Egypt’s Fateful Day
Egypt is imploding. The old revolutionary groups are at each other’s throats. The unity of purpose displayed during the incredible eighteen revolutionary days in early 2011 is not only long gone, but it has been replaced with mistrust, acrimony, and hostility.
Almost immediately after their success in ousting the despised dictator Hosni Mubarak, the groups that carried the revolution on their shoulders parted ways on ideological grounds. At one end of the political spectrum are the Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement and its political affiliate, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Since the revolution these groups have grown to more than 30 political parties ranging from the conservative Salafist parties such as Al-Noor, Al-Watan, Al-Raya, and the Salafist Front, to Jihadi turned political groups such as the Building and Growth Party, the political arm of the Islamic Group (IG), to moderate ones such as Al-Wasat (Center) and Al-Nahdha (Renaissance) parties.
On the other end are the secular and liberal parties which include the traditional Al-Wafd Party, as well as dozens of others such Al-Dustoor (Constitution) led by former IAEA head, Dr. Muhammad ElBaradei, the Congress Party led by former Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Mousa, the Popular Current led by former presidential candidate Hamdein Sabbahi, and Free Egyptians Party founded by billionaire and Egyptian Copt, Naguib Sawiris.
But ever since the ouster of Mubarak, the Egyptian political scene has been messy and confusing. The youth groups that led the initial uprising in late January 2011 have since been frustrated and marginalized by the political wrangling that engulfed the country. Meanwhile, the MB and their Islamist allies were able to dominate it by not only winning the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 but also by controlling the Constitutional Constituent Assembly that oversaw the writing of the new constitution, which was eventually approved by the Egyptian people earlier this year with 64 percent of the vote.
When the MB candidate Dr. Muhammad Morsi won the presidency a year ago, there was hope among the revolutionary partners that a new era based on genuine partnership and cooperation would ensue, particularly when Morsi was able to sideline the military’s control over Egyptian political life within a few weeks of being sworn in. Yet, by the end of the year, many opposition and youth groups, which have been wary or resentful of MB rule, became even more open in their antagonism and hostility.
With some merit, the opposition charges that the president and the MB have not fulfilled their promises of restoring security, instituting social justice, and sharing power. They also accuse Morsi of inexperience, if not outright incompetence, which they argue, exposed the country to national security risks. For instance, on several occasions the president made decisions and issued decrees, most notably the fateful constitutional decree last November- only to cancel them within few weeks, days, or even hours. The opposition also accuses Morsi of appointing MB officials or Islamists to the most senior positions in government without any regard to qualifications or power sharing.
Recently, he appointed a former leader of IG as governor in Luxor, an important tourist destination. During the 1980s, the IG embarked on a violent campaign that killed dozens of tourists before repudiating violence in the 1990s. Although well-intentioned, this insensitivity was not lost on the people of Luxor who never overcame their resentment of the group’s early violent campaign. In early June, Morsi abruptly cut off Egypt’s relations with Syria, citing the regime’s brutality towards its people. His critics charge that such a move was ill-advised since it would marginalize Egypt’s role in any future settlement at a time of fever-pitch sectarian conflict in the region. Last fall, Morsi proposed a regional-based engagement towards a resolution in Syria that would have involved such powers as Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. This idea is now dead. As for the crisis with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam that would substantially cut Egypt’s share of the Nile, the opposition accuses the president of badly mishandling the issue, seriously threatening Egypt’s national and economic security in the process.
On the other hand, Morsi and the MB point to their repeated attempts to engage the political opposition only to be rebuffed time and again. He called all the opposition leaders, especially within the National Salvation Front (NSF) that includes most of the secular opposition, to as many as ten separate meetings with minimal success. As for the appointments, Morsi’s political advisor Bakinam El-Sharqawi stated recently that whenever the president asked the secular groups for candidates for the most senior positions in government including ministers and governors, they refused to engage or send any nominees while the Islamic parties led by the FJP readily submitted their lists.
But what most political groups overlook are the terrible conditions the country has faced since the fall of the Mubarak regime. The deterioration in security and the lack of productivity have affected all aspects of economic life. Investments have almost stopped and tourism (a major source of foreign currency) has been seriously curtailed. Inflation and unemployment have soared. Services have deteriorated while electricity is erratic. Gasoline is scarce and rationed. Poverty has increased from 40 to more than 50
percent. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights reported that during 2012 there were 581 local protests, 558 demonstrations, 514 labor strikes, 500 sit-ins, and 561 highway robberies. Such protests and strikes have only increased in 2013 as the International Development Center in Cairo reported that in the month of May alone there were 55 different forms of protests including those surrounding several ministries and government agencies that disrupted government services as well as the refusal of many to pay taxes and electricity bills.
