Food, fuel and faith divide Cairo’s streets

While the president and army appear locked in conflict, the streets are divided between the extraordinary groundswell of dissent against the president and those loyalists staging their own sit-ins and demos.

“If the price for legitimacy is my blood, then I am prepared to sacrifice my blood to legitimacy and my homeland,” said Egypt’s President Morsi in a defiant television speech around midnight on 2 July. A day earlier, the army had given him an ultimatum: to “fulfill the demands of the people” or it will intervene. In other words, step down, or we will remove you.

Morsi’s speech rejected the army’s road map, derided the millions of protesters against him as remnants of the former regime and repeatedly declared his “constitutional legitimacy”, won at the ballot box just over a year ago.

The protests, largely spearheaded by a grass roots campaign called Tamarod (Rebel), which had collected 22 million signatures calling for his resignation. The group demands early presidential elections and a new constitution as well as an interim president and ruling technocratic council.

While the president and army appear locked in conflict, the streets are divided between the extraordinary groundswell of dissent against the president and those loyalists staging their own sit-ins and demos. As tensions rise, deadly clashes between rival protest groups have erupted across the country leaving dozens dead.

We are seeing two different visions of Egypt: Morsi and his largely Islamist supporters say he has legitimacy as the democratically elected president. But Egyptians in the street maintain that democracy is bigger than the ballot box: the president is unfit to rule, the people have spoken.

"I voted for that guy, so I'm here to defend my voice, he won the election the people made their choice. . . If some don't like it, go the polling stations at the end of his term," says Hamza Abu-Seer, 57, selling Morsi hats in the ongoing Islamist sit-in defending the president outside a Cairo mosque.

Democracy is a contractual agreement between people and an elected leader, maintains Gehad El-Haddad, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which are spear-heading the pro-Morsi protests, "and that contract was for four years."

He sees their struggles as means to defend "the right of the people to choose the leader of their country".

"We will not be jeopardised by anyone, even those with guns."

A flagbearer in Tahrir Square.
Photograph: Bel Trew

However, those calling for the president's ousting say he broke that trust with a series of unpopular and undemocratic decisions.

"This is part of democracy, people have the right to come to the streets and demand this, he breached the contract, especially with the constitutional declaration," says Mohamed Waked, an editior of Middle East-focused e-zine Jadaliyya, referring to a controversial move by the president in November last year to immunise his decrees and the Constituent Assembly from judicial review..

Waked sees this as a "turning point" for the beleaguered leader, who had won support after prying power from the military.

Morsi then pushed through a hastily-written constitution that many slammed as being drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

"Added to this was his and his party's incompetence, ineffectiveness at governing – they couldn't even run the country," Waked adds. Egypt's economy is in freefall: the pound is down about 20 per cent since the president took office, and foreign reserves continue to shrink. The knockdown effect on Egyptians is chronic fuel, water and bread shortages and crippling unemployment.

Economy aside, there have been concerns about freedoms as the number of people charged with insulting the president, which include journalists, bloggers and TV commentators, is higher than under Hosni Mubarak.

"I don't think it’s a bad idea that lousy presidents who perform poorly are impeached. Egypt would be a garbage bin in four years if he stays," concludes Waked.

Photograph: Bel Trew

Back at the pro-Morsi encampment, defenders of the president maintain a year is not long enough to fix Egypt. The president, they say, has wrestled power from the military, who took over for a year after Mubarak's ouster; ratified a fair constitution; and expanded media freedom.

Leading member of the Brotherhood Mohamed El-Beltagy riled up supporters on the sit in main stage calling on them to "say goodbye to their wives and children" and get ready for martyrdom.

The chants in the loyalist demonstrations often reference Islam as source of legitimacy: this is question of identity as much as political affiliation. Like the president said in his speech, their vision of Egypt must be defended to the death.

The Islamist current also assert that they are still the majority: "Everyone knows the Islamic stream in Egypt across repetitive elections represents 70 per cent of the population," asserts Haddad. "We're the biggest, most organised stream of Egyptians inside Egypt."

This again is refuted by anti-Morsi protesters.

"We are witnessing the demise of political Islam," Waked maintains. "It meant oppression, horrible economic conditions, it set social segments against each other, demonising the Shia and the Christians. People are fed up with this."

The president is backed by some Islamist groups like Gamaa Al-Islamiya, a once banned terrorist organisation, and the Wasat ("Centre") Party, originally formed in the Nineties as a splinter group of the Brotherhood.

However, the united front appeared to crack Wednesday when leading member of Gamaa Al-Islamiya Tarek El-Zomor told Reuters that his organisation was now calling for early presidential elections.

The embarrassing comment was quickly denied by the group -  El-Zomor is not a spokesperson - but the damage had already been done. 

Added to this the conservative Salafist Nour Party, the Brotherhood's main political rivals and the second biggest party in the country - called on Monday for snap elections and a technocratic government.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has only their supporters, and they're staying behind him, but outside the core he's weakened," maintains Khaled Fahmy, a historian and activist. "His power base is shrinking."

Fahmy adds that the president's speeches and actions appear to be only speaking to his support-base.

Certainly a number of unpopular government reshuffles over the last year have sparked these fears including the latest appointment of governorate heads last month. This saw tourism-hotspot Luxor given to a leading member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the very organization responsible for the infamous 1997 shooting spree which killed at least 58 foreign tourists.

A flag is waved during the presidential palace demonstrations.
Photograph: Bel Trew

The president left little room for manoeuvre with the opposition parties in his Tuesday speech. He did, however, call for dialogue.

Dr Diaa Adha, another leading member of the FJP, says the opposition over the last year repeatedly ignored offers of positions in government and his administration and have not met the president halfway. "They refused all kinds of democracy," he said.

However, the country's leading coalition of opposition forces the National Salvation Front (NSF), refute this. "We've had no communication from the other side [the Brotherhood] since December," maintains Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, senior member of the NSF. 

Morsi asserted in his speech on Tuesday that his "will is the will of the people" however he is losing support from within his own administration. In the last two days, six ministers have resigned together with two presidential spokespersons, rumours abound that more are jumping ship.

Meanwhile members of the military, who vowed to stay out of politics, released a statement on an unofficial Facebook page after his speech saying they will die protecting the Egyptian people from "terrorists, radicals and fools," leading many to wonder whether this was a warning shot at the president.

Back in the rival protest camps, it is telling that that each side compares the other to the former regime, claiming that they represent the real Egypt. 

"The Muslim Brotherhood is like Mubarak's National Democratic Party," says Ismail from the Nile Delta's Zagazig, Morsi's hometown. Ismail believes the Islamist group are slowly taking over and suffocating the country. At the anti-government rallies, organizers told all parties and movements to leave their own banners at home. A clever move: the result is a sea of Egyptian flags, a united nationalistic front.

Meanwhile at the Islamist sit-in, civil aviation engineer Farid Ismail, 43, says protesters are following the agenda of the former regime: "The opposition the minority in our country they want to act like thugs."

The military are in emergency talks, the presidency remains steadfast and the anti-government protesters vow they will not stop their daily demonstrations.

"We will never respect the president. He has split the nation," says Eman El-Mahdy from the Rebel campaign. "The Egyptian will is very strong. We won't be silenced."

A shorter version of this piece appears in this week's magazine, on newsstands 4 July.

The sun sets during the demonstrations at the presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Bel Trew
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit