On June 30, July 1 and July 2, the most massive protests in recent Egyptian history, larger than those which toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, rocked Tahrir Square in Cairo and also Alexandria, Fayoum and other Egyptian cities. More than a dozen people have been killed, mostly in attacks by counter-demonstrators. This time, the aim of the protesters is to force President Mohammed Morsi to step down and make way for new elections.
The Egyptian army has announced that if a solution to the conflict is not found by end of day Wednesday, it may step in and impose one on this nation of 80 million people.
Frustration with Morsi has been building since he was elected by the narrowest of margins in June of 2012 (he got about 25 percent of the vote in the first round, and 51.7 percent in the runoff). His affiliation with the right-wing Freedom and Justice Party, an offshoot of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood has led to worries that he might intend to pressure Egyptians, most of whom are theologically moderate Muslims and some of whom are Coptic Christians, into a stricter form of religious practice. He is accused of authoritarian tendencies, having worked to undermine the judiciary, giving himself the authority to rule without having to respond to judicial oversight until a new constitution is in force at some future time.
The sharp decline of Egypt's economy, with rising unemployment and inflation and dwindling currency reserves also underlies the conflict. Tourism and foreign investments are down, and with them, government revenues. Morsi's government has gone to the International Monetary Fund to ask for a $4.8 billion loan to pay ongoing expenses, and has been told that this is conditioned on its cutting food and fuel subsidies which keep the Egyptian masses afloat, as well as raising taxes.
Some last straws were Morsi's naming of a member of an extremist Islamist group accused of attacks on foreign tourists as governor of the Luxor region which, with its spectacular ancient temples and tombs, is a major tourist destination (this nomination was withdrawn), his announcement of support for the rebels in Syria, and the possibility of war with neighboring Ethiopia over control of the waters of the Blue Nile.
Although Morsi supporters claim that the protestors are affiliated with the forces that had supported ex-dictator Mubarak, in fact they include a broad spectrum of Egyptian society, including labor unions and the socialist and communist left, whom Mubarak had suppressed. They call their loose coalition simply "Tamarod" which means rebel. They have chosen Nobel prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission Mohammed El Baradei to be their spokesperson in negotiating a transition to a new regime, which would entail new elections for parliament and president.
There has been especially strong participation of women in this round of protests, in the hundreds of thousands among the reported millions who have hit the streets. Women particularly fear that a movement in a conservative Islamist direction threatens their progress toward social equality. A feature of protests in Egypt has been assaults against women protesters and press workers, and this has been happening in the current protests also.
One of numerous groups involved in the protests is the Egyptian Communist Party, which was suppressed under Mubarak and his predecessors, but has being growing in visibility since Mubarak's fall. In a statement released on Monday, the Communist Party praised the army's apparent siding with the people in the streets, and called for protesters to persist until Morsi is ousted: "The people decided that Mohammed Morsi Isa El-Ayyat has betrayed the oath that he made when he became president. He and his group of Muslim Brotherhood and their allies dared to attack the sanctity of the judiciary and ruined the country's economy.....we call upon the masses of the people not to leave the squares and not to abandon the revolution until they achieve their demands."
When the army announced its threat to step in and impose a solution, a cheer went up from the immense throng of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo. However, protest leaders say they do not want a military coup d'etat.
At writing, Morsi's government appears to be in danger of disintegrating, with the resignation of the foreign minister, several other ministers and top officials. However, Morsi is refusing to step down, accusing the protesters of being against constitutional legitimacy, while elements of the Muslim Brotherhood say they are willing to accept martyrdom to prevent Morsi's fall.
So far the Obama administration has confined itself to calling for a peaceful resolution of the situation, with a recommendation to President Morsi that he respond to the grievances of the people.
Photo: Amir Nabil/AP