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Egypt Unwrapped

Violent Tremors

An Egyptian man holds a placard as hundreds of Egyptian anti-government protesters shout political slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on June 26, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
An Egyptian man holds a placard as hundreds of Egyptian anti-government protesters shout political slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on June 26, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Posters have been springing up around Cairo for weeks now, advertising the planned mass demonstrations against President Mursi on June 30, the anniversary of his first year in office. The posters are compelling, appealing directly to a broadly felt dissatisfaction rather than political allegiance. “Don’t go down [to protest] if you’re happy,” reads one. Few are happy, even among those who support the president.

Everyone is talking about the imminent protests. It is hard to avoid the scores of youth handing out flyers on behalf of the Tamarrod (rebellion) campaign, which has impressively managed to make these demonstrations seem genuinely significant. This is no mean feat in a country that has witnessed thousands of protests since Mursi took office. There is excitement and trepidation in the air, and talk of a second revolution.

An unlikely union of the various strands of Egyptian society in opposition to Mursi is calling for the president to step down. Naturally, the first democratically elected Egyptian head of state has declined the opportunity to resign, even in the face of a petition boasting 15 million signatures in favor of his removal and the threat of a huge show of disapproval on the streets.

This is where the debate hinges. As spokespeople of the presidential office have been happy to point out, just because approval ratings of an elected official are staggeringly low, it does not mean that you call for early elections. This, they rightly point out, is not how democracy works.

The tragedy is that over the course of the past year, Mursi and his Freedom and Justice Party have done a great deal to show that they have little idea of how democracy is supposed to work—or, if they do know, they are ignoring the basics. A series of clumsy power-grabs and isolation tactics, intended to neuter the political opposition and install Brotherhood cronies to positions of influence, has convinced millions that Mursi does not seek to represent all Egypt, as he said he would. Instead, the president is following a decidedly undemocratic agenda that his opponents fear will do irreparable damage to the fabric of the country—hence the call for his resignation.

Police brutality, a continued and pervasive culture of unaccountability, and an absence of transparency have all contributed to widespread disillusionment with Mursi’s government.

The most recent of Mursi’s astonishing decisions was to install Adel Al-Khayat as governor of Luxor, a vital region for tourism. Khayat, who has since resigned, has known associations with Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, an extremist group responsible for the killing of fifty-eight tourists in Luxor in 1997. Quite how the installation of a notable Islamist was going to boost the region’s flagging tourist trade—a potential resuscitator for the country’s ailing economy—is anyone’s guess. The sensible conclusion is that Mursi had the best interests of a political ally at heart, not those of a nation in delicate transition.

The organizers of the June 30 demonstrations are optimistic that tens of thousands will take to the streets and force Mursi out. Tactically speaking, the opposition has done well to galvanize anti-government sentiment, reminding everyone of the issues at a grassroots level when revolutionary momentum seemed to have been lost months before. But refocusing attention on the incompetence of the president is one thing; overcoming the significant hurdle of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups unwilling to give up ground is quite another. Counter-demonstrations in support of the president are guaranteed.

So, as ever, the military will play a decisive role in the events and aftermath of this weekend. Armed forces chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi has offered a typically carefully worded warning that the Army will intervene to keep order if required. The general made no remarks in support of the government, or in support of those who wish to see it toppled.

With passions running high in the build-up—including increased anxiety over petrol shortages and extreme shock over the brutal murders of four Shi’ite men near Cairo, attributed to sectarian vitriol from Salafists—it is highly likely that the Army will indeed have to intervene, at which point anything is possible. It is yet to be seen where this will leave Egypt’s nascent democratic project.

There will be violence on Sunday, and perhaps in the days leading up to the main event. At this point the scale of the violence is uncertain, as is whether the day will be remembered for achieving something more worthwhile.

Last week, a downtown barber wearing an unnerving grin summed up the overbearing feeling of morbid anticipation: “Were you here for the revolution? No? It will be the same. We’ll all be dead.”

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Michael Whiting
Michael Whiting is a communications consultant based in Cairo. He studied Middle Eastern politics and received his master's degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Michael has lived and worked throughout the region.


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