A make or break moment for Egypt's President Morsi

The first anniversary of the president's inauguration is expected to spark nationwide protests. The grassroots campaign Tamarod aims to secure enough signatures to a vote-of-no-confidence petition to outweigh the 13 million votes that brought Morsi into p

Egypt is steeling itself in the run-up to nationwide protests against beleaguered President Mohamed Morsi on the first anniversary of his inauguration.

Sunday's demonstrations, which organisers claim will "make or break" the Muslim Brotherhood president, are spearheaded by a grassroots campaign Tamarod, meaning "rebel". It aims to secure enough signatures to a vote-of-no-confidence petition to outweigh the 13 million votes that brought Morsi into power.

Tamarod say they have already collected at least 18 million, and will present them to Morsi.

As tensions rise, rumours abound that the army may intervene, just one year after handing power to a civilian chief.  Defense Minster Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi cryptically said Sunday that the military "stayed out of political matters" but has a duty to "prevent Egypt slipping into a dark tunnel."

Meanwhile the police, historically hostile to the Brotherhood, vowed to protect state institutions but not the group's headquarters, which have recently been targeted in firebomb attacks.

Tamarod spokesperson Eman El-Haghy tells the New Statesman confidently that they will call on the head of the Constituent Assembly to be interim president. "The president has dragged our country backwards… he has not fulfilled the revolution's goals."

Tamarod say political forces will choose a transitional president and technocratic government to draft a constitution before elections: a tough call for an opposition that critics say hasn't united around anything except dislike of the Brotherhood.

Nevertheless the mounting anger against Morsi is significant.

"I don't think it gets more serious than this," says Hisham Hellyer, Cairo-based non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute.

"He doesn’t have even have a monopoly on the Islamist trend, the different [ultraconservative] Salafi parties are not deserting him but they are getting there. The more left-leaning Islamist parties are joining protests."

Certainly the non-Islamist faction who backed Morsi during elections - largely to block his rival, Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq - are now organising demonstrations.  The National Salvation Front, Egypt's largest opposition bloc, has meanwhile rejected any dialogue.

Protesters are demanding "bread, freedom and social justice," the same grievances they voiced during the revolution.

Egypt suffers from a flailing economy; bread, water and fuel crises; and a brutal police force which hasn't been held to account. Many say the recently-ratified Constitution was hastily drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

Basic rights continue to be violated.

According to Human Rights Watch, bloggers and journalists are increasingly being prosecuted for "insulting" officials. State torture remains endemic; defamation and blasphemy prosecutions are increasing.

"The economy is not doing well," says Ahmed Galal, Director of Cairo-based Economic Research Forum.  "The budget deficit is growing, and there is sluggish economic growth at a time of growing unemployment."

Continued unrest and no political consensus means foreign investment has dried up, Galal adds. "Most of Egypt's economic problems would be resolved if a political settlement is reached." Something Morsi has yet to do.

Hellyer says the president also picked fights with institutions like the interior ministry and judiciary "without correct political support."

One embarrassing example was when the High Constitutional Court rejected the electoral law last month, meaning Egypt won't have a parliament until 2014, even though the president had already called elections.

Morsi himself faces direct judicial challenges: Shafiq is appealing the results of last year's presidential poll.

Even the Brotherhood admits expectations have not been met.

"The first year has been much more troublesome than we had expected," says Gehad El-Haddad, an advisor to the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, adding that the government's performance has not been "optimum".

State institutions, El-Haddad says, are the problem. "They are unprofessional and corrupt and actually challenge the president's initiatives."

El-Haddad also maintains that the media distort Morsi's record. Despite the hype, he believes there isn't widespread demand for Morsi's resignation.

Hellyer says Sunday's protests, if successful, are dangerous. "The propensity for violence would increase. It's very bad for the story for Egyptian democracy, as it says that government can be thrown out after a year."

"The only way Morsi leaves is by the military forcing him out, which involves violence and social disorder." Clashes have already broken out in several governorates in the lead up.

Activists maintain they will keep their protests peaceful with marches "with people holding whistles and red cards to signify that it is game over," El-Haghy explains. There will also be protests outside Egyptian embassies in cities around the world - including New York and London.

"We told the world that 30 June, the day we gave him our vote, will be the day we withdraw our confidence."

Whether Morsi will exit the pitch early remains to be seen. 

A protest artist paints Tamarod or "Rebel" graffiti in downtown Cairo ahead of anniversary demos against the president. Photograph: Gregg Carlstrom
Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.