Egypt’s June 30 rallies: Between the irresponsible and the obtuse

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Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer

It should be apparent that by “The Irresponsible” I am alluding to the Egyptian opposition in its diverse and contradictory forms, particularly as it coalesced in the form of the National Salvation Front (NSF) - “a loose coalition of liberal, leftist and nationalist parties,” as described by Al-Ahram, an Egyptian daily.

Over the past two months, the NSF has been upstaged by the far more dynamic Tamarod (Rebel) movement gathering millions of signatures on a declaration calling for Mursi to step down and new Presidential elections to be held and to be presented today, on the anniversary of Mursi’s first year in office.


The presentation with be backed up by a “million man” opposition march to the presidential palace today and whether or not that march will be contested by Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters and Salafist allies, it will to a large degree determine the course of coming events.

The June 30 Coordination Committee

Tamarod has acquired tens of thousands of volunteers, perhaps by now, hundreds of thousands, actually doing the sort of door-to-door grassroots canvassing that neither the left-liberal revolutionaries, (along with their street fighting contingent, the football fan ultras, who came to characterize Tahrir from 2012 onwards) or the more reserved leaders of the NSF have ever managed to do.

Starting two months ago, the small cadre of the pre-Tahrir protest group “Kefaya” movement quickly embraced by the April 6 Movement - the very group that organized the first January 25, 2011 demonstration. Tamarod is so obviously, so overwhelmingly the most incredibly successful opposition game in town, that the NSF, and just about everybody else who is politically active in the country, and particularly in this city - aside from the MB/Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its increasingly shaky alliance of Islamist parties - has rallied to it.

They have formed a new, expanded “loose coalition” - the June 30 Coordination Committee, which includes the NSF, and the many opposition youth movements.

The Obtuse

As for “The Obtuse”, and I am too much of an old school journalist, suddenly turned columnist, to describe in an article the president of any republic or many of his closest comrades or brothers as “stupid,” so instead I have preferred the word “obtuse.”

In the past, I have referred to the increasing irresponsibility of the opposition and increasing authoritarianism of the government. But I think that growing authoritarianism is subsumed by its obtuse nature. One cannot impose authoritarianism or totalitarianism from the top down unless one has a serious, significant armed force at one’s disposal to discourage or liquidate the opposition.

That was the case in the earliest years of the Nasserist Revolution when the Free Officers rapidly expanded their direct control over the Egyptian Army, arresting, purging, or banishing abroad as diplomats those officers considered unreliable.

Or Qaddafi, who besides seizing the leadership of Libya’s army would put great energy into quickly developing his own large and ominous intelligence agency.

The MB has nothing comparative – its street fighters are just that – better disciplined, better trained perhaps than the typical Egyptian street fighter, but not a serious, well-armed, paramilitary force.

Where Mursi went wrong

The original sin of the MB/FJP was to promise a broad coalition government representing all of Egypt’s political forces and religious communities during Mursi’s campaign for the presidency, and then not to do it.

With the presidency in hand, with a strong representation within the cabinet ensuring its leading role, Mursi could easily have named Ayman Nour, leader of the Ghad Party and the most responsible of the opposition, as prime minister. Here was a man who had dared to run against Mubarak in the faint semblance of a free presidential election, and was allowed 18% of the vote – his actual share known only to those who rigged the election and who had paid for his audacity with a prison sentence in arduous conditions; an experience unknown to the leading elements of the NSF.

Or if he really wanted drama and to acknowledge the leader of the Tahrir youth supporting him in the run off-off for the presidency, Mursi could have named the April 6 leader Ahmed Maher as prime minister, and Nour as interior minister.

Mursi could have also easily have named Mohammed ElBaradei, already laden with global prestige, as foreign minister and sent him off on a never-ending global tour that would have given ElBaradei the requisite status while keeping him out of the country most of the time.

Open rebellion in the state media

Along with reports of increasingly violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and MB cadre outside of Cairo, the big story here in the capital is that of open rebellion in the state media.

The editors and broadcasters involved are widely reported to have been directed by the government to ignore all of the opposition marches and demonstrations in support of Tamorod’s demand and to focus attention to pro-Mursi demonstrations.

In what would seem to be a combative response to the alleged directions, this week’s Al Ahram Weekly has 22 pages of news reports and articles condemning – from mild to passionate intensity – the government and the ruling party, in a special issue devoted to June 30.

