Same as the old dictator?

Same as the old dictator?

Egyptians have again taken to the streets in mass protests. Is the country facing another meltdown?

DOWNTOWN Cairo is once again displaying all the signs of a revolution, with up to 100,000 people taking to the streets this week to demonstrate against a controversial decree by President Mohamed Morsi that gives him sweeping constitutional powers. Angry protesters descended on Tahrir Square chanting ''leave, leave''.

A protester prepares to throw back a tear gas canister, thrown earlier by police during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo.

A protester prepares to throw back a tear gas canister, thrown earlier by police during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Photo: Reuters

On November 22, Morsi announced that his decisions would be exempt from judicial oversight. This has prompted mass demonstrations, not just in Cairo, but around the country, that have been likened to those in January 2011 that led to the fall of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

In the square, banners declaring ''Down with Morsi Mubarak'' were held aloft and protesters received tweets wishing them a ''Happy Second Revolution''.

Anti-Morsi protesters gather in Tahrir Square this week.

Anti-Morsi protesters gather in Tahrir Square this week.

Photo: Reuters

Beyond Tahrir, the streets are covered with graffiti tags saying ''Revolution - why bother?'' and ''The people want the fall of the Brotherhood'', underlining the polarised nature of the electorate and the extent of the discontent that led to the Arab Spring's most iconic revolution 18 months ago and has been simmering ever since.

''Justice still has not been served,'' says Nihal Saad Zaghloul, the 27-year old founder of Imprint Anti-Harassment Network, who has become one of Egypt's most prominent young activists since taking part in last year's revolution. ''Young people are unsatisfied and anti-Brotherhood to the bone,'' she says.

Morsi's decree grants him near-absolute power, as well as immunity from court appeals until Egypt's new constitution and parliament are set in place. Dubbed the ''Revolution Protection Law'', the edict was defended by his office as a measure to safeguard Egypt's nascent democracy against the influence of elements of the former regime. The President has insisted that his new powers are ''temporary but necessary to complete the democratic transition''.

The move followed the international acclaim Morsi received after he successfully brokered a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict - a foreign-policy victory that also won him a degree of popular approval at home.

But within hours of the announcement, Morsi, who was narrowly elected with 51 per cent of the vote in June, was denounced as autocratic, dictatorial and ''pharaonic''. A statement rapidly issued by 22 Egyptian rights organisations condemned the measures and claimed the new powers ''portend a bleak future for human rights and liberties in Egypt''.

International human rights advocates agree that Morsi's presidency has given little promise of a clean break from the injustice and violence that characterised Mubarak's 30-year reign.

''It has been clear from the start that Morsi had no human rights agenda,'' says Heba Morayef, director of Human Rights Watch Egypt. ''The irony is that Morsi's main offering was a promise for greater accountability, yet once more you have powers being stripped away and a police force using violence excessively.''

For four days and nights prior to Morsi's decree last Friday, the streets near Tahrir Square were a battleground of tear gas, rubber bullets and fireworks as clashes erupted between security forces and protesters, most of them young, male activists.

The confrontation was sparked by rallies marking the anniversary of the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where more than 40 people were killed last November during a crackdown on crowds demanding security forces be held accountable for those deaths.

It is here that the first death of this autumn's protests was reported two days before Morsi's announcement, and in many ways, the clashes symbolised the real legacy of Egypt's 2011 revolution - justice unserved, grief unresolved and rage unsatisfied.

''We did not go through this whole revolution to be back at square one,'' says Aiman, a 25-year-old arts student who was shot during protests in Tahrir in January 2011 and who joined the demonstrations at Mohamed Mahmoud Street. ''We did not lose our friends only to be attacked by security forces again and under the rule of Islamists.''

Ironically, last November's violence coincided with preparations for Egypt's first democratic elections. However, this milestone represented more of a failure than a victory for many of the country's young revolutionaries forced to choose between Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi and Mubarak's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

Many chose to boycott the elections, while other young activists now wince as they speak of voting for Morsi as the perceived ''lesser of two evils''.

This choice looks increasingly like a cruel joke in the light of developments over the past fortnight, as was quickly noted in graffiti that appeared through clouds of tear gas on Mohamed Mahmoud Street last week: ''How does your lesser of two evils look now?''

Morsi's actions have thus raised the question among activists and international observers as to whether Egypt has merely overthrown one dictator in favour of another.

The inflammation of popular opposition to his decision has led Morsi to soften the terms of the decree in recent days and to attempt to hurry through a draft constitution to avert further unrest.

Presidential authorities have also sought to appease revolutionaries with an announcement that former regime loyalists and henchmen charged with last year's January killings could be re-tried if new evidence emerges.

