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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.

The sun sets during the demonstrations at the presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Bel Trew

“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.

Tags:Egypt