Egypt's anti-Morsi protests spread beyond Cairo

Egypt's angry political divide is evident well outside Cairo, with protests erupting against President Mohamed Morsi in Alexandria, along the Suez Canal, and in the Nile Delta.

By , Correspondent

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    In this image taken with a mobile phone camera late Wednesday, bystanders watch as a fire rages at the Muslim Brotherhood office in Ismailia, Egypt. Anti-Mohamed Morsi protesters stormed and set ablaze the Muslim Brotherhood offices in Suez and Ismailia, east of Cairo, and there were clashes in the industrial city of Mahallah and the province of Menoufiyah in the Nile Delta north of the capital.
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Violence erupting in the capital between supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and his political opposition is being mirrored outside Cairo, revealing the extent of divisions across the country as the political crisis over a proposed new constitution continued to spiral today.

Clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators broke out in Suez, the port city at one end of the famed canal of the same name, and in the industrial Nile Delta city of Mahalla Wednesday night. In Ismailia, near Suez, protesters stormed the Muslim Brotherhood office, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported. Similar attacks on Brotherhood offices were reported in smaller towns across the country.

In Alexandria, Muslim Brotherhood figure Sobhi Saleh was attacked by opponents of Mr. Morsi, landing the politician in an intensive care unit, the Brotherhood said on its website.

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Though troops were mobilized in Cairo and other cities today after Wednesday's clashes and the situation was calmer, the simmering hostility of Egypt's political divide remains perilously close to boiling over. The day was spent waiting to see how Morsi would shape his next steps. This evening, he addressed the nation, and the response of political activists was one of fury and disappointment. Morsi spoke of the crimes of protesters and of "black money" being used to bribe them to undermine the state, but offered little in way of concessions over a draft constitution he hopes to put to a national referendum Dec. 15.

“Things will get out of control unless the president tries to break this vicious cycle and reaches out for the other camp and tries to reach a compromise,” said Mazen Hassan, a political science lecturer at Cairo University, shortly before Morsi's address. “Basically what happened yesterday somehow changed the whole scene and … things can slip away very easily.”

If Mr. Hassan is right, Egypt has a dangerous few days ahead of it, since Morsi's speech appeared to double down on his commitment to the draft constitution. Egyptian activists were darkly warning that the tone of his speech was straight out of the Mubarak era, and that they expected imminent arrests of political figures as his next step. There did appear to be one concession in his speech: a revocation of a decree that removed him and the constitutional committee, packed with Islamists who drafted the document, from judicial oversight, if the constitution failed to be approved. 

“[Morsi] is setting us up for another dictatorship and taking control of all powers by himself without taking anyone’s opinion on this constitution,” says Esma El-Hagrassi, an accountant who protested Wednesday in front of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party office in Zagazig, another city in the Nile Delta. “He’s just a leader of a group of people with beards." 

But if the referendum is held on Dec. 15, it may well pass, leaving Egypt with a constitution rejected by a sizable proportion of the nation. Ms. Hagrassi says she is a minority in the city, where many people – as in other rural parts of Egypt – support the Muslim Brotherhood. “But recently we have been hearing people protesting against the Brotherhood in the streets,” she says.

On Thursday, clashes between security forces and protesters erupted near Morsi’s home in Zagazig (until recently he was on the engineering faculty at the university there), and 20 people were hospitalized because of tear-gas inhalation, local press reported. 

Popular enough?

“People who support Morsi outside Cairo are much [greater in number] than people against him,” says Ahmed Roushid, an engineer and member of the Brotherhood’s political party. A resident of Mansoura, north of Cairo, Mr. Roushid echoes many Morsi supporters when he says they make up Egypt’s majority. The Muslim Brotherhood's backers have praised Morsi’s decree as a key to moving toward stability and protecting democracy.

In parliamentary elections earlier this year (a judicial ruling later dissolved parliament), Islamists won almost 75 percent of the seats, gaining much of their support from rural regions where people are generally more religiously and socially conservative than those in the cities. People in rural areas make up more than 78 percent of Egypt’s poor, the World Bank says, and there is great desire for stability.

“Most Egyptians, not only outside Cairo but also inside Cairo, don’t care about anything but living in a quiet country, having a sort of stability, and their daily income is the first priority for them,” Roushid says. That desire for an end to turmoil could lead many to vote "yes" in the upcoming referendum. 

While some pro-Morsi demonstrators have rallied outside Cairo, protests in rural areas against Morsi and his constitutional decree have been staged by a relative minority who are eager to show they can speak against the president, says Hassan at Cairo University. They typically choose places that draw attention although protests have been small in size compared with those in Cairo.

Even so, the fact that some protests are taking place is indicative of how things have grown worse and the nation is really split in this period, he says. “This means divisions are getting deeper and deeper and the polarization that this country is going through is basically unprecedented as I can see it."

The January and February 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak reached its breaking point when protests erupted outside the capital, and there is fear that this might happen again, Hassan says. The current extent of unrest, however, does not compare to the 18 days that ended Mr. Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power.

Economic costs

Many Egyptians in and outside Cairo are finding it difficult to make a living alongside unrest that has come in waves since early 2011. That is the case for some in Aswan, a sleepy city in Upper Egypt that like Luxor – home to Valley of the Kings – relies on the tourism industry.

“It’s almost dead since the revolution started, and things are going from bad to worse,” says Hassan Abdel Rahim, a tour guide in Aswan, on the Nile River. “The latest clashes killed the season as it was about to start. I have heard about so many reservations being canceled.”

But even Aswan saw a small protest on Wednesday evening and groups are planning for a larger demonstration on Friday.

“Aswan is an extension of Tahrir Square,” says Ashraf Mekkawi, the local head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, a liberal group. “We feel we have lots of people who are having the same feelings or ideas against the regime and sympathize with us.”

Farther north and in Egypt’s east, the lower half of the Sinai Peninsula hosts a slew of vacation resorts in Sharm el Sheikh and elsewhere along the Red Sea coast. Here some are also struggling from unrest that hinders business.

“I just want tourism to come back and things to keep calm,” says Bedouin Mohammad Hassein, who doesn’t support any of the protesters.

Bedouins here complain of being disregarded in political decisions. Some considered having protests, says Sheikh Sleiman El-Sakhan, a community leader in Nuweiba. “But what is the benefit?” he asks. “We are too far removed from politics so we won’t get anything out of this. People in North and South Sinai … are just waiting for their own daily income.”

“It’s as if we don’t exist on the map,” he added.

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