Struggle for Egypt

Pro- and anti-Morsi forces rally in the streets of the Egyptian capital in the wake of the overthrow of the president.

Tamarud activists protesting with a defaced poster of Morsi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tamarud activists protesting with a defaced poster of Morsi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Esraa Abdel Fattah slides her heavy frame between the tables crowded around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where Egyptians gather for a communal meal to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Women momentarily forget their trays of overly buttered rice and greasy chicken to rise and salute the 35-year-old activist. “You are my hero!” yells a young female student, smacking her head into Abdel Fattah’s thick chest.
The meal was scheduled to be a celebration of the successful campaign that toppled president Mohamed Morsi. But Abdel Fattah is the star attraction. Her determination and vision helped outmaneuver the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement known for its street-mobilization prowess. But for all her joy and passion, Abdel Fattah shyly shrugs off the praise all were eager to confer. “It is the Egyptian people who are the real heroes,” she says.
As tens of millions of Egyptians rejoice after their second revolution in three years, a small group of activists from the upstart Tamarud movement are not ready to dance in the streets. Though their improbable campaign unseated a president, they insist their mission is not completed. But as they plot their next moves, Morsi’s cadres from the Brotherhood are doing the same, hoping that their supporters can reverse a revolution they claim is illegitimate.
In a nondescript office in the Cairo suburb of Mohandisseen, Tamarud leader Mahmoud Badr explains the movement’s premise to The Jerusalem Report. “It was simple,” the 28-year-old journalist says. “We believed that if we could reach Egyptians by speaking directly to them, we could channel their frustrations.”
Tamarud, which means rebellion in Arabic, was the brainchild of several activists who worked for the Egyptian Movement for Change, an organization set up in 2004 to protest then-president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to seek a fifth term in office. But unlike the demonstrations of almost a decade ago, which were largely ignored by the public, Tamarud embarked this time on a mass grassroots campaign, with the goal of collecting 15 million signatures to protest Morsi’s policies. The petition was simple – Morsi had failed to restore security, care for the poor and resurrect the economy. “Because the poverty-stricken still have no standing, we reject you,” read one of its pithy demands.
Tamarud activists hounded citizens at metro stations, bus stops, train depots and even gas stations, where long lines provided them with ample time to enlist wary voters. Groceries, bakeries and kiosks agreed to stock petitions. Secular personalities used the airwaves to marshal support for the campaign.
“They were everywhere,” florist Sa’id Khalid tells The Report. “I wrote them off at first as romantic activists; but after seeing them out every day, I registered myself.”
By the end of June, the organization claimed to have signed up 22 million Egyptians. “It was easy to gather all the signatures,” says Badr, his short black curls glistening. “People were fed up with Morsi and his gang. All we did was express it in a concise way.”
But Tamarud, backed by a coalition of like-minded anti-Morsi groups, did more than that. It organized several marches from all over Cairo on June 30, planning to have them converge at the presidential palace. When more than a million demonstrators did so, the army intervened to depose Morsi.
Some analysts believe that the army was plotting all along to get rid of Morsi and that the Tamarud campaign was simply the catalyst. “The generals were never comfortable with Morsi’s Islamist rhetoric,” Mohammed Abd al-Qadir, a researcher at the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies informs The Report. “They wanted stability and the Brotherhood’s divisive governing style did not provide it.”
Others claim that the Brotherhood’s cozy relationship with Hamas helped spur the military. “The army does not like Hamas,” said a former Egyptian general. “They believe it has links with the jihadists in Sinai who are killing soldiers. And the Brotherhood did nothing to pressure Hamas on this.”
Abdel Fattah scoffs at the notion that Tamarud was exploited by the military to further its own aims. “The people overthrew Morsi, not the military,” she says. “When SCAF [a military committee established to govern the country after Mubarak stepped down in 2011] angered the people, they came out into the streets to force them out too.”
Others at the communal meal in Tahrir Square are just as adamant that the events of June 30 were a revolution and not a military coup. “Egyptians made the military act, not the other way around,” says teacher Mustapha Kamal, 42. “We are not puppets pulled on a string.”
Elsewhere, outside the Raba El- Adwyia Mosque in Nasser City, the streets are full of Morsi supporters who have responded to the Muslim Brotherhood call to gather in the Cairo suburb to protest the army coup. Little children hawk bracelets while adolescents hand out cards that read “No to Violence, Yes to Legitimacy.” Men with canisters strapped to their backs spray the crowd with water to ward off the searing summer heat.
On a large stage, aggrieved speakers fan a sense of slight shared by all. “Our president has legitimacy from the people, the army does not choose for them!” screams a Brotherhood official from southern Egypt. As each speaker denounces the army, tens of thousands in the crowd yell in approval.
