As the Egyptian opposition's demands for the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi and fresh elections gain momentum, the beleaguered president's supporters are slamming the opposition as secular and hostile to Islam.
In the deeply religious country, it is a serious criticism, and it has brought many Egyptians to Mr. Morsi's side. But his opponents point to support from the leading voice of the Sunni establishment in Egypt.
Earlier this month, Ashraf Abdel-Moniem, a conservative preacher and a vocal supporter of Morsi, declared that it was obligatory for Muslims to confront, even kill, anyone protesting against the government. The head of Al Azhar University, Egypt's leading Sunni institution, disagreed saying “peaceful opposition to the government is acceptable in Islam.”
Since, the political temperature in Egypt has only risen. At least two people were killed and scores injured in clashes over the weekend between supporters and opponents of Morsi.
The ongoing conflict between some Islamists – who see the attempt to topple Morsi as an affront to his electoral mandate – and the opposition has plunged Egypt into the “deepest crisis since the Jan. 25 revolution,” says Khaled Fahmy, a professor at the American University in Cairo. (Editor's note: Khaled Fahmy's name has been corrected.)
A broad coalition of opposition groups – dubbed Tamarod or “Rebel” – is planning to hold protests beginning June 30 and lasting until Morsi is removed from office. They say Mr. Morsi has spent the last year shoring up his party's control of Egypt's institutions instead of stabilizing a shrinking economy and mounting energy shortages.
With his number of allies shrinking by the day, Morsi has turned to a handful of salafy Islamist groups who see his government as the first step towards an Egypt governed by their interpretation of Islamic law. Morsi's salafy allies have threatened to use violence to preserve his presidency. “Not necessarily the Brotherhood,” says Mr. Fahmy, “but people to the right of the Brotherhood are taking things into that direction.”
In a bid to show its street strength, the Muslim Brotherhood organized a day-long rally on June 21 in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood.
“Yes to Islam, no to violence, no to secularism!” shouted supporters at the rally, which drew hundreds of thousands of people from all over Egypt. “There is no shame in sharia (Islamic law),” read a sign held by a protester.
Sabry Gaad, a teacher who attended the protest, said he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but opposes Tamarod because “they are against sharia.” He questioned the group's claim that it had widespread support – Tamarod says that its campaign to gather 15 million signatures on a petition calling for new elections is close to reaching its goal.
Former President Hosni Mubarak suppressed religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, routinely jailing the Brotherhood's members – including Morsi – and charged them with supporting violent Islamist groups.
Since his election Morsi has pushed for the release of many Islamists jailed under Mubarak, including leaders from Al Gamaa al-Islamiya (GI), a former militant group that renounced violence a decade ago after a 1990s insurgency that killed hundreds of civilians and security officials.
At the rally last week, Assem Abdel Maged, a GI leader, warned that the opposition sought to overturn a democratic mandate to implement Islamic law in Egypt. "Some who lost at the ballot box want to take power through anarchy," he said.
Mr. Abdel Maged has previously said the Tamarod campaign is led by “communists, [Mubarak loyalists], and Coptic extremists,” who are “hostile to Islam.” Safwat Abdel Ghany, a leading member of the group, said earlier this month that the Tamarod campaign was not a campaign in response to economic problems, but a “war on Islam.”
Not everyone agrees. “Egypt is a religious country, we love Islam,” said Ahmed Marghani, a dentist from Alexandria who attended the pro-Morsi rally. “But we do not need sharia … people do not need laws to control them.”
Marghani said he simply wanted to make sure Morsi, a democratically elected president, was not toppled by an opposition that did not respect the country's constitution.
Amal Sharaf is one of the founding members of the April 6 Youth Movement, which began as a campaign to support factory workers in 2008. It helped organize the 2011 protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak and backed Morsi in the 2012 elections because his only opponent was Ahmad Shafiq, a former Mubarak regime member.
She rejected the claims that the opposition is predominantly secular, implying the accusation was merely a vote-getting tactic.
“[The Brotherhood] is mixing politics with religion,” Sharaf says. “To win people's votes, their attention, their sympathy. The 15 million signatures we have are not from atheists..they are using religion in a very cheap way.”
In fact, acknowledgment, if not support, of the opposition's grievances has come from a number of Islamist quarters.
The Al Nour party, the country's largest party of ultra-conservative salafis and the second-largest party in the government after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party – has refused to participate in the pro-Brotherhood campaign. While he does not support calls for a fresh election, Al Nour spokesman Nadr Bakr denounced pro-Brotherhood rallies by Islamists as “only fostering the current crisis, which harms the country and its economy."
“We hoped Morsi would turn Egypt into a new country,” says Ramy El-Swissy, another founder of April 6, “A sovereign country based on human rights and equality for everyone....but he started to work for his own benefit, for his own Brotherhood.”
“We will never accept this, after two years of fighting the old regime and then the military council.”