Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, Egypt.
Millions of people have rallied across Egypt calling for the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi one year after his inauguration. With turnout as high as 17 million, it’s Egypt’s largest protests since the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Clashes on Sunday left at least 16 people dead and nearly 800 injured. Tens of thousands of people remain in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace, vowing to stay until Morsi steps down. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Massive protests continued overnight across Egypt calling for the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi. Millions of people have turned out for the rallies that started early on Sunday morning in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the crowds have been the largest since the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Tens of thousands of people remain in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace, vowing to stay until Morsi steps down.
PROTESTER: [translated] I am a part of this revolution because this regime is worse than its predecessor. At least we didn’t have the problems we are seeing now, with no water, electricity, fuel. There’s nothing. It gets worse every day. So he should leave and let us choose someone else. And this time we need to choose correctly.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Protesters accuse Morsi of failing to address crucial economic and security problems in the year since he assumed power. Critics argue that the country’s first Islamist president has put the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood party ahead of the country’s wider interests. Anti-government demonstrators reportedly ransacked the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo and set it ablaze. Egyptian security forces said eight people have been killed in clashes around the headquarters since Sunday.
AMY GOODMAN: At least 16 deaths were reported across Egypt Sunday alone. Among those killed in days of unrest was Andrew Pochter, a 21-year-old Kenyon College student from Chevy Chase, Maryland. Officials said he died of his injuries after being stabbed in the chest during protests in the coastal city of Alexandria late on Friday.
Meanwhile, thousands of Morsi supporters staged a rally in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. During a news conference, a presidential spokesman urged protesters to respect the democratic process.
EHAB FAHMY: [translated] The presidency and the president are completely open to conducting a real and serious national dialogue with the various political parties and national powers. Let me clarify a few things. Freedom of expression and the right to protest peacefully our rights that are enshrined and protected by the Constitution for all, but acts of violence, sabotage and killings are acts that are condemned and unjustified.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Egyptian presidential spokesman Ehab Fahmy.
We go now to Cairo to Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. His most recent article for The Nation magazine is called "Egyptians to Morsi: 'We Don't Want You.’" Sharif is joining us from Tahrir Square, where, to say the least, it is very noisy.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Sharif. Can you talk about what is happening right now and the significance of this mass protest across Egypt over the weekend?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you can hear behind me, there’s still thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square and also at the presidential palace. What happened yesterday was really one of the largest protests—some are calling it the largest—in Egypt’s history, a massive turnout that saw hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people take to the streets, fill Tahrir Square, fill the presidential palace, and not just in Cairo, but in Alexandria and cities across the Delta and in upper Egypt, as well, really a mass display of dissent that goes to show the revolutionary spirit in Egypt is still very much alive.
And this came, of course, as you mentioned, on the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Mohamed Morsi. He was elected one year ago with a very thin majority, a 51 percent majority, against a stalwart of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik. And since then, there has been a growing polarization amongst the political class, with the Muslim Brotherhood withdrawing more into itself and its Islamist supporters—they’ve even lost support among some Salafi groups, as well—while on the street and the lives of ordinary Egyptians have become much harder. Prices of food and medicine and other staple goods have gone up. Crime and insecurity and vigilante violence has increased. There’s electricity blackouts now in the hot summer months that occur every day. There are fuel shortages that cause tremendously long lines, that cause stifling traffic around the country. And so, what we saw yesterday was a coming together of Egyptians from many different walks of life, from ordinary Egyptians who are fed up with the difficulties of everyday life that have only worsened in this last year and since the revolution began, to members of the political class who are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, to members who are tied to the former regime who took to the streets to try and oust the Muslim Brotherhood, as well. So it was a very large display of dissent.
The Muslim Brotherhood, as you mentioned, had its own rally in a square not far from the presidential palace. It was rather large, but in comparison to the turnout that we saw yesterday of anti-Morsi protesters, it was quite small. And, as you mentioned, the response from the presidency has been to largely ignore, and it seems that they want to try and weather the storm, saying that democracy—dialogue is the only way forward. There’s been many calls for dialogue over the past year. Much of them have been rejected by the political opposition, who say that the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood just want to talk and not actually put any of their ideas into action.
