Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

United but divided

President Morsi’s decrees not only stirred up nationwide popular protests but also united the opposition against him, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

It took leaders of key liberal and leftist parties only a few hours to lash out at President Mohamed Morsi’s latest series of constitutional and legal decrees. They immediately decided to form the National Salvation Front (NSF), whose main aim is to force the president to nullify the laws that gave him unprecedented expanded executive, legislative and judicial powers.

Meanwhile, the country is under enormous tension amidst headlines in newspapers and statements by officials warning against the outbreak of a civil war if the current state of division deepens. Liberal and leftist parties demonstrated in Tahrir, while supporters of President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood held their own protests in other parts of Cairo. President Morsi personally contributed to this division when he decided to address Muslim Brotherhood supporters in front of the presidential palace in Heliopolis on Friday 23 November, and not the entire nation through a televised address from his office as tradition after major pronouncements stipulates.

The situation was much worse in governorates outside the capital, namely in Alexandria, Damanhour, Tanta, Mahalla, Mansoura, Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, where bitter street battles erupted between Morsi’s supporters and those against him, ending up in several cases of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, being set ablaze.

A 15-year-old student sympathetic to the Brotherhood was killed in Damanhour, 180km north of Cairo, on Sunday while Morsi’s opponents lost a 17-year-old young man, Gaber Salah, known as Jika, in Cairo, on the same day. Jika was wounded by gunshots on 19 November, but was declared dead on Sunday. The funerals of both victims were held on Monday, and screens of all local television channels were split to air the two funerals.

Adding to the deep concern among citizens was that the country was heading towards chaos, epitomised in a declaration by the Muslim Brotherhood that they were planning to hold a huge protest in Abdine Square on Tuesday, not more than two kilometres from Tahrir. On the same day opposition leaders had already declared that they would hold a big rally to confirm their opposition to Morsi’s amendments. After obvious pressure on the group to avoid such an open confrontation and calls by cooler heads, a Muslim Brotherhood statement announced early on Monday that they would move their protest to Giza, close to Cairo University, far from Tahrir. But that was obviously not enough to calm fears of a possible bloody confrontation, and on Monday evening a new Muslim Brotherhood statement came out announcing that they decided to cancel the demonstration altogether. The Brotherhood’s close allies in the more fundamentalist Salafi movement also announced they were not holding protests.

Non-Islamist parties held one of their largest rallies ever in Tahrir on Tuesday, sending a clear message to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that they were not the small, marginalised elite as Islamists claim. While the political forces who had taken part in the revolution against Mubarak were clearly present in the square, there were also many new faces, including some who supported the old regime and did not believe that removing the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, now serving life imprisonment for his role in killing more than 840 demonstrators, had been good for the country.

Despite the split, all those in Tahrir on Tuesday were united in chanting slogans against Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, and the new laws. Demonstrators claimed that Morsi was simply a continuation of Mubarak’s rule, and accused Badie of selling out the revolution in order to serve only the group’s interests. “Mubarak rest and feel happy, Morsi will continue your path,” said one slogan. Many also shouted, “The people want the downfall of the regime,” the same call that rang in the square two years ago in the popular uprising against Mubarak.

Former presidential contenders who competed against Morsi in the first round of elections in May — Mohamed Al-Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa — together with leaders of the Wafd Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, the Egyptian Liberals Party and other prominent political figures, held an emergency meeting at the headquarters of the Wafd on Thursday evening last week, only three hours after presidential spokesman Yasser Ali read out the new legal amendments on television.

The opposition leaders announced that they had decided to escalate their opposition to Morsi until he annulled the new laws, and to boycott any direct talks with the presidency. More demonstrations are due to be held on Friday 30 November, and informed sources close to the opposition camp said they expected the daily peaceful demonstrations to continue until the Administrative Court rules on 2 December whether Morsi’s recent constitutional declaration and other decrees were in accordance with the law.

“One of the most important consequences of the so-called constitutional declaration is that it has united all these national figures,” said Moussa at a news conference after the first meeting of opposition leaders. “One hand united, one hand united,” repeated Moussa in response to cheers from the crowd. Liberal and leftist groups have failed drastically over the past two years to unite their ranks, mainly due to personal differences over who should be declared leader, contrary to President Morsi’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood, known for strict discipline of its members and loyalty to its leadership since it was created over 80 years ago.

Besides calling for demonstrations throughout Egypt the opposition figures also urged their supporters to hold a sit-in in the middle of Tahrir Square, the symbol of the 25 January 2011 Revolution against Mubarak. Erecting tents in the square’s major parts, and declaring a sit-in was how the popular revolt started against Mubarak nearly two years ago, ending with his removal 18 days later. Despite their strong opposition to the laws announced by President Morsi on Thursday, leaders of the NSF made it clear in several coordination meetings they held over this week that they were not calling for the president’s removal.

