An Egyptian protester in Tahrir Square on Monday, July 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egypt is bracing for June 30. Anticipation for the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Mohammed Morsi has reached a fever pitch, as millions prepare to take to the streets to demand his removal from office. Fears of a showdown between protesters and the president’s supporters have led people to stock up on food and fuel supplies. The military and police are deploying extra forces and barriers around public buildings and army tanks have reportedly taken up positions outside the capital.
One year ago, many Egyptians had hoped the inauguration of the country’s first-ever democratically elected president would mark a turning point following decades of autocratic rule and a turbulent transition. Yet since Morsi took office, the political quagmire has only deepened, the economy has been in decline and daily life has become harder for most Egyptians.
The country is plagued by frequent fuel and diesel shortages that create long lines outside gas stations and cause incapacitating traffic jams. Electricity blackouts have become a daily routine during the hot summer months. Prices for food, medicine and other staple goods have sharply risen as the Egyptian pound has lost 10 percent of its value leaving already impoverished families less to live on. Unemployment is growing, tourism and investment are down sharply, the stock market hit an eleven-month low last week, while insecurity, crime and vigilante violence are on the rise.
“The economy is in the garbage, everything is more expensive,” says Ahmed El-Noubi, a 58-year-old shop owner in the working-class district of Sayeda Zainab. “After a year of the Muslim Brotherhood, people cannot tolerate them. The street opposition is reawakening.”
The frustration is palpable. During Morsi’s first year in office, Egypt witnessed over 9,400 demonstrations, according to a report published by the Cairo-based International Development Centre, more than anywhere in the world. The anti-government sentiment will culminate in mass protests on June 30, anticipation for which has built exponentially through a grassroots initiative that has collected millions of signatures on a petition whose slogan is a call for revolt: Tamarod, Arabic for “rebel.”
The campaign was started by a group of young organizers affiliated with the Kefaya opposition movement, founded in 2005 to call for political reform under Mubarak. Its goal was simple: to draft a petition declaring a vote of no confidence in the president and to call for early presidential elections. Written in the everyday colloquial Arabic of the street, the document addresses the president directly. “Because security still isn’t back,” it reads, “we don’t want you.… Because the poor still have no place, we don’t want you. Because the economy has collapsed and is based on begging [from abroad], we don’t want you.”
Since it was launched in Tahrir Square on May 1, the campaign has gained momentum, with volunteers handing out copies on the street, on university campuses, in shops, even in government offices. By the end of May, organizers said they gathered seven million signatures through a largely decentralized volunteer network that spread throughout Egypt’s provinces. They now claim to have hit their target of 15 million signatures, surpassing the 13 million votes that elected Morsi a year ago in a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, a stalwart of the former regime.
“The Tamarod campaign has shone a spotlight on the failure of this presidency politically, economically and socially,” says Mahmoud Badr, a spokesman and founding member of Tamarod, who says he was surprised at the level of enthusiasm and participation they received when they first launched the campaign. “The petition gave us all a way to unite under one simple goal.”
Gathering signatures has a rich precedent in Egyptian politics. After the 1918 armistice that ended World War I, Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and his colleagues drafted a petition to secure a national mandate to speak on behalf of Egyptian national aspirations at the Paris Peace Conference and to present Egypt’s case for complete independence from the British. In spite of obstruction by British officials, they succeeded in gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures from across Egypt in a short amount of time. The British administration responding by arresting Zaghlul and his colleagues and deporting them to Malta, a move that sparked a nationwide uprising and marked the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.
More recently, the National Association for Change, founded by reform advocate Mohammed El Baradei, launched a campaign in 2010 that collected more than a million signed petitions to pressure then-President Hosni Mubarak for political reforms and fair elections. The campaign was backed by various opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and came just months before the January 25 revolution.
Now, organizers of the Tamarod campaign are hoping for a rebellion of their own, armed with a newly galvanized opposition movement and millions of signed petitions that will culminate in large-scale street protests at the end of the month. Tamarod organizers and the political opposition have even laid out a post Morsi road map, with the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court taking over as interim president backed by a small cabinet of technocrats and new presidential elections six months later.
Organizers view the petition campaign as deriving revolutionary legitimacy from the street, the same source of authority that toppled Mubarak. Yet much of the discourse around the revived protest mobilization has been hijacked by elements tied to the former regime who have openly called for the army to step in and remove the Brotherhood from power. By most accounts, the chances of this president stepping down are slim. Morsi was voted into office for a four-year term in elections that are widely viewed as being free and fair and the petition to withdraw confidence from the president has no constitutional or legal standing to contest his authority. Morsi himself has called the demands for an early presidential vote as “absurd and illegal.”
