Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi calls for national dialogue but offers no key concessions to the opposition. A fifth Cabinet minister resigns.
Behind palace walls, the president maneuvers to stay in power while the military presses him from the wings. But it is on the streets, resounding with protests and counter-protests, that the future of Egypt’s young democracy is likely to be shaped.
President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement have been squeezed by an army ultimatum to form a coalition government by Wednesday or face a military-imposed solution to end months of unrest. The opposition is unrelenting, nominal Brotherhood allies in the Nour Party are breaking ranks and deadly clashes between antigovernment forces and Morsi’s Islamist supporters are echoing across the country.
In a rambling, defiant address that stretched into early Wednesday, Morsi demanded that the military not to intervene, saying he would protect the legitimacy of the constitution even to his death. He repeated calls for national dialogue but offered no significant concessions to the opposition.
“Mohamed Morsi has never been adamant about clinging to the seat of power,” he said. “However, I was elected by the people in fair and transparent elections … a state is in place. I have no other option. I shoulder the responsibility.”
But the president is learning that as the nation lurches toward democracy, the street, not the ballot box, is the most potent symbol of public will. Protests ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in 18 days and are now, led by a youth movement called Rebel, aiming to do the same to Egypt’s first freely elected president.
The “Arab Spring” emboldened Egyptians, whose revolutionary spirit has not diminished in the face of autocrats, be they secularists or Islamists. What unfolds this week will be crucial to defining a political identity in a much-altered region where Islamists and their detractors are competing for power.
“Choice is either peaceful democratic transference of power or military backed coup. Make your choice Egypt,” Gehad Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said on Twitter. “Egyptian people will never allow anyone to bully their democratic choices and will stand firm in the face of anyone threatening their legitimacy.”
The scene is reminiscent of two years ago, when an uprising toppled Mubarak, only to leave a divided political landscape with no cohesive voice for a new Egypt. The army, as it may do in coming days, stepped in then with popular support, only to retreat 17 months later with a bruised reputation after mass arrests and civil rights violations.
The clock is ticking, Morsi is isolated and the Brotherhood is seething at the prospect that its decades-old quest to rule the country may disintegrate. At least five Cabinet officials have resigned, including the defection Tuesday of Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr.
The political circle was tightened further by a court ruling hours earlier that ordered the removal of Morsi ally Talaat Ibrahim as top prosecutor. The courts have been battling the president for months to stem the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda for the government.
In an earlier statement Tuesday, Morsi said his office was not consulted by the military Monday when Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, defense minister and chief of the armed forces, issued the ultimatum. The president suggested the move was an affront to democracy that “may cause confusion” among Egyptians, though many here would welcome the military stepping in to end the chaos.
Morsi and Sisi met Tuesday in an effort to resolve the crisis. During his national address hours later, the president reached out to the disenfranchised youth, blamed remnants of the Mubarak government for instigating unrest and told Egyptians “not to allow the revolution to be hijacked under any pretext.”
Many Islamists, including ultraconservative Salafis, are backing Morsi in what they see as a pivotal moment to protect their goal of an Islamic state. Mohamed Hassan, a member of Gamaa al Islamiya, a former terrorist organization, criticized the army for pressuring a democratically elected president.
“Tearing down legitimacy will lead the country to chaos and a pool of blood,” he said. “We will not resort to violence but we will not allow legitimacy to fall.”
But fissures in the Islamist camp have widened amid tensions, egos and conflicting interests.
The most politically savvy Salafi party, Nour, which won nearly 25% of the seats in the parliament last year, has defied Morsi and the Brotherhood by calling for a coalition government. Nour has made several such pragmatic moves in recent months, at times siding with the largely secular opposition against Morsi.
Nour supports early elections to “avoid bloodshed and civil war,” said Nader Bakar, a prominent group member. “We’ve taken a stand to side with the masses in the streets…. The [Brotherhood] has made an enemy out of anyone who criticized or disagreed with them.”
He added that the Brotherhood’s “second mistake is insisting on the continued state of polarization in the street and trying to benefit from it rather than end it.”
The opposition Rebel movement, which claims to have collected 22 million signatures calling for Morsi to resign, has chosen Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate with the state. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei disappointed many activists in 2011 for not aggressively protesting in the streets.
But he has worked with activists on political strategy and has often been named as a possible member of a transitional technocratic government should the military scrap the Islamist-drafted constitution and dissolve Morsi’s Cabinet.
In recent days, political parties and opposition groups have offered a number of “road maps” for Egypt’s immediate future, including holding early elections, temporarily handing power to the constitutional court, forming a unity government and disbanding the upper house of parliament.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, shifted their tone Tuesday, saying that they were pressing Morsi to take unspecified “steps” to accommodate the wishes of the Egyptian people while denying reports that they publicly pushed for early elections, a move not provided for in the Egyptian Constitution. One U.S. official, however, said the Obama administration has discussed early elections and Cabinet shuffles with the Morsi government, and reminded the Egyptian military that a coup could lead to a cut in the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid.
A lingering concern, however, is preventing hundreds of thousands of pro- and anti-Morsi protesters from clashing during marches reverberating across Cairo and other provinces, including Giza, where at least one person was killed and 74 injured. Unconfirmed reports said seven people were killed nationwide Tuesday.
“The Brotherhood are liars. The constitution created no unity and the Islamists have used religion as a means to gain power. I think violence is the only way they’ll leave power,” said Sayed Saad, a law student. “The protests are not about not respecting the ballot box. Morsi did none of the things he promised he would. That’s why we’re back in the streets.”