On the streets around the mosque, fatigued supporters lounge on mats and carpets as the plastic tarps erected to shade them from the heat flap above against rusty poles. Boys dispensing water stumble over piles of shoes and sandals. Older men help them up with a smile. “The people chose Morsi. We are the source of legitimacy and the army stole that from us,” says a middle-aged teacher, Isma’il Fahmi. “He must be reinstated.”
Others complain that the international community turned its back on the Muslim Brotherhood because the organization was not willing to abandon its religious creed. “The world wants secularism, but we are a Muslim state,” says student Salim Sayyid, 28. “We will not renounce our faith for them.”
All express confusion with a democratic process that is new to a land that has been ruled by autocrats for 5,000 years. “Why can’t an elected president throw out those politicians and judges he does not want?” asks Amr Habali, a repairman. “They blocked his agenda. They prohibited him from appointing his men to ministries.”
Despite their indignation, the protesters insist they will not resort to violence. “We are here peacefully,” asserts lawyer Tariq Badri. “The force they used to remove our power does not justify violence.”
Inside the Raba El-Adwyia Mosque, the few Brotherhood leaders who were not swept up in the security raids against the organization following Morsi’s ouster mingle with supporters. “Our president was elected by the people,” says Muhammad Baltagy, secretary general of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party. “What gives the army the right to remove him?”
In the past, Baltagy struck a harsh tone against Western nations. But with his organization bruised and up against the ropes, he now beseeches them to intervene and reverse the coup. “Where is the [American President Barack] Obama who spoke of empowering the people? How come he has abandoned Egypt?” he questions.
Analysts say that it is not Obama who has abandoned Egypt to the military but rather Morsi. His antagonistic governing style, refusal to compromise, and insistence on removing remnants of the Mubarak regime, known as the falul, from power doomed him to failure, they say. “Morsi did not know how to listen,” notes a prominent political science professor. “He believed being president meant he could be a pharaoh like Mubarak. But the pharaonic era is over in Egypt. The president needs to rule by compromise.”
Morsi’s governing style wasn’t the only element that alienated Egyptians. “Morsi had the wrong priorities,” explains an opposition politician who had been in favor of working with the Brotherhood. “He was fixated on purging the falul. He and the other Brotherhood leaders believed there was a conspiracy against them from all sides. They wasted all their energy on fighting the judges, the police and the bureaucrats. That is no way to govern.”
In doing so, Morsi neglected to focus on the social issues that are at the heart of Egyptians’ frustrations. “We have no health clinics, education is decrepit, and the garbage piles up,” growls 44-year-old grocer Shadi Wadad in the rundown urban slum of Imbaba. “What good does spending all your energy to get rid of a few goons do? Morsi should have worked with others to solve our problems.”
The protesters in Nasser City dismiss such criticism. If anything, they say, Morsi was overly conciliatory. “The president spent too much time trying to give and give to the opposition,” says Badri. “But they refused to work with the Brotherhood. Why should we give them more?”
In the urban sprawl of the Cairo neighborhood of Shobra al-Khayma, barefoot boys kick a soccer ball in the dusty street. Every so often, the ball lands in the lot of an unfinished building, bouncing between the bronze bricks scattered around a cement mixer. In Egypt, everything is a building in progress that the people want rushed to completion. And in their haste to get there, they are willing to give every new political player on the scene a shot.
“I voted for the Brotherhood thinking they could get things done,” confesses 63-yearold contractor Ra’id Yassin. “But religion and politics don’t mix. They belong in the mosque, not the parliament.”
Today, Yassin is contemplating backing Tamarud. “They deserve a chance,” he says, as the soccer ball knocks over a stick marking out the perimeter of the vacant lot. “They can get things done and that is what we need.”
Badr and his Tamarud associates are banking on such support to reinvigorate the divided and listless secular opposition that could not get anything done during the Brotherhood’s time in office. “Our initial goal was to highlight Egyptians’ frustrations and channel that to the [National Salvation] Front,” Badr notes, referring to the umbrella opposition group that includes disparate factions united solely by their hostility to the Brotherhood. “We wanted to reestablish the link between the politicians and the street.”
Today though, Tamarud has more ambitious goals. Emboldened by its successful campaign and cognizant of its widespread recognition, the organization is contemplating transforming itself into a political party to run in the next elections. “Egypt needs new blood,” explains Tamarud leader Muhammad Abd al-Aziz. “And we think we can bring it.”
One factor spurring the organization is a fear of becoming irrelevant, like the groups that spearheaded the 2011 revolution. Following their improbable success, they slid back into the societal cracks where so many here find themselves trapped. Today, leaders of the April 6 movement, a group that organized the January 2011 anti-Mubarak protests, are as recognizable and significant as the names on the bronze busts at the Armed Forces Museum of the officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
“Our role is not over,” says Abdel Fattah as she stops to take a photograph with her admirers in Tahrir Square. “Egypt still has problems and we believe we can solve them.”
