Suhaib Salem / Courtesy Reuters A protester in Egypt's Tahrir Square holds a sign demanding that Morsi resign.

The Egyptian Opposition's Deal with the Devil

Letter from Cairo

Falafel shops in Cairo bore pictures of President Mohamed Morsi with a large red X drawn across his face. New Mercedes and beat-up 1970s Ladas drove across the city’s packed streets with red signs in their windows calling on Egyptians to “Go down to the street on June 30!” In metro stations and on street corners, anti-Morsi activists gathered signatures for the Tamarod or “Rebel” campaign, which claimed to collect 22 million signatures calling for Morsi’s resignation. On Sunday, as millions across Egypt reportedly spilled into streets chanting “Leave,” the country seemed to say, in unison: Morsi has to go, and the Muslim Brotherhood can’t be trusted. 

Despite anticipation of widespread violence -- the words “civil war” recently entered popular discourse -- the protests remained largely peaceful and unified. Late evening attacks on the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo, which killed five people, tarnished an otherwise peaceful outpouring of discontent in the capital. “The first time we came down to demand bread, freedom, and social justice,” said Nasser Ibrahim el-Sabie, a middle-aged demonstrator in Tahrir Square. “Today we came down to save Egypt.”

For the 17 months that the military ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, five sets of players competed and cooperated in a transition process that had few rules: Islamists; revolutionaries in the streets; the military; the so-called feloul, or remnants of the former regime who opposed the revolution and want to reinstate the old order; and a silent majority. There are still lines drawn around each of those camps, but after one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, a deeper line has been drawn between the Islamists and everyone else.

In that sense, the military’s ultimatum that it would intervene and impose its “own road map for the future” if Morsi does not act within 48 hours was not shocking -- nor even upsetting for many who oppose the president. Even before the protests began, opposition figures viewed the military as the critical player that could force Morsi from office and the supporters of the former regime as an important constituency to rally in their fight against the Muslim Brotherhood. With so many different voices united around a single enemy, the protests resemble not so much formal politics, but the initial, successful mobilization against the Mubarak regime in January 2011.

“NO ONE IS READY TO TAKE OVER”

The military’s ultimatum calls on “political forces” to “resolve all conflict.” Although the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies are clearly defined, who those other political forces are remains ambiguous. In April, a group of activists launched the Tamarod campaign, a signature-gathering initiative framed as a popular referendum on Morsi’s legitimacy. As the campaign progressed, it drew the support of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of liberal, leftist, and other secular parties that emerged in November 2012 as a united front against the Islamists. One of its figureheads, Mohamed El Baradei, called the Tamarod campaign an “integral part of the national opposition that rejects the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.” El Baradei called on Egyptians to sign the petition and, the night before the protests, went on television to implore Egyptians to take to the streets. Former presidential candidates and NSF leaders Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, a former secretary-general of the Arab League and before that Egypt’s foreign minister, also backed the campaign. Sabahi and El Baradei both joined marches on Sunday.

Rather than seeking to shape the post-Mubarak transition, Egypt’s formal political opposition has been reactive, largely responding to polarizing moves by Morsi or to events in the streets. With Tamarod, the opposition latched on to a grassroots movement, but nevertheless many still question whether this current coalition could govern the country more effectively than Morsi or even hold together without a common enemy. In an interview, Khaled Dawoud, a leading member of the June 30 Front and a former spokesperson for the NSF, spent nearly forty minutes railing against Morsi’s unilateral governing style, the Brotherhood’s power grabs, and the mismanagement of the economy. But he had little to say about what the opposition had to offer. “The solutions are known to almost every political party,” he said, vaguely citing social justice and a functioning economy. “The problem is to get the right people to do the job, not to get people on the basis of their loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

At the protests in Cairo, in fact, there was virtually no mention of opposition politicians like El Baradei, despite their support for the protests. When asked about their hopes for the future, protesters stuck to the talking points set out by the organizers of the protests: Morsi steps down, an interim government led by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court takes power while early parliamentary and presidential elections are organized, and a new constitution is drafted. No one could explain who should replace Morsi. “This is a bigger problem than the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Shokr el-Naguib, 55, a hotel chef taking part in a small march from the poor Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba toward Tahrir Square. “No one is ready to take over.”

