Islamists led by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood announced Thursday night that they would move their rally Saturday from Tahrir Square to Cairo University. The rally aims to support President Mohamed Morsy’s recent constitutional declaration.
The move came to the relief of many who expected a bloody confrontation if Morsy’s supporters entered the square, where a wide-scale protest today and an ongoing sit-in are being staged against the declaration.
As the risk of direct confrontation subsides, the opposing protests planned for Friday and Saturday serve to demonstrate the street presence of both parties currently engaged in a battle over the fate of the declaration, in which Morsy claimed several powers for himself, including the immunization of the Constituent Assembly, which just drafted its final version of the constitution. The latter has been a site of contention after several members withdrew because of the Islamist hegemony over the process.
A new force in the street
Last Thursday, a new constitutional declaration was announced, granting the decisions of the president — who also holds legislative powers — immunity from judicial oversight.
The declaration has mobilized non-Islamist political groups, a large sector of the public, judges and others on one side against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who support it.
United by their rejection of the declaration, Morsy’s opposition was able to stage large demonstrations last week, putting an end to a widespread belief that only Islamists are able to mobilize large numbers in the street. Last Friday was a first demonstration of this new prowess. Tuesday came second. And finally, today was yet another test.
“Now the liberal forces are in a much better place thanks to the declaration that united them, they proved that they are able to mobilize,” says Abdel Alim Mohamed, researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“A large sector of the public was mobilized spontaneously based on its own awareness and disappointment at the president,” he says.
The protests demanded the annulment of the constitutional declaration and the dismantlement of the Constituent Assembly. Some in Tahrir called for Morsy’s overthrow.
“We are approaching crucial hours in the history of the struggle for democracy and the path of the revolution,” says Mohamed.
Confusion in the Brothers’ ranks
The breadth of the protests against Morsy throughout the week seems to have destabilized his group and plans for mobilization.
The Brotherhood and Morsy’s supporters have stayed away from Tahrir Square since the announcement of the declaration.
Last Friday, Morsy gave a speech to his supporters by the presidential palace while those opposing the decision were protesting in Tahrir. On Tuesday, Islamists first announced they would protest in Morsy’s support near Tahrir Square, but then moved the protest to Cairo University in Giza, before opting to cancel it altogether. Similarly, Saturday’s planned protest was supposed to take place near Tahrir Square, and was once again moved to Cairo University.
They called on the public to join a “million-man” rally in support of the decision under the title “Legitimacy and Sharia.”
Considering that the Brotherhood has not participated in any of the protests organized by Salafi groups to promote Islamic law, Mohamed says that it has imposed religion in a strictly political affair.
“This is an attempt to distract and give the impression that those protesting against Morsy are against Sharia,” says Mohamed.
The inclusion of Sharia in the goals of the day could have provided extra motivation for the numerous Salafi groups that announced their support for Morsy’s decisions and their participation in the protest.
Animosity toward Morsy and supporters was clear in Tahrir.
Protest organizers on the eve of today’s political gathering say they had taken all the necessary precautions to prevent the Brotherhood from entering the square.
“We will maintain the peacefulness of our sit-in, but if a Brotherhood member enters the square, he’d better bring his coffin with him,” says Mohamed Ahmed, member of one of the popular committees securing the square.
With fears that the current divide could escalate into violent clashes between civilians, Mohamed says the president is responsible for withdrawing the controversial declaration to close the rift.
On the other hand, the Brotherhood insists that Morsy’s decisions came to suppress a plot against the democratic transformation in Egypt.
Tamer al-Meehy, a Social Democratic Party member, says that proving the non-Islamists’ ability to mobilize on the ground will give them a stronger position in their confrontations with the ruling party.
“They acted on the assumption that the democratic powers are a minority in the country and have no street presence. They didn’t take into consideration that the revolution has changed this. Now, the simple man wants to go out for his dignity,” he says.
On the eve of the planned protest, Morsy attempted to appease the public. He appeared in a state TV interview explaining that all the powers he appointed to himself in the declaration are temporary and necessary to fend off foreign and domestic threats, without specifying the nature of these threats.
While he asserted that he respects the right to protest, he insinuated that figures of the old regime infiltrate some protests and use them to sabotage the revolution.
Tahrir protests have been criticized for including some figures affiliated with the Hosni Mubarak regime.
“I regret to see figures of the old regime appear as if they are keen on the revolution,” Morsy said in his television appearance on Thursday night. “Is it possible for [revolutionaries] to support and raise their voices along with members of the old regime?” he asked.
Despite the opposition’s impressive turnout throughout he last week, Mohamady Abdel Maqsoud, member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, was dismissive about Friday’s protests.
“We expect that Tahrir Square will be empty [Friday],” he said Thursday night, a few hours before the masses flocked to the square to protest Morsy.
Mohamed, on the contrary, says that Friday and Saturday’s protests prove that liberals have finally united enough to be able to match or even exceed the street presence of Islamists.
“No matter how strong and organized the Brotherhood is, they can’t stand in front of the whole Egyptian people. They are now on one side, and the rest of the Egyptian people are on the other,” says Mohamed.
The outcome of the Saturday protest is yet to be seen, along with the security apparatus’s management of the protests, especially if violence emerges.