President Mohamed Morsi is said to be depressed and unwell. Only through the sixth month of what should be a four-year presidential term, this first freely-elected civilian president, who comes from the ranks of a group seen as the arch-enemy of the republic since its establishment in 1952, is faced with challenges that seem set to escalate rather than abate.
“Every day is harder than the one before. It is really tough. He is working round the clock, and he is very saddened, of course, by events. He feels challenged by a far-reaching conspiracy,” said one presidential aide.
According to the aide and sources in the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Morsi’s presidential victory was never fully accepted by some state bodies that would have preferred to see Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak who ran against Morsi in the second round of the elections last summer, as president instead.
Mohamed Al-Beltagui, a member of the Brotherhood and the FJP, spoke of the “plot” that Morsi has twice alluded to over the past two weeks in an interview with state-run TV and later in a televised statement.
At first, Al-Beltagui spoke of the involvement of an “intelligence major” in promoting the anti-Morsi protests during the outcry against the 22 November constitutional declaration eliminating judicial review of the president’s edicts. The president already has legislative as well as wide-ranging executive powers.
Later, Al-Beltagui spoke of the involvement of leading members of the judiciary in the plot, making direct reference to members of the Supreme Constitutional Court and to the former prosecutor-general, removed by Morsi on 22 November after the president had failed to remove him a month earlier.
Also coming under fire were members of the National Salvation Front, a broad umbrella group of liberal-civil political forces that oppose the president’s constitutional declaration of 22 November.
According to sources speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Beltagui has also been sending reprimands to young Islamist activists with previous associations with the Muslim Brotherhood to the effect that they could have “their heads broken”, a loose threat that could mean anything from physical attacks, to arrests, to physical elimination.
The accusations and anger voiced by many around the president are not without foundation. Weekly sources say that during the past month information has been provided through state and non-state intelligence machinery indicating attempts to stir up unrest in key state bodies ranging from the judiciary to the army and from the police to the independent labour unions.
A plot to organise parallel “action” on the part of the judiciary, the police and the army has been put forward by several independent and presidential sources, who suggest that while the former prosecutor-general was planning to provide evidence supporting the complaints made by Shafik that the results of the elections had been tampered with in favour of Morsi, a group of intelligence and army officers were planning “to act to reinstate legitimacy” in line with “the heavy media campaign” that the president has been complaining has been undermining his image.
“The president had to act to halt the plot, and the fact that he is not talking about it is prompted by his wish to keep the top state bodies away from being entangled in a complex political conspiracy that is really being operated from overseas in favour of eliminating the rule of the Islamists,” said the presidential aide.
This week Khairat Al-Shater, the vice supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and the group’s strong man who was supposed to run for president instead of Morsi had it not been for legal complications, spoke of the “conspiracy” to whose parties he added the Coptic Church.
This talk of a conspiracy has been supported by non-Muslim Brotherhood members from the Islamist camp.
Salafi figure Hazem Abu Ismail, who was denied the right to join the presidential race after he had been proven to have lied over his mother’s American nationality, amassed his supporters in front of the Media Production City on the outskirts of Cairo in order to protest against the “corrupt media” that he said was involved in the anti-Morsi conspiracy.
Abu Ismail’s demonstrations were supported by no less a figure than Ayman Al-Zawahri, the fugitive leader of Al-Qaeda.
For Asmaa, a 30-year-old demonstrator who had been frequenting the vicinity of the presidential palace over the past week to demonstrate against the president, the Abu Ismail and Al-Zawahri statements would not stop her from shouting “down, down with Morsi — Egypt is not a state for the Islamists but is for all Egyptians.”
Asmaa does not accept the “conspiracy talk” that the president is offering to “justify his dictatorial moves”.
The current political crisis that the president, some would argue the nation, is facing started on 22 November when Morsi issued his constitutional declaration that was widely rejected even by some political groups and figures with an affinity or association with political Islam.
Judge Tarek Al-Beshri was outspoken in his criticism, and so was the Strong Egypt Party, led by former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.