So, as it stands right now, the Tamarod campaign, which we can talk about a little bit more, the campaign that really started the calls for this protest that took place yesterday, has given Mohamed Morsi until 5:00 p.m. tomorrow to respond and to step down and call for early elections. If he doesn’t, they’re saying they’re going to call for an escalation, further protests, more civil disobedience, and possibly calling for a general strike.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, could you explain what the Tamarod movement is, the rebel movement, where it started and how it’s grown so large?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. The Tamarod campaign, which the word means "rebel" in Arabic, began on May 1st, on Labor Day, here in Tahrir Square, by a group of grassroots activists, many of them tied to the Kefaya movement, which was formed in 2005 against Hosni Mubarak. And they drafted a very simply worded petition, on paper, against Mohamed Morsi that used colloquial Arabic, not classical Arabic, and it called on people to sign their name, put their ID number in, and say they are—they want Mohamed Morsi to step down and call for early elections. They began handing out this petition, and it very quickly gained traction. People would photocopy it and hand it out in schools, in universities, even in government offices. And within the first month, the campaign said, they gained seven million signatures. And the latest number they gave just a couple of days ago was that they gained 22 million signatures calling for Morsi’s ouster. This is an unverifiable number, but certainly the number of people that have signed is indeed very, very large. And this was manifested, like we saw yesterday, in this incredibly massive turnout. So, the Tamarod campaign is leading calls for an escalation tomorrow.
However, it must be said that elements of the former regime have somewhat taken over the narrative in many respects, especially on the media and in the newspapers, and have called for the army to step in, for the army to take over and force Mohamed Morsi out of office. Of course, we remember that the army came to helm of power after Mubarak’s ouster and led the beginning of the transition. They also caused a number of massacres in the streets, 12,000 people put on military trial. Yet, despite that, there are large portions of the Egyptian populous that are calling for the army to step in. We saw yesterday military helicopters flying low over the crowds. Whenever they did, the crowd would cheer. When crowds, the protesters passed military buildings, they would cheer and salute the officers standing inside. So, this is another development, and we’re waiting to see what the response from the military will be.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read—to play some comments of Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement. He spoke of the significance of the constitutional changes initiated by the Morsi government.
AHMED MAHER: [translated] The defining moment that made us realize there was no hope was the constitutional declaration. This marked the beginning of division in society, and then followed the string of violence, and people started to feel the government was truly tyrannical and have no intention to leave power. So all the fears and doubts people had, which we brushed off and said, "Maybe it will happen" and such, we realized it was in fact a reality. So the constitutional declaration and the insistence on making the constitution pass at any price, which they openly confronted us with, was the main mistake. Since last December up until today, there has been no stability at all, and even a path for resolving the division is no longer there.
AMY GOODMAN: And in an interview with The Guardian newspaper over the weekend, President Morsi said he would not resign, despite the protests, saying, "If we changed someone in office who [was elected] according to constitutional legitimacy—well, there will be people opposing the new presidet too, and a week or a month later they will ask him to step down," said Morsi. If you can comment both on Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement and what President Morsi said, Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Movement, was referring, of course, to the constitutional declaration that Morsi made last November, which really sparked the first uprising against his rule, in which he placed himself above the judiciary—his decisions could not be overruled by the courts—and he used that power to help force through a constitution that was very divisive and rejected by many members of the opposition and of Egyptian society. We also saw the first real major clashes between the Brotherhood and protesters, resulting in 10 people dead after Brotherhood members cleared a sit-in at the presidential palace. So, that really marked the beginning of this mass opposition and increasing polarization in the country against Mohamed Morsi’s rule.
Morsi, of course, as you mentioned, spoke to The Guardian, saying he would not step down, that it sets a dangerous precedent. I think it’s important to remember that what we’re seeing in Egypt is an increasing alienation and dissatisfaction with this democratic process. Egyptians have gone to the polls more than four times over the last two years, and their lives have not been improved in any way. The political class is seen as removed more and more from the lives of ordinary Egyptians and talking about things that don’t relate to them. And so we continually see this tug of war between conventional politics and revolutionary politics. And revolutionary politics is in the street, and that’s what we saw an explosion of yesterday.