Because there was no coalition government it was inevitable, despite its earliest efforts to avoid such typecasting, that in the face of escalating opposition, the MB/FJP inevitably gathered itself with other Islamist parties and movements, in what has turned out to be an increasingly unstable alliance - which includes the very diverse Salafist trend.

We cannot even call it a Salafist movement – it is by the nature of Salafists, a torrent of several thousands of Sheikhs, who by the standards of Al-Azhar are ill-educated in what is known as “the religious sciences” and are to a great degree, hostile to the traditional Azhari understanding of Islam. That has meant Mursi keeping quiet in at rallies, when Salafist sheikhs who call the opposition kafir (unbelievers) and “enemies of Islam” speak from the rostrum.

The Irresponsible and the Obtuse - together

Here are a just a few out of many examples of the dichotomy implied by The Irresponsible and the Obtuse:

(1) President Mursi appointed 17 new governors, seven of whom are members of the MB/FJP. And the overall idea of naming MB members as governors was the most prominent aspect of the opposition critique. In America, the 50 state governors are directly elected by the people, so one finds at any given time and in different proportions, Republicans, Democrats and the very rare Independents serving as governors. But if the American constitution allowed for presidential appointment of the governors, all 50 governors to be appointed by President Obama could then be members of the Democratic Party.

(2) President Mursi has repeatedly implied, most recently in his nationwide televised speech last Wednesday that the opposition is serving in the interests of President Mubarak’s leading supporters who are striving to destabilize Egypt. Opposition spokesmen have dismissed the charges. These charges, particularly in terms of the intent of the Tamarod organizers or the NSF leaders, are not justifiable. But they cannot simply be dismissed. Serious Egyptian journalists and commentators who sympathize with the opposition acknowledge that pro-Mubarak forces now participate as part of a very broad anti-government informal alliance.

(3) MB/FJP spokesmen have described the Tamarod Declaration, which reportedly has now secured 22 million signatures calling for Mursi to step down, as “illegal” and “unconstitutional.” But neither phrase applies to what is basically a petition. On the other hand the opposition denies the legitimacy of an elected president on the authority of a massively endorsed declaration to force him out of office. But most recently in France, President Hollande’s popularity dropped to about 35 percent of the population, so presumably Hollande’s opposition could get many millions to sign a declaration for Hollande to resign. It is inconceivable that Hollande would.

(4) The Minister of Defense and army commander General Abdul Fatah Al-Sissi declared nearly a week ago, that while the army has gone out of its way over the past year to stay out of politics it will not allow the country to descend into “uncontrollable conflict.” He called on all Egyptian political forces to reconcile within the week to overt chaos and indicated significantly that to prevent Egypt from” plunging into a dark tunnel,” the army would intervene.

What is particularly significant is that as the armed forces have taken up strategic positions in and around Cairo, with tanks and armored personnel carriers, at critical junctions along major roads, the first state institution to be reinforced by the army is the Media Production City, which houses the studios and transmission facilities for nearly all of the privately owned (and critical) Egyptian broadcasters. The Media Production City has twice been targeted by Islamist youth, and was barely defended by security forces earlier this year. The army’s strong presence now is again taken by the opposition as an encouraging sign.

Egypt’s secret

There is a “secret” barely mentioned by either government or opposition media that is no secret. A secret that anyone who talks with Cairenes, who are neither Islamists nor opposition activists, knows. It is that the people are fed up with a worsening fuel crisis in which the country’s major arteries now jam up because an entire lane will be blocked for blocks by both trucks waiting for diesel fuel. Every driver in this city, aside, perhaps, from Islamist activists, is infuriated by the fuel crisis and blames the government.

The public is fed up that the Egyptian pound continues to devalue, thus slowing all imports as electricity charges increase and unemployment continues to rise.

The “secret” – and here is why even the opposition will not allude to it – is that yes, this silent but overwhelming majority, at least in Cairo, wants the army to intervene , but not for the sake of a change in ruling parties, and not for the sake of the opposition leaders and their activists. Nor, at the other end of the scale, for Gamal Mubarak and his crony-capitalist circle of civilians.

They just want the army back... in power.

Abdallah Schleifer, Professor Emeritus at the American University in Cairo and former Al Arabiya bureau chief in Washington DC, is a veteran American journalist who covered the region for many years before joining the AUC faculty where he founded the Adham Center for TV Journalism. Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo bureau chief ; as Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut ,and as special correspondent for the New York Times based in Amman.

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