Egyptians massed by the tens of thousands to demand President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster while the Islamist leader’s backers gathered at a dueling rally, stoking fears of a conflagration of violence after days of deadly clashes.
In scenes reminiscent of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011, thousands streamed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere across Egypt, saying they were determined to reclaim control of a revolution whose goals have been trampled to cement the power of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Fueling the anguish are economic woes that have sent Egypt’s growth plummeting to one of its lowest points in two decades.
Presidential spokesman Ihab Fahmy urged protesters to remain peaceful to avoid civil strife. “The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed to all, but violence, killing and sabotage are highly condemned,” he said in a news conference broadcast on state TV. “The state won’t treat law-breaking lightly.”
The demonstrations, on the first anniversary of Morsi’s election, may be the biggest challenge the president has faced. The military warned last week that it will not let the polarized nation descend into chaos. At least eight people, including an American student, have died in clashes between Morsi backers and opponents in the run-up to today’s rallies.
Markets in Turmoil
Egypt’s financial markets are reflecting the ferment. The benchmark EGX 30 stocks index slumped 13 percent in June. The country’s default risk soared to a record 888 basis points last week, putting Egypt among the riskiest 10 credits in the world, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The EGX 30 added 1.4 percent today, though the 148 million Egyptian pounds ($21 million) of shares traded equaled only 38 percent of the market’s one-year daily average, according to data complied by Bloomberg.
“None of the demands of the 2011 revolution have been met — no social justice, no freedom, nothing,” Nagwa Adel, a 31-year-old protester wearing a T-shirt with an Egyptian flag, said in an interview in Tahrir. “I know there can be violence, the Muslim Brotherhood are violent people and Morsi is clinging to power and they won’t just leave power so simply, but we’re determined and we know there’s a price to be paid.”
Chants of “Down with the Murshid’s Rule,” a reference to the Brotherhood’s top official, morphed into cheers as two military helicopters flew overhead.
The protests, marred by clashes today between the opposing camps in Gharbiya province, cap weeks of surging anger amid an economic crisis that has sent unemployment soaring beyond 13 percent and foreign reserves dropping more than half since the uprising. Fuel shortages have sparked long lines and short tempers at gas stations.
As Morsi’s opponents — an amalgam of secularists, youth activists, former regime supporters and Egyptians frustrated with the stumbling economy — converged in Tahrir and elsewhere in the country, Morsi’s supporters geared up for another show of force in the capital’s Nasr City district. They have been emphasizing that the 61-year-old president won a democratic election and any change must come through the ballot box.
“I’m here to say that he was elected and should serve a four-year term,” said Tarek Siyam, 51. “There is no legal or constitutional basis against this.”
Morsi has adopted that theme repeatedly to reject calls for an early presidential vote.
If Egypt were to replace someone elected “according to constitutional legitimacy — well, there will be people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in an interview published today.
Morsi’s opponents, who have spurned his call for dialogue, accuse Islamists of seeking to consolidate their power while failing to address Egyptians’ daily grievances.
“We want to return our revolution to the course it should have moved along,” Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and a leading figure in the National Salvation Front opposition bloc, said in a video statement late yesterday. “We all feel we’re moving along a blocked road and the country will fall.”
22 Million Signatures
The opposition has been encouraged by the 22 million signatures the Tamarud, or Rebel, campaign maintains it has collected demanding Morsi’s ouster. His critics have also taken comfort in the defense minister’s warning last week to protect Egypt from chaos, interpreting that to mean the army would back the protesters against any violence. Morsi told the Guardian he was “very” confident the military would not intervene.
The tensions in Egypt resonated abroad, with U.S. President Barack Obama saying yesterday that he’s monitoring the protests “with concern” and that his “most immediate” priority is making sure U.S. embassies and consulates are protected. A U.S. citizen, Kenyon College (78085MF) student Andrew Pochter, was among at least three people killed in Alexandria on June 28. In Gharbiya today, two people were injured while hundreds surrounded the office of the Brotherhood’s political arm, setting fire to part of the building with firebombs, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.
The U.S. military has put Marines stationed in southern Europe on alert in case the violence in Egypt intensifies and imperils American citizens, CNN reported, citing unidentified U.S. officials.
President ‘For All’
Although casting himself as a president “for all” Egyptians, Morsi’s detractors dismiss that as a hollow pledge.
Support for him among Egyptians plummeted to 28 percent, compared with 57 percent when he took office, according to a poll by Washington-based Zogby Research Services released June 17. More than 90 percent said they have confidence in the army, more than any other institution in the country. The military had governed Egypt between Mubarak’s ouster and Morsi’s election, and many accused it of mismanaging the nation during this tumultuous period.
The president and his supporters blame the nation’s plight on near-daily protests and the opposition’s rejection of dialogue. He re-extended the offer last week and was snubbed.
Morsi’s detractors say the overture came too late. “A year ago this man came with a mandate,” said Wael Khalil, a political activist who voted for Morsi. “When you fail miserably, you have to be confronted. Not a single thing was achieved. It’s too much.”