Somebody needs to defuse the crisis in Egypt, or the country is heading for an explosion. Yesterday tens of thousands of people poured into Tahrir Square in scenes reminiscent of the January 2011 uprising that eventually brought down Hosni Mubarak. The demonstrators flooded in from different parts of the capital. They came from Shubra, north of the city centre; the upmarket neighborhoods of Mohandiseen, west of the river; and from Giza further south.
All of them were marching on downtown Cairo to demand that Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, revoke the decree he issued that grants him near-limitless power. “Everything the Brothers do, they do it under the table,” said Arafa Maoud, a 46-year-old builder who was in Tahrir Square yesterday. “Would you accept a dictatorship for even one day in your country? No, and I neither would I.”
But the Brothers don’t appear to be budging. Yesteday Gehad El-Haddad, a senior advisor to the organisation, said Morsi would not be backing down: “We are not rescinding the declaration,” he told the Associated Press. In an ominous sign of the confrontations that could lie ahead, the group tweeted that if the opposition was able to bring out two hundred thousand people, “they should brace for millions” in support of the president. Anti-Morsi protesters have called for another rally this Friday.
If the Brotherhood responds with its own protests, Egyptians could be faced with further clashes. “If Morsi doesn’t respond to the people, they will raise their demands to his removal,” said Bassem Kamel, a liberal and former member of the now-dissolved, Islamist-dominated parliament. A whole host of organisations—from Human Rights Watch and Egyptian NGOs to opposition groups and the Obama administration—have issued statements expressing concern about Morsi’s decree last week.
The presidential announcement, while pledging to prosecute officials who have killed protesters, also shielded the Egyptian leader from judicial oversight. In addition, it ruled that the country’s judges had no jurisdiction over the constituent assembly, the Islamist-dominated body that is drafting a new constitution but that has also been hit by successive walkouts by liberal and Christian members.
Today Egypt’s highest appeal court announced that it is suspending its work until Morsi’s decree is revoked. The move followed failed talks between the Brotherhood and the judiciary to negotiate a way through the impasse. Morsi’s officials appear dumbfounded by the reaction. Any climb down now also might alienate Brotherhood members who have applauded their man’s pot-shot at the judiciary—a body that, although often a cornerstone of independence during the old regime’s rule, is also considered by some to be overly influenced by Mubarak-era appointees.
Shahira Amin, an Egyptian journalist who resigned from a state TV channel last year in protest over its negative coverage of the uprising, argued that Morsi’s opponents were not giving him a fair ride. She said that following a meeting with one of the president’s advisors, she had been convinced that the sinister motives being attributed to the Egyptian leader were a red herring. “I am totally convinced,” she said. “It’s a temporary move. His advisor said that he didn’t spell it out in black and white in his decree because he assumed people would understand . . . It is a temporary move for a few months until a new constitution is in place which determines the president’s powers,” she added, saying that much of the opposition appeared politicised.
Politicised or not, the country is now worryingly divided. The next few days will demonstrate whether Egypt’s uprising can be rescued from the abyss.