Aya Batrawy and Mariam Rizk, Associated Press/National Post, Jan 25, 2013
CAIRO — Two years after Egypt’s revolution began, the country’s schism was on display Friday as the mainly liberal and secular opposition held rallies saying the goals of the pro-democracy uprising have not been met and denouncing Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
With the anniversary, Egypt is definitively in the new phase of its upheaval.
From the revolt that began Jan. 25, 2011 and led to the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the country has moved into a deeply divisive struggle between ruling Islamists, who say a string of election victories the past year gives them to right to reshape Egypt, and their opponents, who say Islamists are moving to take complete power.
Overshadowing their struggle is an economy in free-fall that threatens to fuel public discontent. The vital tourism sector has slumped, investment shriveled, foreign currency reserves have tumbled and prices are on the rise. More pain is likely in the coming months if the government implements unpopular new austerity measures.
“Today the Egyptian people continue their revolution,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, a leading opposition leader who finished a close third in presidential elections held in June. “They are saying ‘no’ to the Brotherhood state … We want a democratic constitution, social justice, to bring back the rights of the martyrs and guarantees for fair elections.”
Tens of thousands massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the 2011 uprising began, and outside Morsi’s palace, with more heading to join them from other districts. Banners outside the palace proclaimed, “No to the corrupt Muslim Brotherhood government” and “Two years since the revolution, where is social justice?” Others demonstrated outside the state TV and radio building overlooking the Nile.
Similar if smaller crowds gathered in most of Egypt’s main cities, including the Mediterranean cities of Alexandria. The protesters chanted the iconic slogans of the revolt against Mubarak, this time directed against Morsi — “Erhal!
Erhal!” or “leave, leave” and “the people want to topple the regime.”
Clashes erupted in multiple places between police firing tear gas and protesters throwing stones — in side streets around Tahrir, in Alexandria and the city of Suez and in six other cities. Outside the gates of the presidential palace in Cairo, masked protesters tried to push through a police barricade, prompting a barrage of tear gas by security forces.
In two towns in the Nile Delta, Menouf and Shibeen el-Koum, protesters blocked railway lines, disrupting train services to and from Cairo.
At least 119 people were injured in the clashes around the country, the head of the national ambulances services, Mohammed Sultan, told privately owned CBC TV. He did not give details on the nature or location of the injuries.
The immediate goal of the protesters is a show of strength to push Morsi to amend the constitution, which was pushed through by his Islamist allies and rushed through a national referendum. But more broadly, protesters are trying to show the extent of public anger against what they call the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization Morsi hails from, which they say is taking over the state rather than setting up a broad-based democracy.
Protester Ehab Menyawi said he felt no personal animosity against the Brotherhood but opposed its approach toward Morsi as Egypt’s first freely elected leader.
“The Brotherhood thinks that reform was achieved when their man came to power and that in itself is a guarantee for the end of corruption,” he said as he marched from the upscale Cairo district of Mohandiseen to Tahrir with some 20,000 others.
Unlike in 2012, when both sides made a show of marking Jan. 25 — though, granted, not together — the Brotherhood stayed off the streets for Friday’s anniversary. The group said it would honor the occasion with acts of public service, like treating the sick and planting trees. The Brotherhood’s ultraconservative allies known as Salafis are also staying off the streets. Their absence may reduce, but not entirely remove, the possibility of violence.
The night before, Morsi gave a televised speech that showed the extent of the estrangement between the two sides. He denounced what he called a “counter-revolution” that is “being led by remnants of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime to obstruct everything in the country.”
Brotherhood officials have increasingly depicted the opposition as undemocratic, trying to use the streets to overturn an elected leadership.
In another sign of the increasingly bitter tone, new militia-like groups opposed to the Islamists have declared in video messages posted on social networks this week their intention to defend the opposition protesters if attacked. At least 10 people were killed and hundreds injured in December when Morsi’s supporters descended upon protesters camped outside his palace, starting clashes that lasted for hours with firebombs, swords, knifes and firearms.
The demands of Friday’s protesters vary. Some on the extremist fringe of Egypt’s loosely knit opposition want Morsi to step down and the constitution adopted last month rescinded. Others are calling for the document to be amended and early presidential elections held.
“I am asking everyone to go out and demonstrate to show that the revolution must be completed and that the revolution must continue,” opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said in a televised message posted on his party’s website.
“There must be a constitution for all Egyptians. A constitution that every one of us sees himself in it,” said the Nobel peace Laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Egypt’s bestselling novelist and democracy campaigner Alaa al-Aswany marched with ElBaradei on Friday to Tahrir. “It is impossible to impose a constitution on Egyptians, a constitution which was sponsored by the Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolution today will bring this constitution down,” he said.
Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer, took office in June after a narrow election victory with just under 52 percent of the vote to become the country’s first freely elected president.
On the horizon are key elections to choose a new lower house of parliament. The opposition is hoping it can leverage public anger into a substantial bloc in the legislature, but it is still trying to weld together an effective campaign coalition in the face of Islamists’ strength at the ballot box.
Last winter, the Brotherhood and Salafis won around 75 percent of the lower house’s seats, though the body was later disbanded by court order.
Opponents say Morsi and his Islamist backers have taken that election mandate too far, accusing the secretive, closed Muslim Brotherhood of simply stepping in to fill the shoes of Mubarak’s ousted ruling party, only now with a conservative religious bent.
The most glaring example is the constitution itself: Islamists finalized the draft in a rushed, all-night meeting, throwing in amendments to fit their needs, then pushed it through a swift referendum in which only a third of voters participated. The result is a document that could bring a much stricter implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, than modern Egypt has ever seen.
At the same time, Morsi has kept government policy-making and the choice of appointments almost entirely within the Brotherhood. Members and supporters of the group are being installed bit by bit throughout the state infrastructure — from governor posts, to chiefs of state TV and newspapers, down to preachers in state-run mosques.
“Egypt is in a bad place, It’s been wholly consumed with issues of power, and governance has been left by the wayside. None of this had to be,” said Michael W. Hanna, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. “It was a conscious decision to eschew reform by consensus. … For them (the Brotherhood) it’s not about reform it’s about power.”
In Egypt, the danger for the Brotherhood now is that it stands alone as it faces the difficult task of stopping the accelerating slide of the economy. That will require some highly unpopular decisions, including raising taxes and reducing subsidies on fuel and basic foodstuffs. Morsi’s government has so far not put forward a cohesive plan, and public anger is growing over mounting prices, unemployment and poverty.
If Morsi and the Brotherhood can’t fix the economy, they may try to keep the support of their Islamist base by focusing instead on “the culture war,” pushing through a religious agenda of stricter Shariah and more sectarian rhetoric against Egypt’s Christian minority, warns Hanna.
“We’ll see more polarized politics, and that’s a bad omen for actually governing,” he said.