June 30, 2013, marking one year of Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi’s presidency, was hyped by the opposition as a game changer. However, even the most optimistic could not have predicted the mass turnout in cities all over the country. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets of 25 of the country’s 27 governorates to vent their discontent, taking liberal local TV anchors, who for months have been calling for people to get off their sofas, by surprise.
Egypt is no stranger to demonstrations, which largely go ignored by the Islamist regime that holds to legitimacy of the ballot box. However, Sunday was different—not only in terms of numbers, which estimates indicate exceed those during the January 25, 2011, revolution. On this occasion, the crowds were an eclectic socio-economic mix of intellectuals, middle class civil servants, factory workers, children perched on their father’s shoulders, people of advanced years and even black-clad women, their faces covered by the niqab.
The one thing they all had in common was their frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood. Those determined souls—who stood sweltering, packed tightly together in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, without shade, from mid-morning, chanting slogans and joining in with patriotic songs—were motivated for differing reasons.
Moderates fear the regime is intent on replicating the Iranian Islamic model, political activists object to Mursi’s authoritarianism—his attempts to bring the judiciary to heel and his crackdown on the media. The affluent worry over the failing economy; the struggling poor are angry over rocketing inflation, diminishing job opportunities, electricity outages and shortages of fuel causing hours-long queues outside petrol stations. The fallaheen (peasants), that faction of the Muslim Brotherhood’s core base, complain Mursi has reneged on his promises to better their lives. Devout Muslims—who once championed Mursi, but are now hard-pressed to put bread on the table—feel a sense of betrayal.
Okay, so they have made their point and it is clear that they are in no mood to listen to Mursi’s excuses—they want him gone. His calls for national dialogue go unheeded by opposition figures who maintain he is merely paying lip service to political inclusivity, especially since he never ceases to pile blame on the National Salvation Front for the nation’s woes. However, ousting Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president is easier said than done, especially one who, while admitting he has made mistakes, says he has no intention of stepping down because doing so will set an undemocratic precedent.
“If we changed someone in office who [was elected] according to constitutional legitimacy—well, there will be people opposing the new present too and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down,” Mursi told the Guardian. In principle, that argument has merit. However, I suspect the real reason for his tenaciousness is to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood retains sway at any cost.
‘Either we win or we die’
It will be wrong to say Mursi is devoid of supporters. Muslim Brotherhood diehards and their affiliates in other Islamist parties, such as Jamaa Islamiya, are gearing up for a fight to the death to keep him in office. They have formed armed militias, pictured training in guerilla warfare—and, on Sunday, police announced the seizure of van-loads of weapons from militants travelling along the desert highway linking Cairo with Alexandria. Further, there were reports of violent clashes away from the capital in which several were killed and hundreds wounded.
Around 300,000 of Mursi’s backers were also out in force on June 30, attending a rival rally within walking distance of the president’s Al Ittihadiya palace, that later in the day was besieged by hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters. Unlike the almost carnival atmosphere elsewhere, some of those who rallied for Mursi carried shrouds and shouted “either we win or we die,” others wielding batons were helmeted in preparation for battle. Their memories still fresh from decades of imprisonment and torture, some are fearful of being once more vilified as outcasts.
Others are ideologically opposed to a secularist society and have slurred fellow Muslims with the tag “kafir,” a derogatory word that translates to “infidel.” There were concerns that if anti-regime demonstrators attempted to storm the palace, the Mursi camp would rush to its defence, igniting a civil war.
Opposition rally organisers insist the people will remain in the nation’s squares until the president resigns. But that is a tall order, particularly in the midst of summer and when the majority have jobs and familial responsibilities. Mursi’s advisers are counting on the protests fizzling out over the coming ten days, leading up to Ramadan.
The key question is whether the all-powerful military—the self-appointed defenders of the people and state institutions—will grab power in response to calls from tens of thousands gathered outside the Ministry of Defence, shouting: “The army and the people, one hand.”
A better alternative will be a government of national unity made up of figures from all sides of the political spectrum and technocrats. However, as long as an acrid stench of antipathy bordering on hatred pollutes the air, that most sensible of options is fading fast.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.