The opposition leaders said they were particularly appalled by the immunity from any accountability by the judiciary that the new laws had granted to Morsi, the Shura Council, or upper house, and the Constituent Assembly that is tasked with drafting a new constitution. The president also gave himself the right to issue whatever laws he deemed necessary “in case there was any danger that threatened the 25 January Revolution, national unity, or prevented the state’s institutions from performing its duties,” according to Article 6 in the constitutional declaration he issued a week ago.

Tens of thousands took part in Friday’s marches in various parts of Cairo that ended up in Tahrir Square, led by Al-Baradei, Sabahi, Moussa and other opposition leaders. While Al-Baradei and Sabahi were warmly welcomed by protesters, Moussa, who served for a decade under Mubarak as foreign minister and later as secretary-general of the Arab League, had to pull out quickly after young members of radical groups started chanting slogans against him, charging he belonged to the former regime. The presence of supporters of the former regime, known as fulul in Arabic, in an anti-Morsi protest on Tuesday, was one of the main sticking points among the opposition leaders, despite their declaration of unity. While the leftist parties, in particular, found it difficult to accept their presence because of their role in backing Mubarak’s regime, the position of the Dostour, or Constitution, Party and other liberal parties seemed more flexible and willing to accept the newcomers.

Tahrir Square, and surrounding streets, namely Mohamed Mahmoud, had already been very tense since 19 November when thousands of young men started a week-long wave of protests to mark the first anniversary of bloody clashes with the anti-riot police in which more than 40 people were killed and thousands wounded. Besides Salah and Jika, who was killed, hundreds were injured, suffering mainly from heavy rounds of tear gas. Rocks thrown between protesters and police also led to broken bones and fractures.

Starting Friday, the square was clearly divided between those who wanted to protest peacefully against Morsi’s new decrees, and the few hundred young men, and children, who insisted on continuing their own, rather endless, battle against anti-riot police. Ranging between 10 and 25 years old, those who clashed with police were mostly members of football brotherhoods, known as Ultras, as well as the 6 April movement and other small radical and anarchist groups.

The Ultras, in particular, have a long history of hatred against police due to the harsh treatment they received for many years when they attended football games under the former regime. That hatred turned into a desire for revenge after more than 100 young men were killed in clashes with the police over the past year, both in Mohamed Mahmoud, and in the coastal city of Port Said following a football game between Ahli and its local team, Masri, 10 months ago.

In between short intervals for rest, clashes continued almost non-stop between police and protesters between 19 November and until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday afternoon. The protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police in Mohamed Mahmoud, the parallel Sheikh Rihan and Qasr Al-Aini streets, and police responded with heavy rounds of tear gas. Protesters insist that police also used pellet gunshots against them, but Interior Minister Ahmed Gamaleddin vehemently denied the charge, and declared he was ready for an investigation. The worst battles were late at night after the numbers of peaceful protesters dwindled, and the front was clear for police and protesters to exchange attacks.

Late Sunday evening, police launched a major offensive against protesters who stood facing them on the outskirts of Tahrir Square in order to build more walls, made up of huge blocks of stone, to separate the two sides in both Sheikh Rihan and Qasr Al-Aini streets. While Monday was relatively quiet in terms of clashes as the protesters were busy with paying their last respects and holding a large funeral for Jika in which tens of thousands took part, the clashes were renewed on Tuesday.

When it became difficult to attack police forces after building the new walls, the protesters opened a new front as soon as they spotted gatherings of anti-riot police near the headquarters of the US embassy in Garden City. The same scenario was repeated: young men throwing stones, and police responding by firing many rounds of tear gas. On Tuesday, a 64-year-old man, Fathi Gharib, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance, died while in Tahrir Square. His family said the man was killed as a result of tear gas, while police said he died because of a heart attack. A young man, Ahmed Yehia, was also moved to hospital in critical condition on Monday, suffering several wounds from bird shot.

Most observers believe the chances that clashes would die down soon between police and protesters were unlikely, particularly as long as the ongoing state of political tension continues over Morsi’s new laws. While protesters and human rights groups accused the police of using the same old tactics based on brutally suppressing demonstrations, it was clear that the Interior Ministry issued orders to its officers to try to minimise the number of victims. The Muslim Brotherhood also accused the Interior Ministry of failing to protect its headquarters in several cities, implying that police had obviously decided to stay neutral in ongoing clashes in order to avoid accusations that they were siding with one political camp against the other.

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