Biggest Demonstrations in Egyptian History: Millions Demand President Morsi Step Down

The Egyptian military estimated that “millions” of Egyptian demonstrated on Sunday to demand early presidential elections, only one year into the four-year term of President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The nationwide rallies were, the military said, the largest in Egyptian history.

The army estimated that 500,000 gathered at Maydan al-Tahrir in Cairo, and 100,000 in downtown Alexandria, demanding that Morsi “depart!”

The streets leading into Tahrir were so packed that late arrivers could not reach the Square. Tens of thousands of protesters marched from the Square to the Ittihadiya presidential palace, chanting “The people want the fall of the regime” and chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood from which the president hails, calling for the fall of the rule of the Supreme Guide (Muhammad Badi` is the head of the Brotherhood, and they were accusing Morsi of being his puppet). A slide show of images is here.

Demonstrations were also held in provincial towns and cities all over the country, including Alexandria, Minufiya, Kafr Sheikh, Asyut, Ismailia, Port Said, and many others. For the most part, Sunday’s rallies were peaceful, amazingly so given the millions involved. But there were a few exceptions, and at least 5 people died in violence. In Port Said a bomb appears to have gone off, killing a journalist and wounding dozens, but it did not deter a massive crowd from gathering at Martyrs Square. In Asyut a clash occurred between pro- and anti-Mursi crowds that left 4 dead and dozens wounded. Activists in Ismailia on Twitter declared the city a Muslim Brotherhood free zone. Muslim Brotherhood centers were attacked or burned in some provincial towns. In the Muqattam Hills above Cairo, thugs set fire to the HQ of the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. The activists had not called for protests in Muqattam, so this criminal act issued from other quarters, very possibly from Mubarak supporters still sore about the supplanting of his party by the Brotherhood.

Much of the protest is economic. Morsi’s government has pursued austerity policies and it has failed to revive tourism or attract substantial productive investment. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have been cut in half, causing the Egyptian pound to fall in value, and hurting Egyptians, who depend on imported food and fuel. The textile workers of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, whose 2006-2008 strikes were a rallying cry for anti-Mubarak activists, have warned that under Morsi their factories are threatened with closure altogether. Although some of the animus against Morsi comes from liberals and secularists annoyed by his religious fundamentalism, many of the protesters on Sunday were devout Muslims who just object to Morsi’s high-handed style of governing, failed economic policies, and favoritism toward his Muslim Brotherhood base. One banner in Tahrir said, ‘we are for Islam, against the Muslim Brotherhood.’

The army estimated that 20,000 supporters demonstrated for Morsi in the square in front of the Rabi’a al-`Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City, about 5 km from the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. (The ministry of interior spokesman, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, gave out completely fantastic estimates of 17 million in the streets throughout the country, the vast majority of them supporting the president. It claimed 4 million at Nasr City, which is quite impossible. As far as I can tell from various reports both in Cairo and the provinces, this allegation is ridiculous on the face of it.)

The anti-Morsi demonstrations were called for by the Rebellion or Tamarrud movement, founded on April 28 and launched on May Day by youth disillusioned with Morsi, some of whom had voted for him, including Mahmoud Badr. Some of the Rebellion activists came out of the youth wing (Youth for Change) of the Kefaya (Enough!) movement founded to protest the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in 2004.

The Rebellion Movement deployed two protest tactics. One was the gathering of signatures on a petition asking Morsi to step down. I was in Egypt in early June and found these petitions were everywhere, and I was handed them more than once myself. Rebellion sought to gather 15 million signatures, since Morsi had won the presidency last year with about 13 million votes to 12 million votes for his rival, Ahmad Shafiq. They figured 15 million signatures against him would demonstrate that he had lost his popular mandate. In the event, Badr says that Rebellion was able to gather 22 million signatures to its petition asking for early presidential elections. (Morsi was elected to a 4-year term in June, 2012 but Rebellion wants him to step down and to hold new elections immediately).

The second tactic was to call for massive rallies and sit-ins beginning June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s election, which they envisage continuing until Morsi meets their demand. That is,the millions in the street on Sunday were not gathered, as some Muslim Brotherhood officials alleged, for “just one day.” Rebellion gave Morsi until Tuesday to step down, and if he doesn’t, they plan further huge rallies, including on Tuesday and then Friday.

