“We are fighting a dictatorship. We have to stop it now"

Bel Trew reports on the protests in Egypt.

Egyptians protesters stage a sit-in protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo
Egyptians protesters stage a sit-in protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images

There will be blood,” 22-year old Diaa Galal told me, amid acrid plumes of tear gas on 26 November, the night before thousands of protesters once again flocked to Tahrir Square in Cairo.

No one had seen it coming. On 22 November, just a day after brokering a truce between Gaza and Israel, the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, announced a constitutional declaration making his decisions immune to appeal, stripping the judiciary of powers and adding a stipulation that he can take any “necessary actions” to “protect the nation”.

Commentators described the Muslim Brotherhood president, whose supporters had helped oust Hosni Mubarak last year, as “a half-god”, a “pharaoh”; his decree was slammed as a “fascist coup”.

Street battles and protests erupted to the north in Port Said and Alexandria, down south in Assiut, to the west in Suez and in the capital. The stock market plunged almost 10 per cent, the $4.8bn IMF loan, which is in the last stages of negotiation, is on the line and the US has reportedly considered withdrawing aid.

Bloody battles between pro-and anti-Brotherhood crowds left a 15-year-old boy dead in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur, a one-time Brotherhood stronghold. Two teenage anti-government protesters were gunned down by police just off Tahrir Square and multiple offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have been stormed and torched.

Away from the streets, independent trade unions and the courts announced their rejection of the declaration. On Tahrir, a coalition of opposition forces has been staging an open-ended sit-in until Morsi backtracks: the square is a tent city once again.

“We are fighting a dictatorship. We have to stop it now,” says Mohamed Waked, a political writer and member of the National Front for Justice and Democracy, part of the coalition. He explains there are now no state institutions in place that can hold Morsi back.

“Hosni Mubarak never dreamed of these kinds of powers,” adds Hussein Gohar, the international secretary of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, standing by its tent on Tahrir Square.

The Brotherhood faction vehemently disagrees. There is no other way of Morsi steering Egypt through the transition period than by giving the president these powers, Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and FJP, maintains. “Egypt is not a democracy, it is in a transition to a democratic state – so these measures must be taken.”

Morsi, for his part, called himself the “guarantor of the revolution” and said his actions were pushing stability. El-Haddad says the 22 November declaration was meant to pre-empt the dissolution of the constituent assembly – the committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution by Egypt’s courts –which remains peopled with Mubarak-era judges. This and the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, which also faces dissolution, were Egypt’s last two elected institutions, he told me, that “would create democracy”. Morsi’s declaration was intended to protect them.

However, the opposition, as Waked explains, sees the constituent assembly as corrupt and unrepresentative. Assembly members from al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest Islamic authority), the Coptic Church and a large proportion of the liberal and leftist forces have left the constitutiondrafting body. On 26 November, the last remaining non-Muslim Brotherhood female member, Manar el-Shorbagy, resigned. This leaves a Muslim Brotherhooddominated body to write the national charter, Waked notes – something the Islamists will protect at all costs.

El-Haddad flatly denies this accusation, saying Morsi has been “backstabbed” by the opposition, but concedes that there are no checks and balances on the president. “The people must trust him,” he insists. A tall order, the opposition says, for a country that lived through over 30 years of “temporary” emergency law.

Tags:Egypt