Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Egypt the past two nights, in anticipation of today’s call for nationwide protests against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Muhammad Morsi. While supporters of Mursi have staged their own counter protests in Raba’a al-‘Adawiyya Square, the opposition has occupied Tahrir Square, the largest and most central public space in Egypt. The opposition is loosely-organized by a grassroots campaign that claims to have collected over 22 million signatures calling for Morsi’s impeachment: Tamarod or “Rebellion.”
The protests are scheduled today, on the one-year anniversary of the night that Mursi first took the oath of office. But that year has felt like an eternity to some Egyptians. In this (rather long) post, I will summarize the events of the past year that have lead up to this tense moment in Egyptian history. First, we will examine the political-institutional wrangling that has gone on between the executive and other branches of government during the turbulent transition process. Then, we will move from politics to the street, and try to ascertain how Egyptians have lived daily life under their new President.
As I explored in a two–part post at the time, Morsi’s election was accompanied by a series of decisions involving the other institutional players in Egyptian politics–the Army, the Judiciary, and the Parliament–that would prove to be fateful for the transition process. On June 14, 2012, just three days before the Presidential elections were set to begin, the Supreme Court of Egypt ruled that the Parliamentary elections of 2011-2012 were unconstitutional and ordered the dissolution of the lower–and most influential–house of Parliament, the “People’s Council.” Because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties had won approximately 75% of the seats in the election, the ruling was interpreted by Islamist parties as an existential threat. On June 17, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had been acting as the executive authority during the transition, issued a constitutional declaration that gave themselves legislative authority until new Parliamentary elections could be held.
Mursi won a closely-contested election with around 51% of the vote, and the results were announced on June 25. His victory set the stage for a stand-off between the Muslim Brotherhood (represented by Mursi) and the Judiciary over the issue of the constitutionality of Parliament, that would last throughout the month of July. Repeated judicial rulings to keep Parliament from holding a session were ultimately upheld, but the court also ruled to suspend all appeals against the constitutionality of the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with writing the new Egyptian constitution. This later body was composed of members of Parliament, and therefore also dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
On August 2, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil–the former irrigation minister who was a relative unknown on the Egyptian political scene–was sworn in and began the process of forming the first government under Mursi. On August 5, independent militias in Egypt’s Northern Sinai Peninsula attacked the Israeli border. Mursi responded by firing his intelligence chief, the head of the military police, several Interior Ministry officials, the head of the presidential guard and the governor of North Sinai. The armed forces also launched a series of small strikes against militias on August 8. Finally, on August 12, Mursi made his play against the Army by announcing the resignation of the top leadership of the SCAF and issuing a new constitutional declaration that reversed the June 17 declaration by granting the President full legislative authority in the absence of a Parliament. He replaced the leaders of SCAF with his own hand-picked men, and also announced Mahmoud Mekki, a senior judge and Muslim Brotherhood-supporter, as his Vice President.
Mekki’s new position foreshadowed Mursi’s coming struggle with the judiciary. On October 10, Egypt’s attorney general ‘Abd al-Magid Mahmoud failed to win a conviction against two dozen men that had been charged as supporters of Mubarak who were implicated in attacks on protestors during the “Battle of the Camel” in the initial phase of the revolution. On October 11, Despite the fact that Egyptian law prohibits the President from firing the prosecutor general, Mursi ordered Mahmoud to leave his position. Mahmoud refused and Mursi backed down two days later.
On November 22, Mursi again used the means of a constitutional declaration to make a move against his institutional opponents–this time the Judiciary instead of the Army. The declaration called for a retrial in the Battle of the Camel case, blocked any future effort by the judiciary to rule for the dissolution of either the Upper House of Parliament or the Constituent Assembly, and replaced Mahmoud as the attorney general. On November 29, the final draft of the new constitution was published by the Constituent Assembly, and on December 15 it was ratified by a popular vote to become the settled law of the land. The constitution was based off of Egypt’s previous constitution, but included crucial new provisions including granting wide authority and potential judicial review to the leading religious scholars at Egypt’s venerable al-Azhar Mosque, and assigning legislative authority to the Upper House of Parliament (which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members in the 2011-12 elections that saw a measly 6% turnout) until the new elections could be held.
Parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held in April 2013, but they were delayed by the Supreme Court. At the moment the Upper House of Parliament still technically has legislative authority, even though the constitutionality of that body has been questioned by the court.
Life During Wartime
Mursi took power under an ambitious, yet vague, plan that he called “The Renaissance.” Independent activists broke the plan down into a series of important benchmarks for his first 100 days in office, including reform in four crucial areas: Security, Traffic, Bread, Cleanliness, and Fuel. They then tracked this progress online on the “Morsi Meter.” Although some limited progress was made, what was perhaps the most important issue, Security, went largely ignored.
Before the Revolution, Egypt’s police patrolled the streets regularly. Although they were armed with AK-47s, everybody pretty much knew that most of their guns didn’t have any bullets. People were still reluctant to try the police, however, for those who did were often made into an example for other by brutal means. The Ministry of Interior also had broad powers to investigate and detain civilians suspected of being involved in crimes (including political opposition). Their most effective weapon against these undesirable activities was systematic torture, including sexual abuse of prisoners.
The Revolution, which started on Police Day in 2011, was in many ways against this Security state. Although State Security tried to resist in the early days, the numbers in Squares across Egypt proved to be too much, and the Police and Ministry of Interior lost the aura of fear that had previously surrounded them. When the tactic of brutal repression lost its effectiveness, the Police seemed to have no alternative. The result was a decreased presence of police on the streets and an increased crime rate. One important thing to note is that crime rates might not always tell the whole story, since the overall level of crime was exceptionally low under Mubarak’s police state. For instance, armed robberies have increased at a rate of over 1000%, from 233 in 2010 to over 2,800 in 2012. But that is still quite a low occurrence per capita. Nonetheless, crime has risen, particularly sexual harassment and the targeting of foreigners and tourists.
Most importantly, police have proved unable to provide security to the crowds of people who now gather regularly in squares and streets across Egypt to protest. On September 11, 2012 a protest was organized by a popular preacher who follows the ultra-orthodox Salafi interpretation of Islam on Egypt’s Hikma TV channel, Wasem ‘Abd al-Warith, in front of the American embassay against the purported film (the full-length version has still never been seen) Muhammad’s Trial. His call was soon echoed by other Salafi leaders and the leader of al-Qaeda, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. The protests turned ugly when protestors began setting off fireworks and scaled the walls to replace the American flag with the black banner of ‘Abbasids–the same logo used by al-Qaeda in many of its communications. The Egyptian Army surrounded the embassy and managed to quell the protests, but the symbolic shock led many to begin questioning the direction which their Revolution had taken.
After Mursi’s October 10 call for the resignation of the attorney general, moderate crowds began to descend to Tahrir Square. Apparently, many had gone there for conflicting reasons, some in support of Mursi, and others in support of the judges. When the crowd began chanting against the Mursi, the protests turned into violent clashes which pitted Brotherhood supporters against the largely secular supporters of the Judiciary.
But the October clashes were only a warm up for the more vicious attacks which took place in front of the Presidential palace in the proceeding months. Mursi’s November declaration seizing legislative authority for himself and placing his decisions above judicial review turned much of the public against him. Large crowds turned out on November 24 in front of the Presidential palace in Heliopolis demanding the reversal of the decree and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. This time, state security was join by organized militias of rank-and-file members of the Muslim Brotherhood in clearing out protestors. Hundreds were injured and reports of Brotherhood members capturing and torturing protestors circulated.