There is no provision in either the 1971 or the 2012 Egyptian constitution for the president to be recalled, so the demands of the youth are technically unconstitutional. But from their point of view, Morsi’s behavior last fall, in putting himself above the law and pushing through a controversial constitution with some fundamentalist implications, were crimes of a Nixonian sort, and so they are demanding he resign rather as Americans demanded that Tricky Dick resign,in 1975. In contrast to Nixon, however, Morsi’s support has not collapsed and he isn’t in danger of being impeached (there is no elected parliament at the moment). The only part of the elite that could force him out of office is the army, and a military coup could not possibly be good for Egyptian democracy. Ironically, from February 2011 through August of 2012, the main demand of the activist youth was that the army return to its barracks. To be fair, the youth are not demanding army intervention, they are demanding a kind of California-style recall of the executive and early elections.

17 Responses

  1. I bet that you have read Mr Bill Keller’s op-ed in the NYT of this date. He draws a link to much of the ‘unrest’ in the Islamic world (Turkey recently, Iran in ’09, others), seeing them as rebellions of the young and relatively privileged against unresponsive old-style regimes. It seems to me to be a gigantic simplification. You are my principle source for ‘informed comment’ on the middle east, Dr Cole. Any thoughts on whether the best way to see this phenomenon as general or particular?

    Thanx!

    • Anything that fits into a coherent column is by definition an oversimplification. But there’s a lot to agree with in Turkey’s case. the fact that the regime is Islamist and moving the country away from laicite and freedoms that the young have assumed to be a birthright in no way means that it is not old style in terms of being autocratic, authoritarian, controlling and threatening the press enriching insiders (the PM most of all) and controlling a deep state that imprisons opponents for long periods without trial when other forms of harassment and intimidation do not work.

      I don’t think there’s any doubt that Erdogan is locked into old-style thinking as much as old-style rhetoric and old-style conspiracy theorizations.

      Seems to me that Morsi did about the same with the constitution and dismissal of judicial authority.

  2. Professor Cole,

    I am always delighted to read your thoughts on Middle Eastern politics. What I have seen throughout the Arab Spring, in Turkey and again in Egypt is the young coming out in force to protest against the government. In this connection, I am still at an awe why, in a country where 60% of the population is under 20, haven’t the Afghan youth risen to protest against the corrupt, sycophant western puppet Hamid Karzai? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this subject.

    • Well, to begin with, urbanization, size of middle class, literacy and internet connectivity rates all provide basic social platforms for such collective action, and those indices are low in Afghanistan.

  3. Morsi drew his primary support at elections from rural voters in Egypt. Cairo was secular, for the most part.

    The fact these demonstrations are taking place cannot surprise me. It is a sign that there is freedom of assembly and freedom of expression within Egypt which was not occurring under the Mubarak regime.

    The austerity policies referred to are almost always protested against wherever they may be implemented. Remember PM Thatcher and her unpopular tax policies.

  4. Seems likely that negotiations between at least some of the factions (presidency and military at a minimum) must be ongoing, given the statement issued today by the generals. If a deal is in the works, this will take longer than 48 hours, as reacting to the rapid pace of events, forging compromise where distrust exists, and other factors will make the process complicated. One possibility is that some sort of coalition plan will be agreed to, possibly covering the provisions for parliamentary elections.

    The bitter divisions between political factions and social groups also are probably still exacerbated to some degree by the lingering effect of the “two cultures” phenomenon, a product of how modernization was attempted in many countries.

    Tunisia and Egypt are the two most vital focal points for the Arab Spring/Awakening, and their importance to guiding the overall transformation of the region is too important for either to tolerate failure.

  5. It almost seems to me that there is a 3 way struggle going on in the Muslim world. In some areas it is Sunni vs. Shiite, such as Syria and Iraq, and in other areas, like Turkey and Egypt it is sacred vs. secular. When you consider the the Muslim religion is about 600 years younger than Christianity and consider that about 600 years ago the West went through a period of religious convulsions, perhaps there is some historical symmetry that reflects a developmental stage in great religions. As the Chinese curse goes, we are living in interesting times.