However, in a week in which four people have been killed and more than 400 injured, these measures are unlikely to quell discontent among protesters or hostile elements of the judiciary, with some judges and public prosecutors having threatened a nationwide strike if Morsi does not revoke his decree.

Moreover, many of Morsi's judicial and popular opponents fear the emergency edict will be used to impose a constitution that serves the narrow, Islamist agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood who might seek retribution against former regime elements.

Analysts have noted the potential merit of Morsi's ''getting on with business'' move which could help expedite the drafting of Egypt's new constitution by state institutions and the Constituent Assembly free from the threat of challenge or dissolution by the judiciary, which is seen by many as retaining corrupt, pro-Mubarak influences.

By granting a temporary period of immunity, it was hoped that rival liberals and Islamists in the Assembly might reach a consensus on the draft constitution, which would then be put to a popular referendum, and in turn, facilitate legislative elections.

Yet the lack of transparency with which the step was taken has cast doubt on the motives behind the perceived power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood - whose Islamist program is as yet unclear - while driving a wedge between Morsi opponents and supporters in the judiciary.

In a country where a three-decade-long dictatorship was sustained in the name of ''temporary'' emergency law, Egyptians are rightly sceptical of any decrees reminiscent of Mubarak-style rule. These sensitivities, magnified by deep mistrust of Islamism among large sections of the population, have been echoed in Tahrir Square this week in chants demanding, ''shave your beard and show us your face, so we can see your true disgrace - you look just like Mubarak''.

Despite the demonstrations and evident hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi continues to have the backing of large sections of the Egyptian population, though his supporters this week called off a pro-government rally, citing the need to minimise the potential for violent clashes ahead of protests in central Cairo.

One significant side-effect of Morsi's controversial move, however, has been the unusual alignment of those challenging his presidency, as disparate elements, including fractious leftists, Mohamed Mahmoud Street revolutionaries, disenchanted Morsi voters and former regime loyalists have united in Tahrir in broad-based opposition to the decree.

Alongside revolutionaries, last year's presidential candidate and former Mubarak wingman, Ahmed Shafiq, has also voiced his indignation at Morsi's edict, deeming it ''unacceptable deception'' and warning the President against jeopardising his rule by ''humiliating Egyptians''.

While for some people, such diverse and widespread dissent might signal imminent revolution, other pro-democracy campaigners fear the momentum of protests might once again be usurped by forces hostile to political freedom.

Shahira Amin is a journalist who served as the deputy head of Egypt's state-owned Nile TV under the Mubarak regime before resigning in protest to join the revolution in January 2011. She is concerned that members of the former regime will play on the recent surge of opposition to Morsi to reclaim power. ''The old state is making a comeback,'' she says. ''Shafiq is getting ready to take over the military dictatorship. The Tahrir crowd are handing it to them on a silver platter because they hate the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Mubarak loyalists know that.''

With some of Mubarak's former appointees still embedded in the judiciary, Amin says there is a real danger these forces could take hold again if Morsi is ousted before the passage of a new constitution.

''I never voted for Morsi, but I don't think he is being given a fair chance,'' she says. ''I trust him, because I have seen the other [Mubarak's] side.''

These same doubts are also held by the country's original revolutionaries. Despite having been on the front line of campaigns in Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud Street last year, Nihal Saad Zaghloul is staying away from the square this week.

''What I can't stand is that people are uniting in the protests with the old regime, collaborating with the same people who killed us last year,'' she says.

''I understand why people are protesting, that they want this to be the real revolution. I don't like what Morsi did either, but at the same time, do they want the army back? The only future is the Brotherhood so they will do anything to get them out of power. I feel like the revolution is losing its principles.''

Indeed, with no cohesive list of demands from protesters, and increasing division between Morsi supporters and opponents, it is clear that jubilation about a pending second revolution is rapidly being equalled by fears about political meltdown and conflict.

Yet it is perhaps too easy to underestimate the political learning curve which has taken place on the part of Egyptians over the past 18 months.

On the streets of Cairo, where the air is electric with a sense of righteousness, where activists appear to be on constant standby for clashes with security forces, and taxi drivers are quick to point out their former dictator's mansion with disparagement, it is hard to believe that people would ever accept a reversion to authoritarian rule.

The wounds of the Mubarak era, and of last year's uprisings, are still fresh and the future of revolutionary Egypt is still unclear.

''We are now seeing the unfinished business of the revolution,'' says Cairo-based analyst and former BBC Middle East commentator, Magdi Abdelhadi.

''Egypt has changed. The people have risen up and they will not be silenced or crushed again. There will be many setbacks along the road, but it will never again be what it used to be.''

Zoe Holman is a London-based journalist.

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