just the loss of tourism revenues, or just the loss of  he value of the local currency, or just the rising cost of living,” he said. “It was  all of them together. What was needed was an extensive rescue program and what they did is just the opposite – they presented a series of ad-hoc solutions, increasing the national deficit to 10-12% of the budget. The assistance of a Qatari billion or two cannot solve the huge deficit. Today it is difficult for them to obtain loans from international bodies down because of the downgraded credit rating. This is an economic tailspin.”

Morsi also failed to tackle Egypt’s out-of-control subsidies. As a result, in part because of the huge spending on subsidies for fuel and flour, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves fell from 36 billion dollars to 13 billion. A potential International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan has been sought to provide a crucial bailout, but the IMF wants Cairo to commit to cutting subsidies first. Morsi seems unable or unwilling to implement such reforms, which would damage his public support.

Morsi had very early appointed Qandil, who had served only a few months as Egypt’s water minister, as prime minister. It is unclear what drove the president to bet on the young water engineer as the man to stabilize the Egyptian economy. There were rumors this week that Morsi might dump Qandil and appoint in his place veteran economist Kamal Gnzuri, who has served as prime minister more than once, including during  the post-revolutionary era.

Forcusing on the specifics of Morsi’s decision-making, however, risks missing what is perhaps the overarching criticism being voiced domestically. There is a widespread sense that underneath many of his missteps is fundamental hubris. Morsi acts on his own and with the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn’t consult with the opposition parties and is not ready to give them a share of the government pie. His recent appointment of Adel al-Khayat to be the governor of Luxor is to the point: Khayat was a key member of Gamaa al-Islamiya, a terror group linked to the 1997 murder of 58 foreign tourists in Luxor. His appointment triggered outrage in the tourism-dependent city, and bitter protests quickly led to his resignation.

Morsi made critical and explicit promises during the election campaign to the effect that the Brotherhood would not attempt to hijack governmental institutions. Since his inauguration, however, he has installed hundreds of members drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi parties to key positions in Egypt’s government, school districts, and media institutions.

“He tried to institute a financial program without understandings or agreements with other parties outside the Islamic camp,” says Meital. “Even if you lead the dominant camp you can not operate without alliances with other groups. Everywhere today you can hear the argument is Morsi is not president of everyone, but [only] of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Army

A key question Sunday involves how the army, which is for many secularists in Egypt the “hope,” will react.

A bystander at the Shahid metro station in Cairo told me “there is no legitimate opposition to [them taking] power into their own hands” and installing a technocratic government that will focus on the economy and on creating a new constitution. Egypt’s current constitution, which was hurriedly passed by Egypt’s post-revolutionary Islamist-controlled assembly, has been widely criticized for emphasizing Islamic law.

For now military leaders seem to prefer to maintain ambiguity. The military establishment, led now by Minister of Defense al-Sissi, has in the past faced vociferous criticism for interfering in Egyptian politics. This week al-Sissi declard that the army does not want to intervene, but if there is no choice, the army would move to introduce a state of emergency. Analysts have differed regarding the calculations behind al-Sissi’s statements. Viewed from one angle, the defense minister may have been laying the groundwork for army action up to a coup. Viewed from another, he might have been trying to encourage dialogue between Egyptian factions – and to intimidate Islamists from violently clashing with anti-government demonstrators – so that the army wouldn’t have to.

There is no love lost between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, but military officials know that roughly half of all Egyptians still support the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties. Al-Sissi and his men also realize that even if Morsi falls after Sunday’s demonstrations, Egypt’s religious and secular camps will still have to cooperate to rebuild the Egyptian state – somehow.

[Photo: Essam Sharaf / Wiki Commons]