Cairo, Egypt –The tone at the mosque shifted between tension and defiance, with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood dismissing their opposition as illegitimate and demanding justice for the victims of recent political violence directed at the group.
“The president has legitimacy, constitutional legitimacy, and these thugs want to take it away from him illegally,” one speaker blared, echoing the sentiments of many here at a pro-government sit-in that began Friday afternoon.
At a press conference inside the mosque compound in Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood, party members screened a video showing the violence directed at their offices and supporters over the past year. It ended with a round of applause from what was clearly a sympathetic crowd of journalists. “Tamarod are thugs,” one of them chanted, referring to a grassroots petition campaign that claims to have collected 22 million signatures demanding President Mohamed Morsi’s resignation.
In the two-and-a-half years since the Egyptian revolution overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the Brotherhood has transformed from a banned-but-tolerated movement into the country’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
I don't think it's very much related to his performance, as opposed to his background and ideology. Some people here ... they don't accept the fact that Morsi is from the Muslim Brotherhood.
It has also become a focal point for popular anger. Cities across the country are lined with posters denouncing not just Morsi but also Mohammed Badie, the group’s supreme guide, and Khairat al-Shater, a leading Brotherhood member. Its offices across the country have been attacked, with at least four people killed in recent days.
All of this is a far cry from just one year ago, when a loose coalition of non-Islamists threw its support behind Morsi, largely to block his opponent, Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq, from winning the presidency. Their common cause, needless to say, has long since evaporated.
“The first protests started less than two months after President Morsi took office,” said Nader Omran, a spokesman and adviser to the FJP. “I don’t think it’s very much related to his performance, as opposed to his background and ideology. Some people here, they don’t like, they don’t accept the fact that Morsi is from the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Egypt will shift its attention on Sunday to Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, where tens of thousands of people are expected to join nationwide anti-government protests.
Their anger will be directed not just at Morsi but at the Brotherhood in general, which is by far the most powerful political actor in Egypt. It controls the presidency and more than half of the elected seats in the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. It also held a majority in the lower house before it was dissolved by court order last year.
‘Thugs’ and conspiracies
Yet there was almost a siege mentality among the Brotherhood supporters gathered here on Saturday night. Lines of men armed with batons and metal rods guarded the streets leading to the mosque, frisking visitors and checking their identification cards.
Their fears are not unfounded. The Alexandria offices of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, were burned on Friday afternoon by anti-government protesters. Hours earlier, a mob stormed the party headquarters in the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiya, killing one person, reportedly the 21-year-old office worker who served tea.
A banner at the Nasr City mosque showed the faces of Brotherhood members killed in four governorates in recent days. The caption beneath their photographs stated, “they were killed by Tamarod thugs, the National Democratic Party, and the [National] Salvation Front”, referring to the ruling party under longtime president Mubarak, and to the main coalition of opposition figures.
Brotherhood officials are more circumspect in interviews, but they accuse the opposition of failing to condemn the violence. That same charge is often leveled at the Brotherhood when anti-government activists are attacked or tortured.
“We don’t believe the opposition is directly responsible for the violence,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the FJP. “But the delay, the fact that their lights are more focused on smaller issues instead of what matters, this level of violence, is questionable at best.”
Videos have circulated on the Internet showing people in Tamarod shirts attacking Brotherhood offices, but the campaign’s organisers insist it is a peaceful initiative. It is impossible to prove that any of the attackers are actually affiliated with Tamarod.
At the pro-Morsi rally on Friday, demonstrators complained about an array of other conspiracies against the president. Ex-regime figures, the media, the West, even taxi drivers, were responsible for blocking his political programme, they said.
Transport has been paralysed in recent days as drivers queue at petrol stations for hours, even days. At least one person has been killed in a fuel-related fight.
“The fuel crisis, people made this up. On the way here, I saw five or six gas stations that were empty, nobody was queuing. Every time you burn one litre, you don’t have to go and fill up immediately,” said Hazem Abu Siri, a businessman, echoing a line from Morsi’s speech in which the president blamed the queues for fuel partly on taxi drivers who refill their tanks before reaching empty.
Tamarod is widely dismissed as a fraud, and many Brotherhood supporters claim to have met people who signed the petition calling for Morsi’s ouster dozens of times. They have launched their own version in support of Morsi naming it “Tagarod,” or “emptiness,” and handed out signature forms at Friday’s rally.
“But you can only sign it once! We will be watching,” one campaigner joked, handing forms to a group of women.
Another protester held up a banner criticising TV personalities and journalists, including Amr Adib, Lamis el-Hadidy, and the popular satirist Bassem Youssef. He accused them of taking tens of millions of dollars from Western countries in exchange for slandering Morsi.
“They are insulting dignity and religion, making fun,” said the protester, Emad Abdel Mahmoud. “They are trying to bring Egypt down. They are clearly working for the US.”
‘Egypt is a fireball’
The talk of thugs and conspiracies underscores the deepening political polarisation in Egypt.
In interviews, Brotherhood and FJP officials constantly steer the conversation back to the idea of legitimacy: Morsi was democratically elected, they say, and the only way to remove him should be through another election.
The opposition argues that Morsi has lost his legitimacy through a series of undemocratic acts, most notably a November decree that shielded his presidential decisions from judicial review. The decree, which was never officially canceled, also cleared the way for an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly to rush through a vote on Egypt’s new constitution, which was widely criticised by the opposition.
“He had a chance,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the founder of the Social Democratic Party. “Even a month or two ago, we never said that he should step down, we agreed that he was an elected president. But he does not respond [to public anger], and the demands keep increasing.”
The president has also found himself embroiled in battles with state institutions, particularly the judiciary. Last year he sacked the prosecutor-general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a widely-reviled figure seen as one of the worst holdovers from Mubarak’s regime. But Morsi’s attempts to dismiss him by fiat turned Mahmoud into an iconic figure taking a stand against the government.
Egypt is a fireball right now, and we're getting burnt holding that fireball. And the opposition is too scared to take responsibility.
“Of course they won, and of course they get to call the shots, but what does that mean if the state fails? The state is at war,” said Hisham Hellyer, a Cairo-based scholar with the Brookings Institution. “He has to take steps to ensure the competency of his government is increased dramatically.”
Brotherhood officials acknowledge these problems, but they lay blame largely on holdovers from the Mubarak era and on the opposition. The latter criticism has some merit: The National Salvation Front – the leading opposition coalition – has refused any dialogue with the government.
In a televised speech on Wednesday, Morsi singled out several opposition figures who were offered ministerial posts and refused to accept them.
“It’s a vicious circle,” Omran said. “He has no choice, so he starts choosing the ministers from the [Brotherhood], for example, and he’s accused by the opposition of trying to alienate the others from the government.”
Haddad dismissed much of the opposition, including figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei – the former UN nuclear chief – and longtime foreign minister Amr Moussa. “Until now, their parties are just paperwork,” he said, arguing they have never demonstrated popular support in elections.
He also faulted Morsi’s unpopular prime minister, Hisham Qandil, describing him as a “bureaucrat” who lacked a “revolutionary mindset”. Asked whether he was calling for a new prime minister, Haddad chuckled. “Maybe so,” he said.
“Egypt is a fireball right now, and we’re getting burnt holding that fireball,” Haddad said. “And the opposition is too scared to take responsibility.”