by Arnold Ahlert
Events in Egypt continue to deteriorate. On Wednesday, rival groups of protesters clashed outside the presidential palace in Cairo, when Muslim Brotherhood supporters of President Mohamed Morsi confronted 300 opposition members who were staging a sit-in. The protesters were initially routed, but after a lull in fighting, hundreds of young Egyptians returned to the scene and a violent exchange of firebombs and rocks ensued. Gunshots were also fired, and more than 211 were injured, medical sources reported. The violence marks the worst outbreak of unrest in the deepening crisis centered on Egypt’s new draft constitution, scheduled to be put to a vote December 15.
By nightfall Wednesday, more than 10,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood had massed around the palace, setting up metal barricades to keep traffic off a stretch of road that runs parallel to the palace in Cairo’s upscale Heliopolis district. A banner saying, “May God protect Egypt and its president,” was posted on a truck the Brotherhood brought with them. On top of the truck, a man with a loudspeaker began reciting verses from the Quran. Chants from the Islamist crowd also began to fill the air. “The people want to cleanse the square” and “Morsi has legitimacy,” they intoned, according to AFP news agency. The fighting extended into Thursday morning, after riot police tried and failed to separate opposing forces. When police failed to ease tension on the streets, residents took matters into their own hands, erecting makeshift road blocks to check passers-by.
The latest round of protests is apparently an escalation of Tuesday’s violence, when anti-Morsi supporters descended on the palace, and police fired tear gas to stop their approach. Morsi was inside conducting business, but he left when the crowds “grew bigger,” according to a presidential official who spoke on condition of anonymity. By Wednesday, the protests had spread beyond Cairo, and offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party in Ismailia and Suez were torched.
The protests were labeled “The Last Warning,” by opposition forces, who are increasingly angered by a draft constitution that was rushed through parliament without proper consultation, and does not do enough to protect political and religious freedoms, or the rights of women and minorities. That anger is further exacerbated by Morsi’s November 15 decree, granting himself sweeping new powers absent judicial oversight. Shortly thereafter, an Islamist-dominated constitutional panel passed a draft constitution without representatives speaking for liberals and Christians.
Morsi is reportedly unruffled by the latest developments, but four of his aides resigned in protest on Wednesday, reportedly over his handling of the crisis. Three aides quit last week, so now seven of his panel of 17 advisers have left their jobs since the latest unrest began. Egyptian Vice President Mahmoud Mekky attempted to offer the opposition a compromise, claiming that the “door for dialogue” remained open, and that amendments to the 15 disputed articles out of a total of 234 in the draft constitution could be worked out. Yet he insisted that the constitutional referendum on December 15 must go ahead regardless, even as he admitted that his “initiative” was personal, not one endorsed by Morsi.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters are urging the opposition to open up a dialogue with the Egyptian president, but they refuse to do so unless he rescinds his decrees and postpones the referendum. Opposition coordinator Mohamed ElBaradei confirmed that position. ”Today what is happening in the Egyptian street, polarization and division, is something that could, and is, actually drawing us to violence and could draw us to something worse,” he told reporters Wednesday. ”We are ready for dialogue if the constitutional decree is canceled…and the referendum on this constitution is postponed,” he added.
It is unlikely to happen. First, Morsi claimed he acted to prevent the courts, still full of pre-revolution, Mubarak appointees, from derailing the draft constitution meant to complete Egypt’s political transition. Thus, he is imbued with a sense of self-aggrandizing destiny, aided and abetted by the Brotherhood, along with the ultraconservative Salafi Islamists–all of whom are politically astute and well-organized. Second, while liberals, leftists, Christians, ex-Mubarak followers and other public sectors opposed to Morsi form a sizable opposition, they are currently incapable of organizing a mass movement or a grassroots challenge to the current power grab. As a result, opposition leaders consider their best option to be a choice between initiating a campaign for a “no” vote on the referendum, or calling for a boycott against it.
In other words, barring a miracle, it seems virtually certain that Morsi and his Islamist followers will put the finishing touches on their fascist coup in less than ten days.
As these events unfold, President Obama, who was more than willing to abet the ouster of Hosni Mubarak just under two years ago, has “responded” in a manner similar to the one he employed over one hundred times as an Illinois state Senator. Politico put it best: “As protests continued in Egypt on Wednesday, the White House declined to take sides in the conflict, noting that the United States has an important relationship with Egypt, but called for all sides to refrain from violence.” In other words Obama voted “present.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was equally “forceful,” saying dialogue was urgently needed on the new constitution, which should “respect the rights of all citizens.”
Such reticence is a reprise of what occurred when Morsi initially seized control on November 22. President Obama, who was more than willing to praise Morsi for his help brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas–the day before the Egyptian president’s first move aimed at consolidating dictatorial power–had nothing to say then, either. “We have some concerns about the decisions and declarations that were announced on November 22,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, adding that Obama praised Morsi for his help in Gaza because he deserved it. When asked if the president felt “betrayed,” by Morsi’s coup, Carney’s response was remarkable. “We see those as separate issues,” he said.
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