Throughout these tumultuous events, the fulool or remnants of the Mubarak regime were lying low during the first year of the transitional military rule. But by mid-2012 they had regrouped as they coalesced around presidential candidate Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who lost in the second round by a mere 2 percent. By year’s end the fulool groups have become part and parcel of the secular opposition groups and a major factor of the instability that has overwhelmed the country. Perhaps the most serious mistake committed by the revolutionary groups was to underestimate the dangers of the fulool lurking behind the scenes. Many of these groups loyal to the former regime are still largely in control of the security apparatus, most of the private media, the judiciary, as well as major industries and influential economic institutions. In short, they still had substantial power that could undermine any genuine efforts to carry out the objectives of the revolution.
In the ideological battle that ensued between the former revolutionary partners, the fulool were able to reinvent themselves and become major players on the side of the secular groups against the MB and the Islamists. Recently, ElBaradei welcomed all elements of Mubarak’s banned National Democratic Party to join his party and the opposition, while Sabbahi declared that the battle with the fulool now is secondary as the primary conflict today is with the MB and its Islamist allies.
Furthermore, throughout the first year of Morsi’s rule, the attacks by the opposition media on the MB rule has not only been ceaseless but in many cases vulgar. Meanwhile, the judiciary, led by the Mubarak-era Supreme Constitutional Court, reversed most attempts to build the country’s democratic institutions. They ruled as unconstitutional the elections of the parliament and subsequently dissolved the body on technical grounds. They ruled against the new election laws that would have paved the way for new parliamentary elections. They ruled against the appointment of the General Prosecutor and demanded the return of the corrupt Mubarak appointee who was dismissed by Morsi last November. The courts are even now looking into a lawsuit by Shafiq challenging the election and legitimacy of Morsi, a year after becoming a president. Adding insult to injury, the judiciary has either declared innocent or overturned the convictions of all senior officials of the Mubarak regime including Mubarak and his sons. Even low level security officials with overwhelming evidence against them of killing and torturing protesters have been released prompting Zakaria Abdul-Aziz, an independent and respected former judge who stood against Mubarak for many years, to say that 90 percent of Egypt’s judges are acting to overturn the gains of the revolution.
By this April, the country was at an impasse. The ruling party continued to demonstrate its unwillingness to share power or be magnanimous to its rivals for the sake of national unity and building consensus. Its main plan has been centered on winning the next parliamentary elections to consolidate its control and enable it to form the next government. Its central economic program is to finalize the IMF loan in order to secure more loans and capital from wealthy countries for investments and plugging the budget hole. It did not take seriously the opposition groups arguing that they were elitist and lacked popular depth and support.
On the other hand, the fractious opposition seemed not only divided but also devoid of real alternatives. What united them was their utter hatred and enmity towards the Islamists in general and the MB in particular. Some leaders such as ElBaradei and Mousa called on foreign powers, including the US, to take sides in the internal struggle and condemn the Morsi government. Others such as Sabbahi and Shafiq openly called on the military to overthrow the elected president and take over. Consequently, the public was further alienated and disgusted as its economic livelihood was squeezed and the country’s infrastructure was crumbling. Meanwhile, the head of the military appointed by Morsi last August, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, publicly stated that the military would no longer be engaged in politics and dismissed all calls to topple Morsi. After more than twenty-five failed attempts in less than six months to mobilize the public against the MB, the opposition proved to be weak, divided, and in disarray.
Tamarrud vs. Tajarrud
Meanwhile, a new group called Tamarrud or Rebellion led by several revolutionary youth groups gained momentum when they declared at the end of April a new movement to depose Morsi and challenge his legitimacy. On April 28, Tamarrud announced that they would collect 15 million signatures from registered voters demanding early presidential elections on June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Within weeks, most secular and youth groups as well as the fulool embraced this central message. At least fourteen private satellite channels started a vast propaganda campaign and mobilization efforts promoting the day as a second revolution to cleanse the country from the MB rule. By mid-June Tamarrud’s co-founder and spokesman Mahmoud Badr announced that the movement has collected more than 15 million signatures which represented a million more people than those who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections.
