Thousands marched to the presidential palace in Heliopolis Tuesday, chanting against President Mohamed Morsy, demanding a retraction of the constitutional declaration and the scrapping of the rushed draft constitution slated for a referendum on 15 December.
Protesters gathered en masse around the walls of the palace, spraying graffiti denouncing the president and the Muslim Brotherhood after spilling in from marches to fill up the wide street in front, and swarming around the usually quiet district.
Tahrir Square was also packed with protesters, while a march splintered off to the Maspero state TV building, as large protests raising the same demands erupted in Alexandria, the Red Sea Governorate that encompasses Hurghada, and other Upper Egypt governorates.
Empowered by the show of force, the National Salvation Front, a coalition of various secular groups, issued a statement giving the president an ultimatum to comply with demands by Friday or face another wave of protests, a strong indication of how emboldened these groups have become.
Since Morsy issued a constitutional declaration two weeks ago giving himself sweeping powers, revolutionary civil groups have come together, along with previously fragmented segments of society, demonstrating a kind of unity and efficiency that have been sorely absent from the political scene in the past two years.
With Islamists losing ground, and civil groups gaining momentum in their own right, the ability to mobilize massive street action, which used to represent a considerable gap between the two sides, has been more or less equal in the past weeks. This may pose a challenge for Morsy whose job transcends mobilizing his supporters now, as he also has to up hold the nation’s stability with support from state institutions, be it the military or the police.
After Morsy’s declaration, the formation of the National Salvation Front brought together figures which the public has for months been urging to unite and lead the revolutionary path, including Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.
They claim to have learned their lesson after their fragmentation cost secularists the presidential election, as well as the parliamentary elections before it, thus leading to their feeble presence in the Constituent Assembly — all of which leads back to the current impasse.
After being handed the controversial draft of the constitution Saturday, Morsy said it would be put to a referendum on 15 December, thus escalating the standoff and upping the demands of the non-Islamist groups, who now want a new and more representative assembly to be formed to draw up a new draft constitution.
While this scenario seems far-fetched, opponents of the draft constitution are mulling their options. Some have already begun campaigns for a total boycott, while others see it as counter-intuitive, and say that if judges will supervise, it is wiser to mobilize for a “no” vote.
The National Salvation Front and other civil groups have not yet determined whether they will boycott the referendum altogether to show their rejection of the entire constitution-drafting process, from the formation of the Constituent Assembly to the timing of the referendum.
Some say boycotting may be a waste of the civil groups’ newfound credibility, but civil powers are hoping they won’t have to make this choice. Their plan is to escalate protests until Morsy heeds their demands.
If the size of street protests can serve as any kind of measure, a “no” vote may gain significant support — maybe more than those who rejected the March constitutional referendum conducted under the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which came into power after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
However, at the same time, and as evidenced by a mass rally in Giza by Islamists in support of Morsy and his decisions last Saturday, the “yes” camp also has broad support.
Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, political science professor at Cairo University, attributes the vigorous street presence of civil groups to their newfound unity, as well as a segment of society that has so far been inactive among revolutionary ranks.
“They succeeded in attracting the so-called silent majority, not the kind of people who are typically politically active,” he says.
Indeed, in the absence of Islamist groups, the size of opposition protests has been significant due to the presence of a new kind of protester — one vehemently against the threat of any limitations on personal freedoms. Among them are those staunchly opposed to the Brotherhood, but they are also accompanied by others who voted for Morsy or have so far supported the Brotherhood, until this recent juncture.
Sayed says some of the people who made the revolution happen and then stayed home for most of the past two years are now back in the street after sensing that their own interests are in danger.
“They antagonized the middle class, which has responded massively to the call of civil forces,” he explains, but adds that the appeal of recent opposition protests goes beyond the middle class, especially as the deadlock is prolonged and Morsy makes no attempt to concede.
“There’s a feeling that what Morsy did was unwise because they can see the damage to the economy and the effect on political stability. They wanted him to come to some sort of compromise,” says Sayed.
Yet given the numbers at the Islamist-dominated rally Saturday, Morsy may feel he has enough support to stay the course.
Still, civil groups say it’s not a game of numbers.
