Egyptian elites, secularists and moderates, concerned about the agenda of the country’s new president, drawn from the upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood, are coalescing. On Sunday, the Free Egyptians Party called for a ‘Million Man’ demonstration in the vicinity of the US Embassy in Cairo and another one the following day outside the US Consulate in Alexandria, which was scheduled to be inaugurated by the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.
The impressive, banner-wielding turnout in the capital was well over half-a-million, according to someone I spoke to who was there. The crowd stretched along the Nile Corniche from 5pm to the early hours of the morning, but went largely unreported with the exception of Faraeen TV, whose owner Tawfiq Okasha literally begged his countrymen to participate, promising to kiss their shoes. He gave viewers an advance warning that the protest would not receive media coverage. It hardly merited a mention on local or international channels. In the past, Okasha, a former presidential candidate, was largely dismissed as a “funny man” by the population at large due to his never-ending conspiracy theories and overly passionate rhetoric. However, it now appears that his core message to the Egyptian people “to join a jihad to the death against the Brotherhood and its American backer” is hitting home.
Okasha and his growing band of fans are suspicious of what they term America’s interference in Egypt’s affairs. They are confused by the seemingly cozy relationship between their recently-elected Islamist leader and the Barack Obama administration. Their ire is turned against President Mohammad Mursi, who, they say, exclusively represents the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than all Egyptians. They accuse him of planning to appoint Brotherhood members to key positions within the cabinet, in particular, as ministers of defence, interior and information.
They say Mursi is conspiring to topple the top tiers of the military establishment and replace them with commanders loyal to the Brotherhood, with assistance from Hamas; they fear he will open Egypt’s border with Gaza and give free rein to Hamas fighters to take on the army. Moreover, Okasha is persuaded that Mursi aims to send Egyptians with Islamist affiliations to Qatar for military training so that when they return home they will be a force capable of facing off against the Egyptian military that has ruled behind the door since the 1952 army coup that brought Jamal Abdul Nasser and his successors, Anwar Al Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, to power.
Rallies that took place on Sunday and yesterday were ostensibly organised to prove to Clinton that a substantial percentage of the Egyptian population believe the presidential election was flawed and want President Mursi gone; some protestors interviewed claimed the Brotherhood used its substantial treasure chest to buy votes and bribe electoral monitors. Others blamed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) for ensuring the top job went to Mursi in an attempt to avoid bloodshed on the streets, although his rival, Ahmad Shafiq, narrowly beat him to the post, or so they (and Shafiq himself) contend.
And by ordering the resumption of parliament, deemed unconstitutional by the highest court of the land, Mursi has irredeemably blotted his copybook, they insist, by showing his disrespect for an independent judiciary that is the staple of every true democracy. They promise to support Scaf in case the situation warrants a military crackdown in the future with chants of “We are your soldiers” that has echoes of a brewing civil war.
The Egyptian mainstream is largely prepared to give President Mursi the opportunity to prove his worth. His speeches have been carefully crafted to seem all-inclusive, his pledges to improve wages and living conditions are just what most people want to hear. But he is currently walking a tightrope between pleasing his Islamist base that wants him to flex his muscles against the military and maintaining stability without which the economy — and the hopes of Egypt’s poorest to better their lives — is doomed. Mursi’s recent “fruitful and constructive” talks with King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia have gone a long way to mend fences, following the rift over an attack on the Kingdom’s embassy in Cairo. And, naturally, Mursi is keen to cement good relations with the superpower that provides the Egyptian military with $1.3 billion (Dh4.78 billion) of annual aid. But he must be very careful not to be seen doing America’s bidding, the kiss of death with regard to his political longevity.
Egypt’s revolution was inspired at the grass roots level and most Egyptians, including Sunday’s protesters, are not amused by Clinton’s finger-wagging or warnings to Scaf to revert to its national security role. Indeed, Okasha and Co are convinced that the Obama administration is out to bring down the army and give Mursi and his Brothers enough rope with which to hang themselves when the US will tag Egypt as an extremist/terrorist/rogue state with the aim of controlling the Suez Canal and giving the oil-and-gas-rich Sinai Peninsula to Israel.
Whether or not this theory has any basis, it is rapidly gaining ground with proponents citing the way Hamas was ostracised and attacked when it won the Palestinian vote in 2006 fair and square. Perhaps, it’s not so far-fetched after all. Israel, where Clinton is headed next, has erected an Iron Dome missile defence system close to Eilat near its border with Egypt. Tensions between the two countries are high and it’s not hard to figure out on which side the US would be should trouble erupt.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.