x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egyptians brace for weekend of protests

Tents pitched in Tahrir Square as televised speech by president Mohammed Morsi appears to do little to stop scheduled demonstrations from going ahead. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi told his opponents to use elections not protests to try to change the government, days before the opposition plans massive street rallies aimed at removing him from office.
Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi told his opponents to use elections not protests to try to change the government, days before the opposition plans massive street rallies aimed at removing him from office.

CAIRO // Egyptians were yesterday preparing for a weekend of intense protests after Mohammed Morsi failed to calm a tide of anger against his administration.

Egypt is braced for a sign of whether it will enter a new phase of street battles and political conflict as the president's supporters and opposition protesters plan rallies across the country.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Mr Morsi spoke frankly about the country's challenges and admitted to making mistakes.

But he also announced a special unit in the interior ministry to combat thuggery - the word used by his's predecessors for anti-regime protesters - and blamed the country's deepest problems on conspiracies by members of the toppled Mubarak regime.

In a carefully worded rebuke to the military, Mr Morsi insisted he was the commander in chief and that the army's role was solely to protect the country's borders.

The armed forces' top general this week described their role as a safety valve against political conflict.

By yesterday it was clear Mr Morsi's plea for Egyptians to make changes through the ballot box rather than protests would go unheeded.

People have already pitched tents on Cairo's Tahrir Square and are preparing to demonstrate.

During Mr Morsi's speech, Ayman Anwar, 55, a computer engineer, was watching with disdain.

"I didn't come out tonight to listen," Mr Anwar said. "I came out because I'm angry.

"No one could have imagined that this would happen to Egypt. We've replaced one dictator with another."

The lead players of the opposition movement said they would continue with protests as planned.

Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister yesterday criticised Mr Morsi for not offering a clear plan for economic recovery.

"We didn't hear anything about this reconciliation having a plan, a rational direction or a detailed proposal worthy of study and discussion," Mr Moussa said.

"What we heard was a routine call for dialogue and the creation of committees like those that were promised before but never materialised."

Ziad Bahaa Eldin, vice chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, criticised Mr Morsi's claims that corruption was the cause of all woes, and his refusal to mention the killing of four Shiites last week.

"The president's speech was not good or bad, but it does nothing," Mr Eldin, a financial regulator under the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, said on his Facebook page.

Mr Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has counted on the group to marshal crowds on to the streets as a show of force.

Those demonstrations could continue through to Sunday, when the opposition groups are planning their huge protests.

They have been preparing the demonstrations for months to coincide with the first anniversary of Mr Morsi's inauguration as the country's first freely elected president.

A grassroots campaign called Tamarod, or Rebel, has been collecting signatures on a petition calling for early presidential elections.

The campaign has been supported by a range of groups, including the umbrella opposition group, National Salvation Front, and Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who is in exile in the UAE.

Many of the groups differ radically on policy agendas for Egypt - some seeking Nasserite socialism and others free-market economics - but they have been united by their antipathy to Mr Morsi and his allies.

They are counting on popular rage against the government to bolster their numbers. Many Egyptians from all walks of life are incensed at the country's lack of progress over the past two and a half years.

The popular uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime was fuelled by anger at police brutality, lack of political freedom and the perception that the country's wealth was being divided among a corrupt elite of politicians and businessmen affiliated to the first family.

The sense is that things are getting worse, not better.

Despair has only increased in recent weeks, with increasing power cuts and petrol shortages that have left motorists sitting in queues for hours.

Turning this popular anger into street protests is the challenge for the opposition. But even if they do bring out hundreds of thousands of people as they have at other critical junctures in the past year, the result is far from certain.

The Tamarod petition demands that Mr Morsi resigns, making the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court the interim leader until new elections can be held.

But that would be in breach of the constitution, which says that the speaker of the upper house of parliament - also known as the Shura Council - takes power if the president resigns.

The speaker of the Shura Council is a member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which makes his possible lift to power unthinkable for the opposition.

A more optimistic scenario would be that the protests "generate enough pressure to force the president to make major concessions, but not enough to unseat him", said Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

"What we need is the president to be held in check and for both sides to learn that they have to talk to make progress," Prof Hassan said.

"If the president resigns or is forced out of office, it will start a very complicated process that could make things worse."


* With additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press

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