US President Barack Obama called Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi on Thursday to express his anxiety about the violence that broke out on Wednesday in front of the presidential palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis district and elsewhere in the country, which left 7 dead and over 700 wounded (according to the latest revised count). Obama called for national dialogue and peaceful methods.
The number two man in the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (the civil arm of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood), Essam el-Arian, boarded a plane for Washington for consultations with the Obama administration.
In a severe blow to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Studies Academy of the prestigious al-Azhar Seminary (the closest thing Sunni Islam has to a Vatican) issued a statement calling for Morsi to shelve his draft constitution and his plans for a national referendum on it in only a week and a half. One of the things liberals don’t like about the draft constitution is that it puts a lot of law and practice under Islamic law, and then appoints the al-Azhar Seminary to interpret Islamic law as it applies to the constitution. It would be as though the US Constitution acknowledged that some prohibitions, such as murder, are biblical and then gave the authority to define murder to the Southern Baptist Convention.
But the very body that the Brotherhood wants to give a formal position in the interpretation of the constitution is now saying that the constitution is flawed and should be revised before being voted on.
Morsi has a great deal of legitimacy owing to his being the first elected president of Egypt. But he has detracted from it by his recent actions, in the eyes of many Egyptians. Those analysts who see the struggle as between the left-liberals and the Brotherhood are only partly right. Many religious Egyptians and political centrists are deeply disturbed by Morsi’s high-handed actions and at the cult-like solidarity behind him of the Muslim Brotherhood. That al-Azhar has now publicly reprimanded Morsi makes it clear that the fault lines are much more complex than just secular versus fundamentalist.
Morsi spent Thursday consulting with the army, the Ministry of the Interior, and other security-related cabinet members on how to restore order after massive country-wide protests on Tuesday and then violence on Wednesday as clashes broke out between the secular-minded forces and the Muslim Brotherhood cadres. (See my summary here. After the president’s meeting, the Republican Guard took up positions, with some tanks, around the presidential palace, keeping the protesters at a distance.
On Thursday evening Cairo time, President Morsi gave an address to the nation in which he called for dialogue, but offered no concessions at all to his critics. He said he would continue with plans for a constitutional referendum, which the opposition has demanded he cancel. He denounced the leftists, liberals and centrists protesting his recent moves regarding the constitution as thugs and criminals and foreign agents.
Dr. Muhammad Elbaradei, a major liberal leader, denounced the speech as a non-starter and said that the president had forestalled meaningful dialogue and had lost his legitimacy. Liberals and leftists want Morsi to rescind his Nov. 22 declaration that his decrees are immune from judicial review, and his decision last Saturday to take a hastily-finished, fundamentalist-tinged constitution to a national referendum on December 15. Morsi insists on continuing with both. Elbaradei and liberal and leftist allies called for massive further demonstrations throughout the country today, Friday.
Others reacted even more angrily. Dissidents set fire to three Muslim Brotherhood or Freedom and Justice Party offices in Cairo , including the main one in the Muqattam Hills overlooking the capital. Muslim Brothers complained bitterly that the police up there declined to intervene. In Zahra al-Maadi, another office was attacked and looted. And a third was set afire at Kitkat Square at the entryway to the fundamentalist stronghold of Imbaba. Kitkat is a flashpoint because there are houseboats along the Nile there with a long tradition of nightlife activities, which the Brotherhood wishes to prohibit, so people’s livelihoods and philosophy of life are at stake. Maadi is upscale and full of people who hate the Brotherhood. Muqattam is also upper middle class. Another complexity in the struggle in Egypt is the dimension of conflict between lower middle class puritanism, and the more freewheeling lives and aspirations both of the demi-monde at the bottom of society and the upper middle class at the top.