Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi addressed the nation tonight after two days of protests and clashes that have seen bloodshed and a polarization of society between Islamists, who appear to be in the majority, and citizens who favor secular government.
The president insisted that a constitutional referendum scheduled for Dec. 15 will go forward, offered no compromises on the contents of the document, and warned that elements among the protesters are seeking to destabilize Egypt.
His supporters at the palace shared that point of view this afternoon. Mahmoud Abdelaziz, an engineer, says the opposition constitutes no more than 10 percent of Egyptians. "This fight will be over soon," he says.
Other supporters say they captured 42 “thugs” during the violence of the night before. They handed them over to the palace guards, not to the police. “We don’t trust the police anymore since they let the protesters flood the perimeter of the palace on Tuesday. Some of them sympathize with the other side.”
The propaganda from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that's at the base of Morsi's power, has worked well on these men, who seem to genuinely believe that they are saving their country from destruction. But elsewhere cracks are appearing in the Brotherhood's facade, suggesting that it's more than just a “bunch of thugs” who are unhappy with Morsi.
Nine Morsi administration officials have quit their jobs since the president issued a decree on Nov. 22 giving himself unprecedented powers.
On Thursday, the vice-president of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Rafik Habib, said he was retiring from political life. Habib is a Christian, and he served as a token of the Brotherhood’s openness and diversity.
The head of Egypt’s state TV, Essam El-Amir, quit in protest over what he called Morsi’s mismanagement and dividing of the country. The secretary-general of the commission that is supposed to oversee the referendum over Egypt’s new constitution on Dec. 15 also quit, saying that he “will not participate in a referendum that has spilled Egyptian blood.”
And in what must be most embarrassing for an Islamist president, Al Azhar, the highest Sunni religious authority in Egypt called on Morsi on Thursday to suspend the decree and enter into real dialogue with the opposition.
Former top Brother speaks
Kemal Helbawy didn’t wait for Morsi’s decree to resign from the Muslim Brotherhood.
A former member of the Brotherhood’s guidance bureau, and its spokesperson in the 1990s, Mr. Helbawy joined the movement at age 12. He spent 23 years in exile in the UK until the fall of Mubarak. In March, he spectacularly resigned while live on a TV talkshow, on the same day the Brotherhood announced that it was running Khairat El Shater for president.
“It has been said that I resigned over El Shater’s presidential bid, but that’s not true,” says Helbawy in his office in Nasr City. “It was the reluctance of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in formally joining the revolution.... I told them on Jan. 20, 2011 – I was at the time in London in my exile – that it was a shame that we didn’t invite all the people to come to Tahrir Square. Because they had announced that they would not participate in what they thought was just a demonstration. Then when they did effectively join the revolution they left early, and they didn’t participate in the demonstrations during the transition period.”
Candidate Shater, who had done time in prison under Mubarak for his political activism, was ultimately disqualified from running and replaced with Morsi. He is said to remain extremely influential within the organization.
Helbawy was surprised when the Brotherhood announced on Feb. 10, 2011, one day before Mubarak stepped down, that it would not seek the presidency in a post-Mubarak Egypt. “Nobody was thinking about the presidential elections at that time. Mubarak was still there. It suggested that there was a deal with [Mubarak’s] NDP party.”
The final straw came when Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was kicked out of the Brotherhood for announcing his own run for the presidency, against the leadership’s wishes, followed shortly afterwards by the Brotherhood going back on its own promise by nominating Shater.
“All of this for me, as one who stood in the leadership for many years, suggested to me that this could not come to a good end," Helbawy says. “It got me to asking why I was still part of a movement where the leadership is deviating from some of the main principles that we were taught. If Hassan El Banna [the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] was alive in November 2011, during the Mohammed Mahmoud Street crisis, he would have brought bed sheets and covers and spent the night with the revolutionaries there."
Helbawy is referring to fighting between protesters and riot police not far from Tahrir Square last year that left dozens dead, in what then was a battle between the forces of change and the military, which ran the country from the time Mubarak stepped down to Morsi's election in June of this year.
“At the same time, the Brotherhood leadership was describing the revolutionaries as ‘baltageya’ (thugs) and ‘felool’ (remnants of the old regime). They used the revolution to reach their aims. They wanted to come to power, and then to rule according to sharia. This was declared last Saturday when they named the march to support Morsi ‘Sharaya and sharia,’ power and Islamic law.”
He brings out a copy of the draft constitution on which the Egyptians have to vote in a referendum on Dec. 15 to explain why he's concerned. “The first line says, ‘This is our constitution.’ That’s very good. But the next line says, ‘This is the January 25 revolution document.’ It is not up to them to make a document of the revolution. The revolutionaries have a right to do that, the mothers and father of the martyrs and the wounded, the ones who stayed true to the revolution. But not the constitutional assembly ... there are words in here that have different meanings, contradictory meanings.”
His evaluation of Morsi’s track record is not flattering.
“He did not succeed in running the country as promised, and he did not fulfill most of his promises. Whether he is running the show or not, he is fully responsible and he will have to bear the consequences," Helbawy says. “He makes silly mistakes. When the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators went to his palace, he came out and spoke to them. When the others, the opposition, came to the palace he did not care about them. The country was divided [before Morsi came to power] but not seriously. Now it is. And Morsi cannot be excluded from the blame for this."
He is uneasy with the violence yesterday, and says he's worried that Morsi will end up going beyond the limits of his electoral mandate. “What happened yesterday [the attack on the sit-in] is very serious. All my life I have been against dictatorship. I will not call Morsi a dictator. He is an elected president. But there are signs of dictatorship. I can be elected, and then when the people rise up against me, I respond by saying that I am the elected president. This is a sign of dictatorship. You have to listen to the people again and again."
Unlike Morsi’s supporters he does not dismiss the opposition as a minority to be disregarded.
“Of course, the majority of the people are Muslim and they love Islam. If you arouse their emotions more than their minds they will be with you. And the others may not have very strong roots in the community. But if they manage to reach the people and convince them that this is not the proper way, and this constitutional declaration is not accepted, or the referendum is not good at this time, or the constitution draft is full of mistaken items. If you manage to tell the people that and to convince them, then Morsi will lose and the Muslim Brotherhood will lose. It is a real battle now over the will of the Egyptian people. If you convince them you will succeed.”