Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Huge rally at the palace

Unprecedented massive protests across Egypt encouraged opposition leaders to give President Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to withdraw his call for a referendum on a new constitution, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

When young members of several leftist, liberal and nationalist parties, now supposedly united in the National Salvation Front (NSF), met early this week to announce plans to hold demonstrations in front of the presidential palace in Heliopolis on Tuesday, their leaders, all in their late 60s and 70s, thought this was an unnecessary escalation.
Instead, Mohamed Al-Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa, and leaders of other opposition parties, and members of the NSF issued a statement on Monday calling upon Egyptians to hold yet another “million-man march” to protest against President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to call for a referendum on the new constitution on 15 December, at “the symbol of the Egyptian revolution, in Tahrir Square”. The stress on meeting in Tahrir was clearly meant to distance themselves from calls to protest in front of the presidency.
NSF leaders also said they feared that if they deserted Tahrir, and headed to the presidential palace, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who have been holding their huge protests and sit-in in front of the headquarters of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Maadi, might come over in big numbers, and take over the square.
And in an obvious tactic to scare away protesters, the official media including television repeatedly announced that anti-riot police had surrounded the official presidential headquarters, known as Al-Ittihadiya Palace, with barbed wire, built-up fortifications and increased its presence. While many feared bloody clashes, in which supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that President Morsi belongs to, might also get involved, most observers predicted that only a few hundred radical young demonstrators would take the risk of heading to Al- Ittihadiya.
However, the massive outpouring of tens of thousands of Egyptians, from all walks of life, to the presidential palace in the posh neighbourhood of Korba, Heliopolis, without the presence of any of their popular star leaders, obviously changed all calculations. Thousands of people gathered at different meeting points in front of Al-Nour Mosque in Abbasiya, the nearby Ain Shams University and Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City. They all later marched tirelessly for a few kilometres towards the presidential palace.
Carrying signs declaring “No to Muslim Brotherhood Constitution”, the demonstrators also chanted trademark slogans which led to the downfall of ousted President Hosni Mubarak in the 25 January Revolution, nearly two years ago. Erhal or Get Out, and the “People want the downfall of the regime” rocked the streets as the people marched towards Al-Ittihadiya Palace. There were also sharply worded slogans aimed at the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, whom protesters believed was the actual leader of Egypt and top decision-maker, and not President Morsi. It is part of the Brotherhood ideology to show complete compliance to the supreme guide, or morshid in Arabic. They traditionally kiss his hand, and swear allegiance to him when they become members of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, its highest decision-making body. When Morsi was running for president in May, he said Badie had relieved him of the “oath of allegiance” he made to him in an attempt to claim that his loyalty now was to all Egyptians, and not the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Down, down with the morshid’s rule,” and “sell the revolution, Oh you Badie,” are now among the most common slogans chanted in anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations.
After a long march, the protesters finally reached the confrontation line, the barbed wires raised by anti-riot police in all the streets surrounding the presidential palace. And here came the second major surprise in Tuesday’s massive demonstrations. After a relatively short confrontation, in which young protesters at the front line tried to push back the barbed wire, the anti-riot police fired a few rounds of sound and tear gas bombs. The crowds jumped back, and everyone started thinking of a nightmare scenario: the huge number of protesters, the presence of families who came with their children to the protest, old people who insisted on taking part while in their wheelchairs, meant that any serious confrontation with police would certainly be bloody and disastrous.
However, only a few minutes later, shouts were heard saying police had disappeared and that they had simply left their positions and the barbed wires behind. People started coming out from the side streets, to which they escaped to run away from the tear gas, and it was hard to believe what they saw. But it was true. All the streets to the presidential palace were opened — without a single policeman in sight. Later, a video circulated widely on social websites showed a young police officer opening the road for protesters and telling them, “I am with you.” He was immediately carried on the shoulders, and the young protesters applauded loudly. Another video showed young men on top of an armoured police vehicle, providing it with protection and opening the road for it to get out of the way, confirming the peaceful nature of their protest, and that they did not want to get into a confrontation with police. The same ugly armoured vehicles were known for crushing, and killing protesters during the 25 January Revolution, and later when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was in charge.
In a few minutes, the protesters who marched to Al-Ittihadiya surrounded the gates of the palace from all sides, forming a human chain in which tens of thousands took part. The crowds felt more jubilant when they heard Morsi had to be sneaked out of the palace upon advice from the Presidential Guard after they felt the growing number of protesters was a serious threat.
Yet, while the palace looked deserted, except for a few guards who were seen on top of the roofs, the front line demonstrators, who are usually among the most violent and willing to fight, felt no need to jump over the walls of the palace. Indeed, young men immediately used their spray to cover the walls of the palace with anti-Morsi slogans and paintings, and some started dismantling the huge eagle sign, the official symbol of the Egyptian presidency, but there were no attempts to cross the red line of taking over the palace.