Mahmoud Afify, spokesperson of April 6 Youth Movement, says the diversity of protesters in Tahrir Square gives it more legitimacy than those who rallied for Morsy, all of whom are aligned with one political current.
“The issue is not about who can mobilize more … Tahrir protests comprise all sectors of society. This is what gives our protests legitimacy and credibility,” he says.
Even though it has strengthened their position, experts say that the civil forces’ new-found unity will only last as long as it takes to impose their current demands on the president. After that, experts say, the parties will be divided once again by political rivalry.
“There are two phases in this stage, the first is one where all forces unite under one leadership to protect Egypt from falling prey to the Islamist current which no party imagines it can do on its own, after that, when the civility of the country has been secured, every party has the right to exhibit its individuality and compete on the political scene,” says Hassan Abu Taleb, expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
With parliamentary elections approaching, Sayed agrees that the civil forces' unity will crumble.
“I think this [unity] will continue until they attain their objective and Morsy accepts their demands, after that it will be a challenge to maintain their unity,” he says.
During Tuesday’s March to the presidential palace, the reaction from Central Security Forces created a stir.
Stationed around the palace early in the day, closing it off with barbed wire to prevent protesters from getting close, security forces suddenly retreated as marches advanced toward the palace, allowing demonstrators to surround it, chanting against Morsy and spray painting the walls.
A video later emerged of Morsy rushing from the palace in his car, surrounded by protesters shouting, “Here is the coward.”
For months, speculations have loomed that the new power of Morsy and the Brotherhood is not backed by the muscles of the Interior Ministry, which is said to reject the new rulers and, if Tuesday is an indication, may not move to protect the president from his opposition, experts say.
Due to the perceived stance of state institutions against Morsy, he is obliged to compromise with his opponents, Sayed says.
“There’s a new balance of forces now. He cannot count on the police to protect him. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot protect him on its own. He is now at the mercy of the Armed Forces, which are crucial for his political survival,” he adds.
However, this is conditional on Morsy’s ability to appease the public.
The draft constitution includes contentious articles that protect the military from budgetary oversight, one of the demands of the revolution, as well as establishing the possibility of trying civilians before military courts, despite a two-year campaign fighting this precise practice.
Sayed likens the situation to the SCAF’s decision to dethrone Mubarak when he failed to contain the 25 January 2011 uprising. The new defense minister appointed by Morsy after he wrestled back power from the military council, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has pledged that his loyalty is to the people.
“It’s a signal that if he wants to remain in power, he has to accept the will of the people,” says Sayed.
On a bolder and more public scale, the judiciary has been openly defying Morsy after denouncing the constitutional declaration as a blatant infringement on judicial independence.
“Morsy is in a critical situation, and if he reads it correctly, he will realize that there needs to be a dialogue with national leaders to reach an agreement — not further divide people into two teams, risking a civil war,” says Abu Taleb.
After proving that they can hold their own against the Brotherhood on the street level, the next test will be whether civil groups can realize satisfactory results in the upcoming referendum, and, later on, in parliamentary elections.
Islamists have dominated every single election in the transition process. In March last year, they successfully mobilized for a “yes” vote on the constitutional referendum, convincing a large sector of voters that a “yes” vote was the pious choice.
The same tactic will likely be employed this time around, but with the added value of having the elected president’s blessing on the draft, as well as selling it as the way to stability and economic recovery.
Sayed, however, says this time, the situation is different.
In 2011, both the SCAF and Islamist groups mobilized for a “yes” vote against civil groups, which had not yet organized in parties. Now, the Islamist current finds itself alone in promoting the constitution.
Kamel is also counting on people not to fall into the same trap twice.
“There is a new wisdom in the street — they won’t be fooled again with promises of stability and use of religion,” he says.
Abu Taleb argues that the Brotherhood has lost a portion of its electoral power over the past two years.
Many of those who voted the Brotherhood into Parliament and the presidential post based their decision on a moral image, wanting to give a chance to the previously oppressed group to realize their promises.
“Now it has become clear to all Egyptians that Morsy is a president only for this group, and that the Brotherhood cares mostly about its interests,” says Abu Taleb.
This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.