So, we’ll have to see how it goes forward. It looks like the Brotherhood is hoping and Mohamed Morsi is hoping to weather this storm out. The month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast during the day, is starting in a week, where many suspect that protests will die down as a result of that. Perhaps they’re hoping to make it through until then. But if they do—if they do not respond to this mass dissatisfaction, this mass call for some kind of change, then I can only imagine that Egypt will become increasingly unstable and increasingly ungovernable.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Sharif, there’s just news in from The Guardian live blog that a number of ministers have resigned from Morsi’s government. The news agency Mena said five ministers have quit. The Egypt Independent says they include Hatem Begato, legal and parliamentary affairs minister, and Atef Helmy, minister of communication. Broadcast journalist May Kamel said they resigned in solidarity with the protesters. Could you comment on the significance of this, very quickly before we conclude?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I heard that news before that some Cabinet ministers may have resigned. This follows a pattern, really, of resignations from Morsi’s government, including many of his advisers that resigned in the wake of the constitutional declaration in November, and goes to really point to an increasing isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party as a political group that is increasingly alone in ruling the country and not reaching out to any other political groups.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, what you’ve heard of what’s happening in the rest of the country? The latest news of the death toll in Egypt, we understand, 16 people have died, among them this American student, Andrew Pochter, who was a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio, studies Arabic. He was killed in Alexandria, stabbed in the chest. And, of course, the other Egyptian protesters that were killed.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. There have been—yes, as you mentioned, 16 people, the health minister has confirmed, were killed yesterday alone, eight of them in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, where protesters had gone, began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters. People inside began firing, either with bird shot or with live ammunition, as well, and killed eight people. And there have been deaths across the country as violent clashes have ensued between protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood. The police was really nowhere to be seen in the streets yesterday. They had announced earlier that they would not protect or side with any political group. But notably, they left the protesters to attack the Muslim Brotherhood, and in fact some police were seen protesting alongside the anti-Morsi groups. As you mentioned also, these tensions have been increasing over these past few weeks, and people have died in these clashes.
And the American student died, was stabbed in the chest on Friday in Alexandria during a protest, unclear why the circumstances exactly surrounding his death. He was apparently stabbed while he was photographing or filming the protests. There’s been rising anti-American sentiment from many sides of the political spectrum in Egypt. Just a couple of months ago, an American professor at the American University in Cairo was stabbed in the neck outside the U.S. embassy here. So, there’s an increasing anti-American sentiment from the anti-Morsi protesters and from the Muslim Brotherhood, as well. Anti-Morsi protesters see the U.S. as siding with the Brotherhood, and there have been a lot of angry sentiment against the U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, for calling on the opposition not to engage in mass-scale protests but to rather engage in dialogue. We saw photos of her yesterday in Tahrir and on the streets with her picture crossed out. So there’s increasing anger at the United States.
And just finally to add, the U.S. administration, Secretary of State John Kerry, very quietly approved the $1.3 billion in foreign military assistance that is the annual aid the U.S. gives to the Egyptian military here, despite the arrest and the conviction of 43 NGO workers who were sentenced to between one and five years in prison, including 15 Americans who were tried in absentia, except for one of them. Secretary of State John Kerry waived those concerns in Congress and allowed this foreign military assistance to go forward. And the letter that was leaked to The Daily Beast, you can read, includes the reasons of stopping attacks from Gaza into Israel, allowing U.S. warships through the Suez Canal, allowing U.S. military overflight rights over Egypt. So, again, trumping—security and military concerns trump concerns of democracy and human rights and justice, which has been the policy, the U.S. policy, for some time now towards Egypt.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What role do you think pro-Mubarak forces have been playing in these protests? And what about the role of key opposition leaders like Mohamed ElBaradei?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Mohamed ElBaradei and other leading members of what’s called the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition umbrella group of opposition parties that was formed in November, have over these months since then, leading up to this—have been increasingly—they don’t really lead the street as much. They have called for different things. They seem to be somewhat disconnected as a political group from the grievances of ordinary Egyptians. They did not lead the call for these protests; that was led from a grassroots campaign that we mentioned before, Tamarod. They have fully supported and backed these protests, have called for a civil disobedience campaign. So—and both Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist leader who came third in the first round of the presidential elections last year, have supported the protests wholeheartedly.
With regards to members of the former regime, we’ve seen many members of the former regime take advantage of this groundswell of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and use—take to the airwaves with very shrill and polarizing language, accusing the Brotherhood of all kinds of things that really—many of which are not true, calling very openly for the military to step in and take hold of this transition. So, this is really a mishmash of people who have come together. It remains to be seen where it will head. Many young revolutionaries who were at the core of the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and have been at the core of dissent since then, were very upset at these calls for the military to step in, at calls for warmly embracing members of the police who are protesting alongside them, the same police and the same military who killed over a thousand protesters since this revolution began. So, it really is a complicated political situation, and Egypt is increasingly unstable right now. But really the decision is in the hands of Mohamed Morsi to see how this goes forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Democracy Now! correspondent in the streets of Cairo right now overlooking Tahrir Square. Sharif Abdel Kouddous. We’ll also link to his article in The Nation magazine, "Egyptians to Morsi: 'We Don't Want You.’"
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