    • I can’t help but see each of these different conflicts as a function of the slow collapse of the regional economy alongside the relentless population growth. The sectarianism, while real, is one variant of the scapegoating going on over a miserable economic trainwreck that is much of the Middle East. The prospects for improvement, regardless of who holds power, are exceedingly dim. The religious conflict, while undeniable, is a peripheral element in comparison to much more formidable problems.

      Question about Egypt: How do you comfortably feed 80 million people living in a vast wasteland with one severely polluted and overtaxed river running through it? Answer: you can’t.

      • A couple of illuminatingly warped takes on what’s going on with “the economy” of that “region,” under the irresistible pressure of greed, the ineluctable pleasure of violence, the inevitable idiocy of Great Gamer and supranational corporationists, and the all but invisible defalcations of what we so foolishly call “bankers” and other predators like the departing “rulers” who strip the treasures and treasury like the Nazis did in 1945, from the pages of “Syria Comments”:

        “Deconstructing the Syrian Banking System,” by Andrew Cunningham, a consultant who advises on how to extend the world “banking” system into damaged terrain, and “The Economic Collapse of Syria.” link to joshualandis.com

        Interesting how the destruction and dismantling of a place people used to just sort of live provides such great opportunities for “growth” and “profit.” It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no man “good.”

        The comments to these pieces are also so beautifully evocative and illustrative of what’s fundamentally wrong with us as a species…

  6. This is a very crucial moment in Egypt’s history. It reminds me of Algeria in 1992, and the victory of the FIS (the only exception is that FIS was never allowed to even contest the 2nd round of the legislative elections), which was canceled by the military. We all know what happened afterward: a very bloody civil war, Algeria became a magnet to all Jihadists, and the AQ moved in and established a franchise.

    If the military intervenes in Egypt and pushes Morsi aside, it would be a coup d’etat with horrible consequences for Egypt, the region, and America. First, a civil war would more than likely start in Egypt. Second, this would destabilize the region completely. Third, Al-Qaeda would have an unbelievable opportunity to move in in numbers in Egypt and establish a solid base. Forth, the United States will be blamed for the coup (people still remember what happened to Mossadegh). And the narrative will be “We told you that America and Israel will never allow an Islamist to be elected in the Arab-Muslim world.” This has always been the narrative of the radical Islamists and if Morsi is pushed aside, it will be more than reinforced. Lastly, this will be a terrible blow to the democratic process in the Arab and Muslim world with unforeseeable consequences.

    My advice to whomever is dealing with this crisis at the state department or the W.H. is to get his behind moving and get on the phone and call the Egyptian military and tell them “To back off. Morsi is not to be touched.”

    • I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that the converse is also true, that the US is certainly blamed in certain sectors of Turkey for calling the generals and ordering them to stand down against the AKP in 2007. Damned if it do, damned if it don’t.

      • I have no idea what you are talking about. With due respect, there are elections and constitutional process, it must be respect. The military are the greatest threat in new democracies, not the radicals from both sides of the political spectrum.

  7. Morsi has made some big mistakes, and I noted them in a piece I did earlier but don’t these intellectuals see that their demands he abdicate a year after taking office will only make Egypt even more unstable and diminish or dry up completely any foreign investment or stimulus of their economy? A year is too short a time to expect a turnaround in how things are done, even for that part of the world. Opposition forces should focus on candidates for the parliament; their public demonstrations should be aimed at getting the government to ratify a Constitution, not call for Morsi’s resignation, then they can use that document as a springboard for future protest, IMHO.

    • I completely agree with you, unfortunately the masses don’t think or analyse consequences…

    • Constitution? Didn’t we see that movie and it ended badly? What is there in Morsi’s behavior since to make one imagine he is more open to compromise and collaboration. Calls like this for resignation are what one gets with a vigorous, wide-spectrum of opposition movements, even of some of them are normally quite small. It’s odd to complain about both the general quietism of the US and much of W. Europe and also about the activism of groups protesting against more drastic cuts to individual liberty in Egypt and Turkey.

    • Yeah, be good little people and play nice and follow the rules and bring cookies and milk to the people in charge and they might change their behaviors eventually if you can somehow just achieve that majority in the legislature.

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