Why Cairo is not burning… yet

Why Cairo is not burning… yet

by Abdallah Schleifer


It’s midnight in Cairo. Literally. President Mursi is droning on and on while I have been trying to sort out some of my thoughts on the computer keyboard before me. Egypt’s President is asserting his legitimacy over, and over, and over again – sort of makes illegitimacy attractive by comparison. And it’s Near Midnight for the hour of decision. Not for Mursi – he has decided and as the speech winds up now, well past midnight, has made it quite clear, that he will not comply with the ultimatum issued by the armed forces on Monday: That unless the President can reconcile and power- share with the Opposition within 48 hours – which BBC says means today, at 4:30pm Cairo time – the armed forces will intervene and” impose their own road map.”

This was a defiant speech, and while the President alluded in general terms to so-called prior understandings which if even true never materialized, he offered no concrete concessions that could have been theoretically the basis for final -hour reconciliation. Not that the official voices of the Opposition have expressed for one moment their own readiness to go where Mursi wont go – and that is to meet each other halfway. Spokesmen for the opposition have been as intransigent as Mursi, saying it was too late for any compromise that involved Mursi staying on as President in any manner or form.

Protesters fight back

So it all seems even more hopeless and dangerous, very early this Wednesday morning, than it did in the late hours of Sunday night ( June 30th) when vast rival rallies had gathered in Cairo through the afternoon and evening while deadly street fighting was already going on in different parts of the country. In several cases the street fighting was set off by gangs – over-enthusiastic protestors or paid thugs?—or most likely as is the case in life, a murky combination of both, attacking and burning out lightly defended MB or FJP headquarters.

Here in Cairo—which many of the foreign community as well as Egyptians of means have abandoned for shelter anywhere from the distant Sinai resorts of Sharm al Sheikh and Gouna to London—there was one major violent incident in Cairo last Sunday: Protestors attacked MB central HQs with Molotov cocktails and the defenders inside the imposing villa fired bird shot back. By early morning the defenders had slipped away, several people were dead and the HQs trashed. No police appeared during the several hours long fight, as the Ministry of Interior was making apparent what would soon become a public declaration – they would not protect MB/FJP headquarters anywhere in the country. But the MB’s central HQs are ,or rather were, in a relatively isolated part of Cairo, far from the major rallies so the danger of a spill-over that would engulf the entire city was lessoned by geography, and one also sensed that both sides were still hesitant to commit without the certainty of how the president, the cabinet, the judiciary and above all else, the armed forces would react.

By Monday and Tuesday that was all very clear. The ultimatum, first from the armed forces, and then the Interior ministry then declaring they would go with the Army however it chose, and then the highest court in the judiciary declaring that Mursi’s critically important appointment of his own Prosecutor General (which facilitated the President and the MB/FJP harassing the Opposition journalists with arrest for “insulting” Islam and the President) was invalid and void. Mursi does not sound like he is contesting that ruling.

Collapse like a house of cards

The President insists on the solidity of his authority but the non- Muslim Brotherhood sector of his government is poised to collapse like a house of cards. As of midnight six ministers including the Foreign Minister had resigned along with three official spokesmen (two for the presidency and one for the cabinet.) And the presidential advisor for military affairs, the former armed forces chief –of-staff Sami Anan who was quite adroitly forced out by Mursi in the during the first few months (the most successful phase) of his Presidency – and then honored by Mursi with a medal and the appointment –now, at this critical hour, has taken his revenge.

In his speech President Mursi called on everyone, his own supporters as well as the Opposition, to keep the peace. But a senior MB official had already declared at the pro- Mursi rally on Monday that “any coup of any sort will only pass over dead bodies” and called upon the Egyptian people to be ready to sacrifice themselves, to embrace martyrdom, if that was the price of stopping the armed forces. As for the MB’s most radical Islamist ally – the Gama’a al-Islamiya, one of its most important leaders has declared that the armed forces and its ultimatum “protects secularism” – all right, that’s an accusation within reason—and “spreads communism.” That, is so far out it borders on madness.

Everyone this past night, dreads imminent violence when the ultimatum expires and the armed forces intervene. And there is much talk of the leaked provisional content of the armed forces road-map – suspension of the new constitution, and the military commander playing a major role in the appointment of an interim council of civilians that will replace both Mursi and the faltering cabinet.

And yet the issue of legitimacy does nag. Mursi was the first freely elected President of the Egyptian Republic since it took shape in the mid-fifties after the overthrow of a constitutional monarchy. I am but a foreign observer and a guest of this country so I cannot offer my own roadmap but as someone involved in film making, on and off over many decades, I offer up a scenario in which the Defence Minister and head of the armed forces, takes the post of Prime Minister with emergency powers in his hands, leaving Mursi as a President only in =the most formal ceremonial terms, as a gesture towards electoral legitimacy and fills the cabinet with all of the various Opposition leaders, as well as a few MB/FJP minsters now holding office, in posts to which all can bring at least a minimal competence, while preparing for new parliamentary elections and a new constitution. If the Opposition can turn the 22 million signatures to the Tamarod Declaration that Mursi must go, into a disciplined, grass roots party that can secure a majority then the new parliament could effectively impeach Mursi or put his fate up to a referendum.

But the country is polarized into two intransigent blocs, and the anti- Mursi bloc has been growing over the past few months by leaps and bounds. It is difficult to imagine that Mursi’s speech has changed many or even any Opposition hearts, but his defiant tone will strengthen the readiness of his predominantly Islamist supporters to challenge in the steeets what they (and just about everybody else who are not supporters of Mursi) describe as the threat of a coup. (The armed forces do not welcome the expression.)

Several leaders of the dozens of loosely allied opposition parties – socialist, liberal, nationalist even one mildly Islamist party and the Salifist Nour party (which has suffered internal splits since its impressive performance in the election of parliament) have declared they are opposed to military rule Their statements suggest they are willing for the Army to help them force Mursi out, but they are suspicious of the armed forces and opposed to Army rule. But that is not the impression I have gotten talking to the non-activist man and woman in the street who signed the Tamerod (Rebel) declaration for Mursi to step down but given the lack of security, lack of employment, along rising prices, fuel shortages and power cuts, have no problem at all with the armed forces playing a decisive role in any post-Mursi Egypt.

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Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.  Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief.


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