Can fragmented Egypt find 15 million who want President Morsi out?

The key to the success of Egypt's 'Rebel' campaign may be its modest scope: Collecting signatures on a petition calling for early elections to replace President Morsi.

By , Correspondent

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    Tamarod campaign member Ahmed Essam asks drivers to sign a petition in Tahrir Square on June 17, in Cairo. Tamarod is collecting signatures to petition for the removal of President Mohamed Morsi and a call to protest on June 30.
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As night falls over Moqattam, the Cairo neighborhood that houses the headquarters of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, a small group stands in the sea of traffic, clutching homemade banners bearing a single word: “Rebel."

A steady stream of taxis and microbuses stops to greet them and each driver is handed a petition, one of millions that have been being distributed across the country over the past months that call on Egyptians to push against the rule of President Mohamed Morsi.

The Tamarod, or "Rebel," campaign aims to collect 15 million signatures backing a call for early presidential elections. The petitions hold no legal force, but they reveal widespread discontent at President Morsi’s government almost a year after he took power. Organizers say Morsi's time is up. 

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But the president’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) argues the campaign is illegitimate and exists outside the constitutional framework and therefore should not compel Morsi to do anything.

Egyptians are deeply divided and many have little faith in the political parties that have emerged since former dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled more than two years ago. A new poll by Zogby Research Services released on Monday found that only 28 percent of Egyptians view President Morsi’s victory as positive – half of what it was when he was first elected. 

But Egyptians seem to have few alternatives. The opposition parties have routinely failed to attract popular support or organize on a national scale; the poll found that leading opposition blocs were only trusted by 34 percent of Egyptians.

Tamarod’s petitions have been distributed in streets, housing blocs, and even government ministries across the country. An official spokesperson estimated they'd collected 7 million signatures by the end of May and organizers claim they have almost reached 15 million. The final tally will be announced by June 30, when Tamarod has called for nationwide demonstrations.

Against a backdrop of widespread disillusionment, Tamarod’s success appears to lie in its limited goals. Mostafa Alethy, one of the Moqattam organisers, says it is Tamarod’s simplicity that is attracting support when mass street demonstrations have repeatedly failed.

“We’ve united people from so many different walks of life behind a single goal: the fall of the regime. It isn’t complicated and people agree on it for so many different reasons.”

No different than Mubarak?

The millions who have put pen to paper in support have myriad grievances. After decades of corruption and political mismanagement, Morsi's critics say his inaction and incompetence have exacerbated Egypt's problems. Unemployment has risen beyond 13 percent and food prices have doubled since last fall, a double blow to families who were already struggling to put meals on the table.

As he signs a petition from the front seat of his taxi, Abdelrahman Sayed Abdelrahman says it is Morsi’s inability to fix the economy that has prompted him to join the campaign. “I had hoped that our president could make a difference but the country is now going backwards,” he says. “Now, everything is harder.”

Many signatories cite anger at the Brotherhood’s perceived attempts to dominate state institutions. They say that the top positions in government, ranging from the ministry of justice to the ministry of culture, are being filled by officials most loyal to an Islamist agenda, rather than those who are most qualified for the job.

“It’s this Islamisation that I fear the most”, says housewife Heba Raouf. “I may be a Muslim but that doesn’t mean that I believe religion should be a factor in professional appointments. If I need something from a ministry now, I have to have a contact in the Brotherhood. How is this different from the days of Mubarak?”

Nowhere to go

Counting these individual expressions of discontent is a mammoth task. Inside Tamarod’s Cairo headquarters, volunteers sift through boxes of papers, cross-checking names with national identification numbers In a database. Petitions that do not include identification numbers are discarded to ensure that no one can sign twice.

But even if the campaign reached its numerical goal, it is unlikely to force Morsi to step down.

“At present, there is simply no democratic context for this petition to work in,” says Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. He argues that the an elected parliament would be the only legitimate channel for political grievances like Tamarod's. But there is no elected parliament. Last June, Egypt’s parliament was dissolved by a judicial ruling, and elections for the new body are not expected to be held until October at the earliest.

“This is why we need parliamentary elections as soon as possible: that is when all these petitions could amount to something,” says Mr. Haddad. “But if the channels do not exist, they cannot amount to anything... at the end of the day, this is a president who was voted for by half of the Egyptian population.”

No more instability

The excitement generated by Tamarod has stoked the fears of Islamists and of citizens who fear a return to frequent street protests and instability.

In response, a pro-Morsi counter-campaign known as Tagarud, or "Impartiality," is now mobilizing its own supporters, using confrontational rhetoric that has bolstered concerns that Tamarod’s June 30th demonstration will be marred by violence.

"If Morsi ends up being ousted by violence or a coup by the army or police, there will be an Islamic revolution," Al-Ghaddafi Abdel Razek, a Tagarud campaign manager, told Reuters. "We have our people in the army and the police, too, and we are ready."

Back in Moqattam, the campaigners have also been confronted by citizens who fear the impact of yet more demonstrations.

“We just want to eat bread, not spend our whole lives protesting,” real estate supervisor Alaa Badia tells petitioners angrily. “Every time the country takes one step forward, your protests and demonstrations bring it back to square one.”

But even as Badia argues with the campaigners, a steady stream of residents continue to approach, asking to sign petitions.

“Of course some people don’t like our work, especially here so close to the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters,” says Alethy. “But do you know why people like it? It’s because we don’t want power. We just want better.”

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