CAIRO — The demonstrations scheduled for later this week to mark the first anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s ascension to Egypt’s presidency revolve around a single question: Which defines the will of the people, what happened at the ballot boxes a year ago or the growing anger today at what many think has been Morsi’s politically corrupt and incompetent leadership?
Morsi, his supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood say the people spoke when they voted last year, making Morsi the nation’s first democratically elected president. That makes the calls that he step down illegitimate, they say. The people can speak again three years from now, during the next election.
His growing number of opponents say the results of last year’s elections are no longer relevant. What matters now is the growing discontent about a flailing economy, a divided political system, collapsing security and what they charge is Morsi’s illegitimate power grab. Morsi now controls the legislature and has moved his backers into the judiciary.
The divisions will be on display this week as Morsi’s critics and his supporters gear up for demonstrations to mark the anniversary Saturday of his inauguration.
The supporters have summoned pro-government demonstrators to gather Thursday, with pro-Morsi Islamists using a Facebook page to declare “legitimacy is a red line.” Last week, supporters staged a rally of more than 100,000 people.
Anti-Morsi rallies are scheduled for Saturday, and shop owners are coordinating with their employees on shifts so they can keep businesses open while taking part in protests that might go on indefinitely, much like the ones in 2011 that led to the fall of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
“We want a president who feels with the people. We want security back. During Mubarak, there wasn’t money but at least there was security,” said Nasser Ali, 38, a taxi driver who plans to participate in the anti-Morsi rallies. “I used to allow my 22-year-old sister to stay out till 3 in the morning and I wasn’t scared. Now I am afraid if she is out till 10 p.m.”
Morsi himself will address the nation Wednesday. At a hastily arranged news conference Monday night, presidential spokesman Omar Amer said the speech would be important, though he offered no details. "Wednesday is not far away," he said.
There’s no constitutional basis for Morsi’s removal, and critics of those who are calling for his departure say they’re conducting themselves as undemocratically as they accuse Morsi of behaving.
The charge doesn’t deter Morsi’s detractors, however.
“So what if 1,000 of us die? There are 90 million of us,” said a fruit vendor who identified himself only as Gamel as he bought cigarettes in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek. “I am prepared to die. Let my children live. Egypt is dying.”
Among the many criticisms of Morsi that opponents offer is the charge that he’s divided the country, pushing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which he became prominent, over that of Egypt’s many other constituencies.
They say he’s increasingly appointed Brotherhood members to key posts, and has shunned opponents and called them spies of foreign nations. He’s arrested critics, including satirist Bassem Youssef, for insulting the presidency. He’s increasingly appointed Islamist judges, and he’s often remained silent during crises involving the deaths of liberal activists while condemning the deaths of his supporters.
The ultimate judge of what should happen may be Egypt’s revered military, the country’s last nationalist institution and respected arbiter. In a speech Sunday, the defense minister and the supreme commander of the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, said the military would interfere if there were “uncontrollable conflict,” the strongest statement by the military during Morsi’s presidency and one that some think portends a possible military intervention.
“There is a state of division in the society, and the continuation of it is a danger to the Egyptian state,” Sissi said. The military has a “patriotic and moral responsibility” to defend Egyptians from violence, he said.
In the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, residents debated Monday whose side the military would take. Supporters of Morsi interpreted Sissi’s remarks to mean that it would defend the government; opponents said the comments were a warning that the military would intervene because Morsi couldn’t handle governing.
Faheem Abdel Hameed, 37, a mechanic, suggested that the size of the crowds this week would sway the military. “If big numbers take to the streets, the military will make Morsi go home,” he said.
A Morsi supporter, Wafer Ali, 32, interrupted Hameed and offered his own understanding of Sissi’s comments.
“If the people care about this country, they would stand with Morsi and express their concerns and opinion peacefully,” Ali said. “What Sissi means is that he is worried about the country and he will protect the legitimacy.”
Morsi’s fate would be clearer if the opposition could offer a better alternative. But it, too, is divided and unorganized. The result is a nation that’s largely fed up, saying the last year has taught it Morsi is incapable of leading the country and tackling its seemingly intractable corruption, economic and political problems.
In a blog for the U.S. publication Foreign Policy, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who’s now the leader of the National Salvation Front – the biggest conglomerate of Morsi opponents – spelled out the nation’s well-known problems but fell short of outlining specific solutions.
“We in the opposition have been urging President Mohammed Morsi and company for months that Egypt needs a government that is competent and impartial, at least through the upcoming parliamentary election. We need a broad-based committee to amend the Egyptian Constitution, which pretty much everyone agrees falls short of ensuring a proper balance of power and guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms. And we need a political partnership between the other established parties,” ElBaradei wrote.
Morsi has scrambled to shore up support. He offered billions in aid to the restive Sinai and pay raises for government workers, promised to improve the electricity and water shortages, and even cut ties with Syria. The Health Ministry has offered free government care, and Morsi stepped up the rhetoric with Ethiopia over its proposal to build a dam, which might affect Egypt’s water supplies. All the while, the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood has mobilized thousands to the streets.
In the end, if there’s a connective thread between both sides, it’s their desperate plea for stability. It seems that if Morsi could offer a modicum of hope, the protests could be staved off.
“If Morsi seriously does something I won’t participate in the protest. I just want stability. I am not against Morsi as a person, I am against his failed policy. He had promised a lot and did nothing,” said Mohammed Ezz, 44, a seed shop owner from Imbaba.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.