In his search for an exit from the dilemma, Morsi, after consultations with public figures, judicial experts and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, decided to issue a new declaration that removed the extra-judicial powers he had granted himself in the original declaration and called for a referendum on the draft constitution on 15 December.
This document is also controversial, and it has been described by liberals as reflecting Islamist views.
This new declaration prompted the anger of political forces that have been calling for adequate consultation over the text of the draft constitution and not just that of liberals who fear a clampdown on freedoms. Socialists and leftists also say it overlooks basic socio-economic rights and gives the upper hand to the rich.
On Tuesday, as larger groups of demonstrators were finding their way to the presidential palace to protest against the call for the 15 December referendum, Morsi was trying to find an exit route that would spare him continued public pressure. In this connection, Morsi met with prominent writers Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Fahmy Howeidy at the presidential palace on Tuesday noon. Tuesday’s meeting came as part of the national dialogue to which President Morsi has lately invited all political forces.
Morsi’s task is not easy because what might appease public opinion will not necessarily go down well with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, according to the assessments of some Cairo-based diplomats, will feel that it is bowing to public pressure, setting a precedent for the future.
“Al-Shater is saying that he is sure the constitution will be passed with the approval of no less than 65 per cent of the voters. This is the message that he has passed to President [Barack] Obama,” said one Western diplomat in Cairo.
According to the assessment shared by the president with his top cabinet members, the constitution might well be approved by 70 per cent of the voters if there was a limited turn out of around 50 million voters.
A cabinet source told the Weekly that directives have been issued to the governors of the country’s governorates and to the members of the Waqf Ministry (religious endowments) to work closely with the FJP in order to promote the constitution.
Garnering support to pass the constitution is a prime objective now for all state bodies. According to a former adviser to the president who resigned recently over the constitutional declaration and referendum debate, Morsi only agreed to scrap the 22 November constitutional declaration and replace it with another to encourage the country’s judges to supervise the referendum.
It would have been a significant blow had they declined, and according to presidential sources Morsi was informed on Tuesday morning that there would be enough judges to supervise next Saturday’s referendum.
Morsi has also decided to grant the military the prerogatives of the police to secure their otherwise reluctant participation in providing security in the lead-up to and during the referendum.
The support of the military is perceived as crucial, especially since many demonstrators and commentators have been looking to the Armed Forces to replay the role they played during the 25 January Revolution when the army announced its early “support of the legitimate demands of the Egyptian people”.
According to Weekly sources, for the most part the country’s top generals and the minister of defence have seemed to be in favour of staying away from the current dilemma and of supporting the president in finding an exit from it and reconciliation with the country’s other political forces.
That said, the same sources say they are not sure that such a reconciliatory exit would be easy to find, especially given what they call the poor state of presidential management.
This poor management was again demonstrated this week, when the presidency announced that the president had signed a law implementing price hikes and increases on taxes on Sunday afternoon, only to have this law suspended less than six hours later.
The confusion was blamed by the FJP on a government qualified as “inapt” and “disloyal” to the president.
For Hadi, an activist joining a demonstration at the presidential palace on Tuesday afternoon, if anybody was to be blamed for the performance of the government it should be the president and nobody else.
“He had promised to appoint a high-quality government and to have a key public figure at the top of it, but instead he chose a very weak prime minister just because he was an Islamist. He also chose poorly performing ministers again because they are Islamists. If the president wants a better government, he can appoint one. He is the one who got us into this problem, and he has to get us out of it. If the job is too difficult for him, then let him leave,” Hadi said.
The call for the president to step down was not the consensus among the demonstrators around the presidential palace or at Tahrir Square, however. Some demonstrators said they had not wanted to see Morsi as president in the first place and that they would be glad to see him go, while others said that they had voted for Morsi only in order to avoid Shafik.
Now, the same people said, they would want Morsi to go even if the alternative was Shafik. A third group of protesters said that what they really wanted was democracy and for the elected president to act in line with the wishes of the nation.
