Morsi's speech: too little, too late for opposition

President Morsi's speech last night failed to deflate the anger fueling anti-government protests.

Egyptian Presidency/AP
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is urging his opponents to use elections, not protests, to try to change the government.

President Mohamed Morsi used a televised address last night to offer an assessment of his first year in office, veering from calls for reconciliation to condemnation of the country’s political opposition. But political opponents say the conciliatory message came too late, and will not stop their momentum as mass protests calling for his resignation near. 

Mr. Morsi has been heavily criticized for doing little to encourage the political unity that will be necessary to deal with the country’s mounting economic crisis. He used the speech to extend an offer of dialogue to opposition parties ahead of demonstrations planned for June 30, which are expected to mobilize millions and possibly become violent.

He promised “an audit of my first year, with full transparency, along with a road map.” Alluding to parliamentary elections expected later this year, he added, "I say to the opposition, the road to change is clear."

The address, which was shown on national television and beamed onto a projection screen in Cairo's Tahrir Square, took place against a backdrop of bloody anti-government protests in cities across the Delta north of Cairo. By late last night, Egypt’s ministry of health reported that two people had been killed and almost 300 injured in clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters in Mansoura and Zagazig. In Mansoura, violence erupted at an Islamist rally held in support of the president.

The president’s tone shifted repeatedly during the meandering 2-1/2 hour address. Although he began with a conciliatory message, he later singled out political rivals for personal attacks and railed against unspecified “enemies of Egypt,” warning that they could destabilize the country.

"Political polarization and conflict have reached a stage that threatens our nascent democratic experience and threatens to put the whole nation in a state of paralysis and chaos," he said.

Listing his achievements, he pointed to an increase in the minimum wage and a rise in public sector salaries. But he also apologized for "many mistakes" such as the fuel shortages that have led to long lines outside gas stations. The fuel crisis has grown particularly acute in recent days as anxiety stemming from the upcoming protests has prompted families to stockpile supplies.

Speaking in front of an audience that included high-level representatives from the interior and defense ministries, the composition of the room communicated a message of state unity. Earlier in the week, statements from the Army had implied that it was willing to re-enter Egypt's political arena, almost a year after handing power to Morsi's elected government, in order to prevent the country from going down the "dark tunnel" of internal conflict.  Army tanks were deployed across Egyptian cities yesterday to secure state institutions in case the protests burgeoned. 

Opposition groups responded angrily to the speech, saying that it revealed a presidency in denial.

“This speech shows that [Morsi] lives in another world,” says Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front, Egypt's coalition of secularist opposition parties. “The talk of national reconciliation comes too late, it is nothing but lip service. He is refusing to acknowledge the number of problems that have come from his policies and the religious rhetoric of his group.”

“[Sunday] June 30th is coming and there will be millions of Egyptians out on the streets. Last night’s speech has made me even more determined to join them, holding my banner aloft and waiting it out until he leaves.”

But according to analysts, the strength of the speech lay less in its content than in its tone. Yasser el-Shimy, Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, described the speech as “by far Morsi’s best.”

“His staunchest critics in non-Islamist circles are likely to dismiss it, but I think it’s done a good deal in speaking to the silent majority who had started to reconsider support for him and the Brotherhood.”

Although Morsi won a majority in last year's presidential election, his popularity has now halved, according to a poll by Zogby Research Services earlier this month. Critics accuse him of failing to address Egypt's mounting economic crisis, and of attempting to pack state institutions with loyal followers, in much the same way as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

“The way Morsi spoke was significant,” he said. “He lapsed for large sections into Egyptian dialect, with a country accent in many cases, speaking to people in their own language. This could still play well for him as he makes a final push ahead of this weekend's protests”

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