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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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue