CAIRO (AP) — In abstract terms, Sunday’s planned protests aimed at forcing out Islamist President Mohammed Morsi would seem to violate a basic principle of democracy: If a fair vote is conducted, even if the majority is slim or the turnout modest, all must respect the results. Otherwise it’s political chaos.
Morsi’s Islamist supporters have been angrily making that argument for weeks, accusing loyalists of the ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak of being behind the campaign against the president and of aiming to thwart democracy, one of the main aspirations of the 2011 revolution that removed him.
But the organizers of Sunday’s protests insist he has lost legitimacy through what they call a series of power grabs, missteps and poor decisions, and that Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies are using victories — at times narrow — scored in elections during a still nascent and transitioning democracy to control it completely for themselves.
They argue the Islamists unfairly set the rules of the game by pushing through a new constitution without consensus, broke the rules with decrees that for a period put Morsi above oversight, ran roughshod over the courts and attacked previous anti-Morsi protesters. In their eyes, he is allowing one faction — Islamists ranging from the Brotherhood to ultraconservative Salfis and more radical groups — to monopolize power and take the country down a more Islamist and sectarian path beyond any election mandate.
They also say they can show millions have lost faith in Morsi because of mismanagement and will bring gigantic crowds into the streets Sunday to stay for as long as it takes.
“Leave voluntarily because the nation can no longer suffer another day with you in an office tainted by blood and hatred,” Tamarod, the youth movement fueling the protest campaign, proclaimed in a statement. It says it has collected at least 15 million signatures of Egyptians who want Morsi to step down — around 2 million more than the number of votes Morsi received when he won last year’s presidential election with almost 52 percent of the vote.
The Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of Morsi’s Brotherhood, said on its official Twitter account: “Egyptian opposition flouts principles of democracy, mobilizes for violence.”
“We’re talking about the legitimacy that the Egyptian people came out to confirm in repeated elections and finally in choosing Mohammed Morsi,” Abdel-Nasser Ali, a Brotherhood figure in Alexandria and head of the local teachers union, told a Brotherhood-organized conference Tuesday. “We won’t let anyone leap over the ballot box by force. The people’s will is the foundation.”
The legitimacy question may seem abstract, but it hangs over Sunday’s protests, set on the anniversary of Morsi’s 2012 inauguration.
Confident Morsi will fall, Tamarod and other opposition groups have come up with a road map for what’s next, involving an interim technocrat government, the suspension of the largely Islamist-drafted constitution while it is rewritten by an expert panel, then new elections in six months.
But if the protest campaign does succeed, many Islamists could reject the legitimacy of any post-Morsi system.
That raises the potential for a violent backlash, particularly since — apart from democracy questions — prominent hard-liners have railed against the campaign as a conspiracy to thwart the “Islamist project” of turning Egypt into a state ruled by Shariah law.
If the opposition does succeed in bringing overwhelming numbers into the street yet Morsi remains in place, it raises the question of how he can effectively rule.
“We have said all along that we have no problem with (Tamarod) as long as it’s peaceful, but not for the movement to become a mechanism to impose its own vision,” Yasser Mehrez, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “This is going to lead to chaos and no president will in the future be able to stay in power for more than a month.”
These are some of the issues that have fueled controversy over Morsi the past year.
Morsi’s opponents say he has repeatedly tried to defy the judiciary, which is the sole branch of the government not dominated by Islamists, though there are Brotherhood backers among the judges. Morsi’s backers have said the courts are controlled by Mubarak loyalists trying to foil his agenda.
In November, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration that banned the courts from reviewing any of his decisions. He also barred them from ruling on the legitimacy of the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly drafting the new constitution or the upper house of parliament, which judges were considering whether to dissolve.
He also appointed a new attorney general, Talaat Abdullah, to replace Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid, a Mubarak appointee, in violation of the legal process of such appointments. Morsi’s supporters defended the move as necessary to stop Mubarak-era judges from delaying the democratic process and that Abdel-Maguid showed bias in favor of Mubarak era officials.
“I respect very, very much the status of the judiciary,” Morsi said in a speech Wednesday night.
Asked about the decrees Wednesday, Mehrez, the Brotherhood spokesman, pointed out that Morsi later rescinded them. The right of courts to review his decisions was restored, but by that time the constitutional assembly had finished its draft and Abdullah remains in his position, despite a later court ruling calling his appointment illegal, now under appeal.
Islamists on the constitutional assembly in December approved a draft of the constitution in a rushed, all-night session without the participation of Christians or liberals. Opponents contend this violated Morsi’s election promises to reconsider the make-up of the panel and his vows that no constitution would be put to a referendum without consensus. Morsi’s supporters claimed that liberals, secular politicians and Christians had signed off on the draft before they started boycotting the panel’s meetings.
Islamist pro-Morsi protesters besieged the Supreme Constitutional Court to prevent judges from holding a hearing in which they were widely expected to dissolve the constituent assembly. The siege gave time for the panel to adopt the draft and Morsi to call a referendum, which approved it.
Mehrez, of the Brotherhood, dismissed complaints over the manner of the draft’s passing. “As for the constitution, it was passed in a nationwide referendum. This is all deceptive talk that is meant to paint a certain image,” he said. In his speech Wednesday, Morsi called the document “a glorious achievement” but that he does not object to amending it.
The draft was approved by nearly 64 percent but in a vote with less than 35 percent participation. Morsi’s opponents argue that approval of only around a fifth of Egypt’s voters is weak legitimacy for the state’s foundation.
In December, Morsi supporters attacked peaceful protesters camped outside his Cairo palace. The attack sparks street battles lasting the whole day in which at least 10 were killed and hundreds wounded. The Brotherhood claims most of the 10 victims were group members. Later videos posted on social networks and witness accounts showed Morsi supporters detaining and torturing protesters just outside the palace walls and in full view of the police.
The president blamed the violence on the opposition and claimed that arrested protesters confessed they were linked to Mubarak loyalists. Al those arrested were later released for lack of evidence.
A new wave of violence erupted in January amid protests against Morsi, and police shoot dead 40 protesters in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said. The next day, Morsi thanked the police for their tough stance. Brotherhood officials depicted those killed as armed thugs, not protesters.
Tamarod in its statement blamed protester deaths on Morsi, saying he “kills, sponsors sectarianism, divides society and empowers murderers.”
In April, a mob pelted the main cathedral of the Coptic Christian Church, in central Cairo, with firebombs and rocks minutes after a funeral service was held for four Christians killed in sectarian clashes elsewhere in the Egyptian capital. Coptic patriarch Tawadros II said the attack was the first time that the papal seat of the Egyptian church was attacked in nearly 2,000 years and blamed Morsi for not doing enough to protect it.
Morsi condemned the attack. His chief foreign policy aide Essam el-Haddad blamed the mourners for the violence in a statement he issued in English to the foreign media. In a similar vein, a growing number of Christians have been put on trial and convicted for blasphemy, usually because of suits by hard-line Islamists accusing them of saying something in public that they deem offensive to Islam or its prophet Muhammad.
This month, a Sunni Muslim mob beat to death four Shiites in a village near the Pyramids of Giza. Morsi denounced the attack and vowed to track down the perpetrators. But his opponents say the attack was sparked by anti-Shiite rhetoric from Morsi’s hard-line allies.
Hendawi is the AP’s chief of bureau in Cairo since 2010. He has covered the Middle East for the AP since 1995.