If it does run in the elections, Tamarud is likely to espouse a socialist, pan-Arab and anti-Western line at a time when Egypt can ill afford to alienate the international community and key lending institutions. When US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns visited Cairo on July 16, Tamarud leaders refused to meet him, even though members of the puritan Salafist Nur party did. Instead, the group used America as a foil to restore national dignity. Among the clauses in its anti-Morsi petition was one reading, “Because Egypt is still subservient to America, we reject you.”
Abd al-Aziz insists that such a program is one that Egyptians want. “Mubarak sold our country to America and Israel. Egyptians now want it back,” he says. “And that means standing up for our rights.”
Tamarud’s inward-looking populist mes- sage resonates with a population that is looking for their pride to be restored. “America got us into this mess,” explains Yassin. “They want us weak and reliant on them. Tamarud’s plan will help us to be free again.”
But a transition from grassroots movement to political party may be a leap too big even for the giant slayer, Tamarud. “Getting people angry about an issue is easy,” says April 6 leader Asma Mahfuz. “But trying to come up with a plan is much harder. We have experience in the street, but not in parliament.”
Abd al-Aziz dismisses suggestions that his organization is likely to face the same fate. “Fifteen million Egyptians supported us,” he says. “They know we have a certain magic. And that will not fade anytime soon.”
But some say the group will likely be plagued by the fickleness of the Egyptian voter that no spell can cure. “Egyptians have no idea what they want,” explains the political science professor. “Sometimes they support the army, sometimes the Brotherhood, and then again the army. They want instant solutions no one can provide.”
Brotherhood leaders are banking on such capriciousness to restore them to power. “No one can solve the problems of a country like Egypt in a year,” says Baltagy. “We know that better than them.”
But although the Brotherhood fluctuated between being tolerated and persecuted during the Mubarak era, they never had the stigma of having governed and failed as they do today. “That may be their death blow,” says the opposition politician. “For decades they could sit back and just play armchair politics and make promises about how things would improve when they were in charge. But now, after they have failed, they will lose most of their support.”
Baltagy flicks his hand in disgust when the potential of a long exile is mentioned. “We have known worse than this and we recovered,” he says. Baltagy and other Brotherhood leaders say they are not scared of street groups like Tamarud, even though it deposed them from power.
Nor do they fear the liberal parties that compose the National Salvation Front. The Front is fractured and lacks a charismatic leader who could galvanize its disparate factions to fall in line.
Instead, it is the Mubarak-era holdouts in institutions such as the judiciary, military and police, which give it cause for concern. And the falul, who were so deeply rooted in the system the Brotherhood unsuccessfully tried to remove, have gone on the attack against the organization. The media is demonizing the Brotherhood as terrorists; the judiciary is investigating Morsi and other leaders for their role in a prison break during the 2011 elections; and ministries have frozen the assets of 14 Brotherhood members. “This is a war against them as vicious as the one Mubarak waged against them,” says the opposition politician. “They may not recover so fast this time.”
Baltagy, on the other hand, says the Brotherhood has a plan to reestablish itself at the top of the political pyramid. When asked what it is, his answer is direct – security. “Egypt has no security,” he says. “From the streets of Cairo to the deserts of Sinai, everyone is worried. No one feels safe anymore.”
Baltagy believes that the lack of personal safety and political violence will weaken the Brotherhood’s chief adversaries – the police and the army. “Tahrir cries for the army, but the army makes them cry in Sinai,” he comments.
Indeed, in the weeks since Morsi was overthrown, more than a dozen people have been killed in violence there. The bloodshed in distant Sinai has everyone in Cairo frustrated with a military whose effectiveness they are taught from their earliest days is second to none. “The army is not as invincible as we thought,” Yassin the contractor admits. “We don’t understand why it can’t defeat some Beduin in huts.”
It is this sense of vexation that the Brotherhood will exploit and channel in the next elections, Baltagy says. “We have a plan for Egypt and we can make it prosper. And we still have support. Look at the million here,” he adds.
The fatigued protesters outside the Raba El-Adwyia Mosque concur. “We are willing to go where the Brotherhood takes us,” says 58-year-old electrician Shakir Isma’il. “They speak for us; we trust them and pray for them.”
Such blind devotion is a resonating feature of the protesters here, and may one day help restore the Brotherhood to the perch from which they were knocked down. But until the organization reconciles with the large sectors of the electorate it alienated, no amount of supplications will erase the wounds of the Brotherhood’s wasted year in power.