In a round of voting held December 15, the new Constitution was approved with 63% support in a referendum that saw an estimated 30% voter turnout. But many in the opposition complained that the mere two-week period given to the voters to comprehend the 236-article document was insufficient for proper consideration. Many also argued that the document opened up spaces for negative changes in Egyptian governance. Protests continued in front of the Presidential Palace, where demonstrations often have a more violent character than those at Tahrir Square.
On January 25, 2013, protests again erupted across the country to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Revolution and continue its call for Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice. Protests in the cities of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailiyya began to get violent with the a court decision that came down on January 26. The case was regarding the soccer riots of February 2012, and the verdict sentenced 21 young men, residents of the canal zone, to death. Interpreting the verdict as a political play, protestors began to attack police and state security forces. On January 28, 2013, Mursi declared a 30 day state of emergency in the canal zone, implementing the same laws including a blanket curfew that were used by great effect in the former regime. Violence continued, but the state of emergency was lifted.
Since February, the Egyptian population has been rocked by a series of crises which have only served to further enrage the situation. The economic situation has steadily deteriorated with a devaluing currency, rising unemployment especially among the youth, credit downgrades, and an increasing trade deficit. Rolling electricity blackouts began after a government policy of rationing was instituted in May. Repeated gas shortages have caused long lines in front of gas stations that compound Egypt’s difficult traffic problem.
Moreover, the technocrats have evinced a serious inability to handle these problems. In a press conference on June 25, Ministers blamed the black market and rumor-mongering for the gas crisis. When Ethiopia announced a plan to build a dam on the river Nile at its source, Mursi held a meeting of his ministers and opposition politicians to discuss the issue. What he didn’t tell them is that the meeting was being broadcast on live TV. Advisors made outrageous suggestions like sending popular Egyptian soccer players to the Ethiopian national team in exchange for an agreement to stop construction, and some even threatened war. Perhaps most humorous is the scandal over Prime Minister Qandil’s twitter account, in which he seemed to have accidentally posted the results of his progress in the online game “Smurf Village.”
What Does it Mean?
When Mursi was elected last year, he was greeted with jubilation and celebrations in all the revolutionary squares throughout Egypt. Lina Attallah, a young Egyptian, describes the feelings of alienation that began to seize her during this moment in a poignant article. The crowds at that rally, and the dozens of other rallies in support of Mursi and other Islamist forces in post-revolutionary Egypt, was composed of a different demographic than those that showed up on Police Day, January 25, 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood has employed the tactic of bussing in their supporters from the outlying provinces to Cairo in to buttress their displays of support. The result is a much more diverse and wide-ranging crowd. And in a country as sharply polarized as Egypt is at the present moment, this can only lead to disagreement or worse.
Moreover, Mursi has proven incapable of coming through on his promise to reform the security state. Rather than seize the opportunity provided to him by executive power to make meaningful change, he went after the other major institutional centers of power–the Army and the Judiciary–to consolidate his rule. He replaced all former technocrats with his hand-picked men. The problem is, most of these men have no experience running the Egyptian state. Although there is argument for the necessity of purging Mubark loyalists, the fact remains that many of these same men are the most capable businessmen and technocrats in Egypt. Using the spectre of counter-revolutionary elements as a pre-text, Mursi has purged the government and placed Muslim Brotherhood loyalists in all key positions. The electricity and gas crises have been blamed on this re-shaping of government bureaucracy, and the people are understandably upset that their quality of living has declined after the revolution.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, Mursi has, symbolically at least, re-instituted the former security state by declaring a state of Emergency in the canal. Mubarak infamously left Egypt in a state of emergency for 30 years and used the provision as an excuse for innumerable violations of the rule of law. Moreover, the threat of Muslim Brotherhood militias as a counter to protestors has now made the protests significantly less safe. The Police in Egypt are badly in need of a change in tactics. Yet no alternative to violence and brutal force has yet to come forth. Until such changes are made, and joined with progress in cleanliness, traffic, and the provision of basic necessities, we will continue to see protests in Egypt.