For the second time in less than a week President Mohamed Morsi has been forced to abandon a foreign trip because of developments at home. His two-leg tour of Germany and France, scheduled to last four days, was abruptly cut into a three hour visit to Germany.
Cairo had asked to delay the trip to Germany but Berlin was not receptive.
“The business delegation accompanying the president to Germany had already left. It was decided the president should join them briefly and then they would continue their meetings there,” said an Egyptian government source.
Morsi’s reception in Berlin had initially been planned as a high profile event but as political developments in Egypt took a turn for the worse German authorities toned down their welcome. The intention, says a source in Berlin, was to send the message that while Germany remains supportive of Egypt during a difficult transition it expects the executive power to meet democratic expectations.
Official sources were busy briefing that following his return to Egypt Morsi would issue a raft of decisions designed to contain public anger expressed in nationwide demonstrations, many of which have ended in violent clashes with security forces. They trailed the president’s willingness to amend several articles of the controversial constitution passed with a less than impressive “yes” vote after being roundly criticised by all non-Islamist political forces. The changes would be conducted through a committee agreed upon as part of the limited dialogue that began on Monday.
According to one presidential source, “even if opposition leaders declined to join the committee… the most controversial articles will still be amended. The president is determined about it”.
Western diplomats in Cairo say Morsi had committed himself to amending the most controversial articles of the constitution during discussions this week with US officials. Morsi’s US interlocutors, they add, reassured the president that he still has the confidence of Washington but that he must also accommodate some of the demands put forward by the opposition.
“Morsi was told in no uncertain terms by the Americans that unless he acts to contain political upheaval in Egypt and pacifies the opposition and public opinion it is unrealistic to expect the International Monetary Fund to agree to the $5 billion loan Egypt wants,” said an informed Egyptian source.
Other measures being considered by Morsi, according to sources at the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, include amending the electoral law regulating upcoming parliamentary elections passed days ago by the Shura Council.
The National Salvation Front (NSF), the loose opposition grouping assembled last November following Morsi’s decision to grant himself extra-judicial powers, has clear demands in relation to the constitution and electoral law.
The NSF, says its leading figure Mohamed Al-Baradei, will not take part in any dialogue until these demands are met, while Hamdeen Sabahi, another NSF leading figure, has warned that failure to amend the current electoral law which was drafted by Morsi’s political supporters would leave the opposition little option but to boycott the parliamentary elections.
Morsi has repeatedly refused, both directly and through mediators including Ayman Nour and Abul-Ela Madi, to furnish the opposition with the guarantees it requires before entering into dialogue.
“In the absence of clear guarantees on the agenda and possible outcome of the dialogue we cannot take part. We would like to join a national dialogue but we need to be clear that the discussions are serious and not just a photo op,” says Amr Moussa, another leading NSF figure.
There has been little evidence of seriousness so far. The one session that has convened lasted just two hours, with Morsi arriving half way through and leaving after 60 minutes.
“It is not a national dialogue. It is a session for Morsi and some of his political allies. It’s not the kind of thing that will help the president get beyond the difficult situation he is in,” says leftist political activist Khaled Abdel-Hamid.
Abdel-Hamid argues that Morsi has painted himself into a corner strikingly similar to that occupied by Mubarak. “He is turning to the police, the army and his own narrow political clique, marginalising those who oppose him and attempting to portray them as thugs and instigators of violence.”
“In distancing himself from the street,” says Abdel-Hamid, “Morsi is actually distancing himself from the heart of legitimacy. Legitimacy is not just about the ballot box but about siding with rightful demands of the people.”
One of the most telling features of Morsi’s response to the current crisis, says human rights activist Ahmed Hishmat, is his imposition of emergency law in three governorates. To impose emergency rule just seven months into a four-year term is the clearest signal yet that the president is standing on the cusp of political bankruptcy.
Three days after ordering a curfew in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia Morsi mandated the governors of all three to reconsider the extraordinary measures as citizens took to the streets in their thousands, directly challenging his authority.
The current political crisis, says Hishmat, is a harbinger of the end of Morsi’s political legitimacy even though his legal mandate as the elected head of state has more than three years to run.
According to both supporters and opponents of Morsi there are three reasons — the US, the army and the people — why this clearly weakened head of state, faced with tough political and economic challenges, is likely to stagger through a full term.
The US is more apprehensive now than during the crisis in November, say Western diplomats, but it is still willing to give Morsi a chance to regain support.
The army, chastened by its experience at the helm between 11 February 2011, when Mubarak stepped down, and 30 June 2012, when Morsi was sworn-in, remains loath to risk a repeat.
“Anyone hoping to see a military coup sometime soon is destined for disappointment. It is not something that [the minister of defence] would do unless he saw an imminent threat to national interests,” says a recently retired military source.
Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, assigned by Morsi to replace Hussein Tantawi as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last August in a soft coup that was welcomed in most political quarters, is rumoured to be at loggerheads with the president over several matters, including the best way to deal with Sinai. But this does not mean, says the source, that he has any interest in taking the army back to where it was under Tantawi. “His priority is to fix the army and protect its interests and that is what he will do.”
As for the public, however frustrated people are with the current state of the country, there is no evidence that they have the appetite to oust Morsi as they did Mubarak.
“I did not vote for him and I dislike the Muslim Brotherhood but we need Egypt to settle down. We cannot have a new president every year, we need to be more patient,” says Adel Ahmed, a waiter at a Cairo café. “If we take Morsi down today the stock market will collapse, security will go from bad to worse and the economy will deteriorate further. It would be a nightmare.”
The demonstrators who are now shouting down with Morsi, says Hishmat, are really “trying to remind the president they are the ones who voted him into office and it is their interests, not the narrow agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamists, he should be serving.”
“If Morsi moves in the direction of attending to the people rather than the Brotherhood he might have a chance of political survival. If not then we are destined to witness a slow political suicide that could take the rest of his presidential term.”
Former Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Othman is now a key political advisor at the Strong Egypt Party. He sees few signs that Morsi is ready to prioritise the people over party. “The fact is the president is counting on the support of the Brotherhood to save his presidency at a time when there is an enormous number of question marks about its sustainability.”
“The danger is that if Morsi does opt to summon the support of his group on the ground in the face of incremental challenges then a bloody phase of violence could ensue.”