“I did not vote for Morsi. I boycotted the elections because I did not want either the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood or of Shafik. Now we can see that Brotherhood rule is divisive rule, though Shafik would have been a continuation of the Mubarak regime,” commented Kadriya, a retired civil servant.
Speaking on Friday night, when anger was still high at the deaths of young demonstrators during last Wednesday’s protests, Kadriya was concerned about the “continued unrest and bloodshed” which she feared could take the country over the brink.
“It is not wise to insist that Morsi should go because his group and supporters would rather see a bloodbath before this happens,” she said. “Instead, we should insist that the president does not impose the style and agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood on the country. Let him finish his term, and then we can elect someone else.”
For many commentators, it is hard to tell whether the current crisis and its potential aftermath will prematurely terminate Morsi’s presidency. However, for some it is clear that the current crisis, the worst encountered by Morsi, will eventually lead to his fall even before he can complete his first term in office of four years, five if the draft constitution is approved in the referendum.
“Let’s face it — at the beginning of this crisis the call of ‘down with Morsi’ was limited, but now it is gaining ground,” said George Ishak, a veteran opposition figure to the Mubarak regime.
According to Ishak, “ultimately the decision will be made by the people, and the people will judge the performance of the president who has so far failed to show any of the statesmanship needed, especially during these challenging times.”
For economist Hanaa Ebeid, it is likely that anti-Morsi sentiments will increase. “It is a very complex situation because the president is faced with harsh political problems at a time of economic hardship,” Ebeid said.
The International Monetary Fund loan that Morsi is “so keen to get” during a time of declining state incomes will inevitably require some unpopular economic decisions that will affect not only the middle class, but also other parts of society that already face economic burdens, she said.
“The trouble partly lies with the poor assessment of the opposition. The president tends to think that this is an isolated elite and a group of sympathisers of the ousted Mubarak regime, which is not the case.”
She added that the longer it takes for Morsi to realise that there are genuine public concerns over his style of rule and over his political and economic choices, the harder it will be for Morsi’s presidency to find its course.
“With the expected currency devaluation that is coming with the IMF loan, social unrest will go into a clearer and angrier phase that might offer a serious challenge to the presidency,” Ebeid said.
For Hassan Abu Taleb, a political analyst, it might take less than the social unrest that will come from unpopular economic decisions to shake Morsi’s presidency.
“By antagonising segments of society and pitting them against one another, Morsi thought he could find an exit from the corner that the civil opposition was pushing him into. However, by doing so he has ignited a process of societal confrontation that he might not be able to defuse even once the constitution is passed,” Abu Taleb said.
The scenarios that Abu Taleb put forward for the coming months are gloomy. The civil-Islamist tug-of-war is likely to continue beyond the current crisis, he said, especially among the younger generations, and the attempts by the anti-Morsi camp to solicit wider support from within and without is likely to increase in view of fears that the president “is acting as the representative of the Islamists and not as president of all Egyptians”.
Meanwhile, “Morsi’s popularity in Washington, which is based on facilitating the consent of Hamas to the Israeli-decided terms for a truce between the two sides, will be challenged if the truce is broken, and it could well be broken, by none other than the president’s own constituency if he fails to act against Israel the next time it attacks the Palestinians,” Abu Taleb said.
The worst scenario of all would be if the president decided to “follow the advice of some who have been urging him to start a round of arrests that would include top political figures and even some former Muslim Brotherhood members who have defected,” he said, adding that this scenario may not be unlikely.
For political commentator Amr Hashem Rabie, Morsi might, or might not, be able to exit the current crisis because there are no guarantees that the demonstrations against him will stop if the constitution is passed in a small turnout in the referendum.
Even if the demonstrations were to be suspended for now, Rabie added, there are no guarantees that they will not start again over another problem in the future.
“Morsi should have focussed on attending to the country’s socio-economic problems, but instead he has been diverted into confrontations that are designed to strengthen his grip on power. This is not the way to a stable presidency,” Rabie said.