Meanwhile, thousands others still headed to Tahrir Square which has been effectively locked and controlled by non-Islamist parties since 22 November, when President Morsi issued a constitutional declaration in which he gave himself unprecedented powers, including the right to issue any law he wanted, that it cannot be appealed in front of any court, and fired the prosecutor-general. He also provided immunity to decisions issued by the Constituent Assembly that drafted a new constitution, and the Shura Council, or the Upper House of parliament, that is totally controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties, namely the Salafist Nour Party.
To add salt to the wound, and despite his own decision in the 22 November constitutional declaration to extend the mandate of the Constituent Assembly for two months in order to give a chance to overcome differences between secular and Islamist parties on the draft constitution, Morsi rushed the process of approving the constitution, and called for a popular referendum on 15 December.
Morsi’s decision to hold the referendum clearly divided the opposition leaders, gathered under the NSF banner. The big question was whether to escalate protests and prevent the referendum from taking place, or to launch a campaign calling upon Egyptians to vote “no”, because they believed the draft constitution fell short of any expectations they had for Egypt after the 25 January Revolution.
Opposition leaders insist that the entire process of drafting the constitution has been faulty since it started. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in the Islamist parties, such as the Nour, insisted that parliament members should appoint the 100-member Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution. With over 70-per cent majority in the parliament that was dissolved by SCAF in June, they appointed mainly Islamists, whether members of the Brotherhood and Nour Party, or others known for sympathy with political Islamic groups and calls for implementing Islamic Sharia, or law. Islamists also rejected repeated appeals by secular parties that the approval of the new constitutions should not be according to simple majority, of 50+1, and at least two-thirds needed to agree on its articles.
The maximum compromise reached was that if approval of two-thirds was not possible, a second vote would be held in 48 hours and only 57 per cent majority would be needed. That was a threshold easily to secure by Islamists, and it became even easier when at least 30 representatives of secular parties, independent figures, and the Coptic Church all pulled out from the Constituent Assembly in early November in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s insistence on imposing certain articles that they believed would lead to the establishment of a strict Islamic state, limit freedoms and disregarded social and economic rights.
In less than 15 hours, between 2pm on Thursday and 6am on Friday, the Constituent Assembly approved all 236 articles in the constitution, nearly by consensus. They rushed the draft to the president, and he announced on Saturday 1 December the date for the referendum.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters also besieged the headquarters of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Maadi because they feared the judges which issue rulings that would declare the president’s recent decisions invalid. The main argument by Muslim Brotherhood leaders was that opposition parties should let the Egyptian people decide, and that if they did not like the draft, they should vote “no”. But that’s an argument vehemently opposed by non-Islamist parties, saying the present process violated earlier promises by the president that he would restructure the Constituent Assembly in order to assure the representation of all segments of the Egyptian society, including non-Islamists, women and Copts who were clearly present in Thursday’s demonstrations in Heliopolis in front of the presidency.
The massive participation in Tuesday protests had also obviously pressured opposition leader to escalate their position. While still not adopting officially the slogans repeated in the streets, calling for Morsi’s removal, hardly after five months in office, Al-Baradei, Sabahi, Moussa and other NSF leaders agreed in a meeting that took place late Tuesday that they would give the president a 48-hour ultimatum to respond to their demands. They insisted that the president should cancel the constitutional declaration he issued on 22 November, suspend his decision to call for a referendum in less than 10 days and to immediately call for a national dialogue to find a way out of the present crisis. They also called for massive mobilisation for huge demonstrations tomorrow, Friday 6 December, all over Egypt and announced their support for the sit-in that young protesters started in front of the presidential Al-Ittihadiya Palace.
Informed sources within the NSF told Al-Ahram Weekly that the only alternative opposition leaders would have if Morsi insisted on disregarding their demands is to support the calls repeated in the streets that President Morsi had lost his legitimacy, abused his powers and was not fit to rule Egypt.
However, the more serious fear came from opposing calls by Islamists to hold similar huge demonstrations, also on Friday, in which they would announce support for Morsi, and the new draft constitution. For Islamists, the battle over the constitution is that of life and death, because they believe that this is their biggest chance to implement their long-standing demand of turning Egypt into an Islamic state. One leader of a fundamentalist Islamic party had even gone as far as calling for “Jihad, or holy war” against those who opposed President Morsi.
Emad Abu Ghazi, secretary-general of the Dostour Party, warned against such calls for violence. He appealed to President Morsi to call upon his Muslim Brotherhood supporters not to head to Tahrir Square or try to remove the few dozens protesters who started their sit-in in front of Al-Ittihadiya Palace. “We hope President Morsi would play his role in building consensus among Egyptians, and not to adopt policies that push us towards fighting against each other,” Abu Ghazi said.

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