THE PEOPLE AND THE ARMY

Ahead of the protests, the Brotherhood tried to dismiss the Tamarod campaign by casting it as a counter-revolutionary movement, backed by supporters of Mubarak and his now-disbanded National Democratic Party, trying to work their way back into power. The story, however unlikely, has stuck. Some local newspapers have suggested that NDP networks in the Delta mobilized against Morsi and paid thugs to incite violence in the streets and attack Brotherhood offices. A journalist who has reported extensively from a slum in Old Cairo told me that the same people who used to hustle votes for NDP candidates were collecting signatures for Tamarod. Adding to the conspiracy, last week, Hussein Kamal, the former chief of staff to Omar Suleiman -- Mubarak’s spy chief, right hand man, and last vice president -- emerged after a year of silence to declare his support for the June 30 protests. El Baradei and the NSF have also reached out to former members of the NDP in an attempt to strengthen their coalition. “I can’t isolate millions of Egyptian people because they were part of the National Democratic Party,” El Baradei said. 

Other opposition stalwarts seem to agree. Take Mona Makram-Ebeid, who was an opposition member of parliament under Mubarak and, more recently, a member of the Shura Council, the upper legislative house that took over all legislative responsibilities after the dissolution of the People’s Assembly. On June 29, along with eight other secular and liberal-minded colleagues, she resigned from the Shura Council to lend support to the protest movement and further delegitimize Morsi’s government. When asked how she felt about the allegations that members of the former regime were backing the movement she was now supporting, Makram-Ebeid replied, “I am totally against the policies and the politics of the former regime, but I am not against all of the people who were in it. They are not Satans. There’s no reason to make them seem diabolical.”

If the protest movement is sympathetic to the former regime, it seems even more sympathetic to the military. When military helicopters swooped over protests at Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace on Sunday, the crowd erupted into celebratory cheers, reviving a chant from the initial 18 days of the revolution: “The people and the army are one hand!” Despite a disastrous year of military rule and mismanagement, many seem to believe that the military is Egypt’s only hope. “The army defends Egypt,” a number of protesters told me. “They are our army,” many said when I asked why they cheered for the helicopters.

Astoundingly, some political leaders also seem prepared to allow the military back into politics. Shady El Ghazaly Harb, a member of the June 30 Front, explained that his hope was in the military. “We’re waiting for the army to make [Morsi] step down,” he told me. “I’m hoping that the masses on the streets on June 30 will send a message to the military and the Interior Ministry that they should stand with the people and not against them.” The military’s decree on Monday, it seemed, fulfilled that hope.

REVOLUTION CONTINUES

The opposition’s reactive postures and perceived incompetence, the tentative embrace of figures from the former regime, and a renewed respect for the military have left many who identify with the revolution, rather than any political movement, deeply uneasy. Ahead of June 30, many ardent, young activists who were among the first to take to the streets on January 25, 2011 debated whether this was their fight at all.

In the end, many of them did join, even if they could not compete with crowds cheering for the military. At the protest in Imbaba, I saw a young man wearing a “January 25 Revolution” shirt in a heated argument with a crowd of people. He objected to their applause for the military helicopters overhead. On the edges of the massive protest at the presidential palace, a small group refuted the nationalist chant about the people and the army being one hand. They raised a flag bearing a portrait of Mina Daniel, one of 28 mostly Coptic Christians killed in the military’s attack on a protest outside the state television building in central Cairo in October 2011 -- what many activists describe as the worst night in a year and a half of repressive, inept military rule. 

The phrase “the revolution continues” has been chanted consistently at protests over the past three years and can be read on many of Egypt’s graffiti-covered walls. It was even the name of a short-lived and poorly represented political coalition in the first parliamentary elections after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. But June 30 gave the notion that the revolution continues new resonance. As millions overtook the streets of Cairo and other cities across the country, it was clear that the formal opposition is only one part of the struggle. The relationship between Egyptians and their government has changed, permanently. And no matter who takes power next -- whether the military or politicians from the NSF -- Egyptians will be willing to descend to the streets to demand accountability and responsive governance. Such popular will might not lead to the political stability that the country needs to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. It still may take years to reform formal political institutions. But Egyptians are engaged in an ongoing process of actively reshaping politics and transforming their society. 

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