A controversial constitutional declaration issued by President Mohamed Morsy last Thursday putting him above the law has infuriated revolutionary activists, political forces and liberals, deepening divisions between Egypt’s secularists and Islamists.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters expressed their solidarity with the president’s edict in a rally last Friday outside the Ittihadiya Palace in Heliopolis. Addressing the crowd, President Morsy assured his supporters that the sweeping powers were “necessary to protect the revolution”, adding that they were temporary, lasting only until a constitution is in place that determines the powers of the president.
A day earlier, President Morsy had dismissed the Mubarak-appointed General Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud replacing him with Tala’at Abdallah who formerly led the Movement for Independence of the Judiciary.
Faced with mounting pressure from critics, President Morsy met with senior judges on Monday in a bid to avert an escalation of the political crisis. Following the talks, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali appeared on Egyptian State Television to explain the presidential decree. He said that the powers would be limited to “sovereign matters” only but did not elaborate. He added that former regime henchmen charged with killing protesters in the January 2011 uprising would be retried if new evidence emerged.
Morsy’s political opponents remained unconvinced. A million-person rally called earlier by the opposition was staged as planned on Tuesday and was reminiscent of the January 2011 revolt that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. By mid afternoon, tens of thousands of activists had gathered in Tahrir Square to demand that President Morsy revoke his decree . There were also calls for the president to step down.
Reiterating some of the signature slogans of the January revolution, the protesters chanted, “erhal! Leave!” and “the people demand the downfall of the regime.” They also chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans such as “Sell the revolution Badie” (a reference to the Brotherhood’s supreme guide) and “Oh Ikhwan, you are the NDP all over again” ( areference to the former ruling party). Riot police fired tear gas at protesters in the nearby Simon Bolivar Square after scuffles broke out between them.
Meanwhile, clashes between President Morsy’s supporters and opponents erupted in the industrial city of Mahalla, Alexandria, Port Said and Mansoura, leaving scores injured, some with gunshot wounds. At least five offices of the Freedom and Justice Party have been torched in different governorates across the country over the past week.
Moreover, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter has been killed in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour .The Muslim Brotherhood called off a rally they had planned for Tuesday in a bid to avoid a potential confrontation with the Tahrir protesters.
The crisis is one of mistrust. A legacy of fear of the Brotherhood , long demonised by successive Egyptian regimes as the bogeyman, is behind the deep skepticism felt by thousands of Egyptians toward the moderate Islamist movement. “People fear us because they don’t know much about us,” said Dr Sabbah Al-Sakkary, a leading member of the Freedom and Justice Party. “Many refuse to give President Morsy a fair chance. If it were a liberal president making the same decisions, he would have become a national hero.” Revolutionary activists have for months accused the Brotherhood of “stealing the revolution” after Islamists won a majority of seats in parliamentary and presidential elections. Suspicions of the Brotherhood deepened after the Brotherhood rescinded pledges not to field a presidential candidate. Mubarak loyalists in the independent media have meanwhile continued to vilify the Islamists, pouring fuel on the fire.
Members of the Brotherhood on the other hand, are convinced that former regime loyalists are conspiring against them and are plotting to unseat the president. In an interview broadcast on an independent satellite channel on Tuesday, leading Muslim Brotherhood member and former MP, Dr Mohamed Al-Beltagy accused members of the defunct state security service of hiring thugs to wreak havoc . “No reforms can take place without purging the interior ministry and other state institutions of corrupt former regime figures,” he argued.
Head of the National Democratic Party, Osama Ghazali Harb, has admitted that relations between liberals and Islamists are mired in suspicion and has called for national reconciliation dialogue to “break the ice and overcome the differences between the two camps.”
Pakinam El Sharkawy, a presidential aide for political affairs, has vigorously defended the Presidential edict. “It is necessary to protect the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council; both of which are under threat of being dissolved by court order next week. In the absence of state institutions, we would have to start from scratch,” she said, adding that Egypt’s courts were governed by Mubarak appointees who were hampering any kind of progress. El Sharkawy further noted that the president’s constitutional declaration was necessary for the country to move out of the current bottleneck and begin rebuilding the economy.
Ambassador Mohamed Rifaah, chief of the presidential bureau, on Tuesday asserted that the president would not backtrack on his decision. Meanwhile, opposition activists were just as steadfast in their position. As the rift between Islamists and non-Islamists widens, fears are growing that the divisions may plunge the country into deeper political and economic turmoil. Observers warn that if the violence continues, the situation may quickly spiral out of control and perhaps even escalate into all-out civil war. If this happens, there will be no winners on either side.
The deadly clashes witnessed in recent days between President Morsy’s supporters and opponents are a wakeup call, alerting us to the dangers of this crisis. If tensions continue unabated, all Egyptians will pay a heavy price. It is a must that all political forces come together and immediately start reconciliation dialogue to resolve their differences and rebuild the lost trust.