What’s more, Morsi is backed by millions of his own supporters, with a core constituency made up of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which he hails, who have launched a counter signature-gathering campaign called Tagarod—or “Impartiality.”
In a rival show of force against anti-Morsi organizing, on June 21, tens of thousands of the president’s backers rallied in a Cairo square. A group called the “Alliance of Islamic Parties” has announced an open-ended demonstration titled “Legitimacy is a Red Line,” that will begin on June 28 to defend the president.
Since assuming the formal levers of power, the Brotherhood have routinely dismissed the opposition as being led by remnants of the former regime; and one that is trying to subvert the democratic process in the face of their proven prowess at the polls over the course of the post-Mubarak transition.
“Certain power-seeking parties spend billions on hired thugs in order to push this homeland into anarchy, chaos and lawlessness, with flimsy political cover,” said Hussein Ibrahim, secretary general of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, in a press statement on June 20. “These are calls for action, apparently for political demands, but in fact for bloodshed, violence and vandalism.”
Armed with a far-reaching grassroots organization, well-established patronage networks, decades-long experience in contesting elections and a strict hierarchical discipline to effectively mobilize their base, the Brotherhood and its allies have won the presidency and majorities in both houses of parliament and passed a constitution in a controversial referendum.
Yet they have presided over a deepening political paralysis and economic decline that has fostered growing discontent to their rule. Fears of their perceived attempt to dominate state institutions in a campaign of “Brotherhoodization” only grew in mid-June, when Morsi appointed seventeen new provincial governors, seven of whom are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Governors play an influential role in arrangements for elections. But the biggest outcry was reserved for the president’s decision to appoint as Luxor governor a member of the hardline Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya, involved in a 1997 attack in the city that killed fifty-eight tourists. The new governor announced his resignation days later amidst the uproar.
Morsi also appeared to shore up his Islamist base earlier this month when he attended a mass rally by hardline clerics, who repeatedly used sectarian language to call for jihad in Syria against Bashar al Assad’s regime and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and announced Egypt was cutting ties with Damascus.
On June 27, the president delivered a televised address lasting more than two and a half hours in which he blamed Mubarak loyalists for the “paralysis” that has marked his first year in office, while also admitting errors and offering some minor reforms, a move his opponents blasted as too little too late.
Tamarod backers have stressed the peaceful nature of the June 30 protests, but with hundreds of thousands expected to take to the streets, the potential for violence is high. Clashes have already broken out between the president’s supporters and opponents in a number of cities across the country, resulting in injuries and deaths.
In early June, the Tamarod headquarters in downtown Cairo was briefly set ablaze by unknown assailants hurling Molotov cocktails, while campaign volunteers across the country have been subjected to physical assaults and brief arrests. Muslim Brotherhood offices have been attacked across the country, prompting the group to fortify its Cairo headquarters with a reinforced wall and a five-inch-thick iron gate.
No one can say with any certainty what the outcome of June 30 will be.
Meanwhile, the army—the other major player in Egyptian politics—has remained on the sidelines for much of the past year, content to enjoy its longstanding economic and political privileges, many of which were enshrined for the first time in the constitution backed by the Brotherhood. Yet amid growing tensions over the looming protests, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waded into the political fray on June 23 and issued a sharp warning to rival political forces, saying the army will intervene to stop the nation from entering a “dark tunnel” and that politicians should use the week remaining before the mass rallies to seek reconcile their differences. “We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control,” he said.
While Tamarod organizers doubt Morsi will be forced out of office on June 30, they see the day as the launch of a newly galvanized opposition movement whose strength lies in its grassroots core that is unaffiliated with any political party. “We will continue to escalate like we did against Hosni Mubarak,” campaign spokesman Badr says. “We are calling for an open sit-in in front of the presidential palace, and we can escalate to a general strike and civil disobedience.”
Morsi has called for national unity and reconciliation talks which was rejected by leading members of the political opposition. The presidency also announced the launch of a new online campaign—morsifirstyear.com—aimed at promoting Morsi’s first year in office.
“We recognize that the most fundamental requirements for economic growth and development is political stability, so we are continuing to work on that as the basis for everything else,” says an official at the president’s office. “It is important to reiterate that as transitions go, what is happening in Egypt is very normal; one may even call it benign,” the official says. “Always remember that in the long history of this country, this is the first elected government ever.”
Egyptians have gone to the polls four times in two years yet the political process is increasingly perceived as alienating and dissatisfying. The clash between revolutionary and conventional politics will come to a head on June 30 as many Egyptians prepare to hit the streets to try and oust the president they helped elect one year ago.