Not to be outmaneuvered, the Islamist groups decried the secular opposition and denounced their undemocratic tactics and unconstitutional calls to depose Morsi before the end of his term in 2016. Asem Abdelmagid, a leading figure in the Islamic Group, an ally of the MB, initiated his own movement Tajarrud or Impartiality in order to counter Tamarrud. By the third week of June he announced that by the end of that month he would have collected over 20 million signatures in support of Morsi. Critics of both movements dismissed these numbers as unrealistic, observing that no one could actually verify their figures, especially when MB critic and poet Ahmad Fuad Negm said publicly that he personally signed Tamarrud’s petition 16 times.
Between Tamarrud and Tajarrud the Egyptian society has never been more polarized. On one side, most of the secular forces, youth groups, Christians, and the fulool are mobilizing for the showdown or a second revolution to depose Morsi and dislodge the MB. On the other side, most Islamist groups are vowing to defend Morsi’s legitimacy and rule by all means. On June 21, in an impressive show of force, the Islamists groups mobilized more than a million of their supporters in a Cairo suburb. This massive demonstration was dubbed “No to violence, Yes to legitimacy.” Although their rhetoric called for peaceful demonstrations and endorsed freedom of expression, their leaders tacitly threatened to declare a wave of Islamic revolution if the June 30 demonstration was successful in deposing Morsi.
Meanwhile, Tamarrud’s leaders announced that their plan on that day included protests by millions of people in the streets occupying major intersections, and surrounding the presidential palace demanding early presidential elections. Should Morsi refuse to resign, the group announced that it will escalate its confrontation by possibly storming the presidential palace and installing the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as an interim president, annulling the new constitution, and forming a new government led by a independent politician or a technocrat.
Hence, there are three possible scenarios that might take place on this fateful day. First, the scenario envisioned by the MB according to which the call for mass mobilization would result only in modest numbers across the country and would fail to attract millions or sustain itself for days or weeks. Such an outcome, they hope, would vindicate their view and considerably weaken the opposition. A second scenario advocated by the youth groups and non-violent opposition is that millions of Egyptians would actually take to the streets in a massive show of support for Morsi’s resignation and the end of the MB rule. They hope that such protests across the country not only would be huge and sustained but concurrently joined by labor strikes and civil disobedience until Morsi gives in. A third scenario is the one tacitly promoted by the fulool groups. In this scenario, former regime loyalists led by former politicians and security officials, as well as corrupt businessmen, who readily financed thousands of baltagies or thugs, will join the demonstrations in order to spread chaos and anarchy. According to this frightful scenario, the role of the baltagies will be to kill hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators, torch MB and FJP buildings, and assassinate their leaders in order to force the military to take over the country and launch a new transitional period without the domination of the Islamist groups. Should such a scenario materialize, the Islamist groups vowed to send millions of their supporters to defend Morsi and the legitimacy of his presidency.
Furthermore, the role of the foreign powers should not be minimized, as there are several regional states, especially the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are disturbed by the Arab Spring phenomenon and would like to curtail its influence if not totally defeat it. There are many credible reports that some of the Gulf countries have been very active in financing many of the anti-MB media outlets and the fulool groups. The U.S., on the other hand, has been working both sides of the equation in order to maintain influence and relevance. While Secretary of State John Kerry promised the military its $1.3 Billion aid package, the administration has been very slow in pushing the IMF loan critical to Morsi’s government. Meanwhile, American Ambassador Anne Patterson has been actively engaging government officials and opposition leaders alike. Ironically, each side accuses the other of serving the U.S.’s interest at the expense of the national interest.
Regardless of which scenario unfolds Egypt will be facing difficult times. But for wisdom and rationality to carry the day, Egyptians of all stripes must come to their senses and realize that no group can ignore or marginalize the others. The MB-dominated government must realize that it must be inclusive and transparent, while the opposition must respect the democratic rules of the political game. If the opposition succeeds in dislodging Morsi, no future president would be able to finish his term in office because the other side would also use the same disrupting tactics. If the opposition groups have millions behind them as they claim, they should head for parliamentary elections as soon as possible. If they win a majority of the seats, they not only could form the next government, but they could also change the constitution, and act as a check to the powers of the president in a democratic and civilized fashion that would earn the world’s respect. But if they opt for the use of violence or undemocratic tactics in order to have their way, then this remarkable revolution would have been in vain- a feat that would delight Mubarak loyalists and Egypt’s enemies.
Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East.. A shorter version of this article is published in the August issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.