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“Protest Here is Vigorous”: Unrest, Polarization Before Egypt’s Referendum

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Egypt is bracing for new protests today over President Mohamed Morsi’s hotly contested effort to hold a referendum on a controversial draft constitution. Ahead of today’s rallies, masked gunmen attacked opposition protesters camped out in Tahrir Square overnight, injuring more than a dozen. At least seven people have died in clashes, and hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, since Morsi unilaterally expanded his powers last month. Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous files a report from Cairo. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Egypt, which is bracing for massive protests today ahead of President Morsi’s bid for a referendum on a hotly disputed draft constitution. Morsi has given the army the power to arrest people and ordered them to protect state institutions ahead of a vote on the new constitution set for Saturday. Today, Egyptian security officials say masked gunmen attacked opposition protesters camped out in Tahrir Square ahead of the mass rallies, injuring more than a dozen. At least seven people have died in clashes. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since President Morsi issued his decree last month.

Well, for more, we turn to a report filed by Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous, in the streets of Cairo.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Mass protests, deepening polarization and new levels of political violence. Nearly two years after it launched a revolution, Egypt finds itself in the throes of a severe transitional crisis. Amidst the turmoil, a highly contentious referendum on the country’s new constitution looms just days away.

The firestorm was ignited three weeks ago, when the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, issued a controversial declaration that granted him near-absolute powers and placed him beyond the reach of the judiciary. The decree sparked some of the largest street demonstrations in Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but this time the anger was directed at the elected president and the group he hails from, the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the center of the crisis lies the constitution. Morsi and his supporters have made it clear the main reason the president issued his controversial decree was to protect the body that was drafting the new constitution from possible dissolution by the courts.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: So he issued the declaration to protect it from a known date where the constitutional court was set to actually annul the constitutional assembly. And not just that, they were going to go as far as questioning the legitimacy of the presidency itself.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Gehad El-Haddad is a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. He says the Supreme Constitutional Court posed a threat to the democratic transition process.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: At the end of the day, this is a Mubarak-appointed body. And we don’t believe that appointed bodies should have an oversay on elected bodies in the post-revolutionary Egypt. The judiciary has to have its independence. But then again, the judiciary was largely one of the main actors that derailed Egypt’s constitution many times before.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The move escalated a confrontation between the Brotherhood and the judiciary that saw thousands of judges across the country go on strike. Muslim Brotherhood offices in cities across Egypt were attacked. Meanwhile, the constituent assembly itself was also facing dissent from within. Nearly all of the assembly’s non-Islamist members, including representatives of Coptic Christian Church, had pulled out in protest.

KHALED FAHMY: We have a text, first of all, that has been drawn up by a group, by a constituent assembly, that is not representative of the diversity of Egyptian society.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Khaled Fahmy is the chair of the History Department at the American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY: This text is written by people, by the majority as a majority. The constitution should be written from the perspective of the minority. The constitution—the whole idea of a constitution is to protect personal rights and freedoms. It is to limit and curb the power of the state, not to reflect the hegemony of the majority. And this is what we are seeing in this—in this process.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Brotherhood’s Gehad El-Haddad denies that those who withdrew from the assembly had legitimate grievances with the drafting process. He says they only pulled out at the end, after months of negotiations.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: They withdrew for the media primarily, because of the pressure put on, peer pressure. Their parties had to put pressure on them, regardless of the reason. Political muscling, many of them were. I’m saying that grievances are not legitimate. I’m saying that some of them, very minor of them, were—have basis. But at the end of the day, Egypt is a very diverse nation. It has both fundamental secularism and fundamental Islam in it, and all the things in between. And within that constitutional assembly construct, the Muslim Brotherhood was walking a very fine line of a right and a left.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The draft constitution became even more contentious when assembly members hastily called for a final vote and passed the draft document in a 17-hour session that lasted until 6:00 the next morning. Morsi then called for a national referendum on the constitution to be held on December 15th. The move further escalated the mass protests in cities across the country and deepened the political divide. Yet the Brotherhood claims they have the backing of the majority of the people.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: Everyone knows what type of grassroots support the Islamic current has in Egypt. So it’s not very wise to go in a head-to-head with a game of numbers.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ahmad Shokr, a writer and Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern history, disputes that claim.

AHMAD SHOKR: Of course, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood often speak as if they are an authentic expression of the Egyptian majority, and this is a line that has been repeated in much of the English-language media coverage. But there are simply no empirical grounds to prove this. Like I said, hundreds of thousands have been showing up to rallies on both sides. And if we look at the results of the last presidential election in the summer, President Morsi only managed to get—in the second round, he won by a razor-thin majority of 51 percent, which also included the Salafi vote and a quite large number of voters from the non-Islamist camp, who were afraid of a restoration of the old regime under Ahmed Shafik.

KHALED FAHMY: That’s a very serious way of thinking—you know, basically, we have the numbers; we can crush you; you have no legitimacy. I mean, it is that mentality that informed the drafting of the constitution: We have the majority, you are the minority; you do not count.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In the wake of Morsi’s call for a referendum, the opposition opted to intensify the protests and move from squares like Tahrir to the presidential palace. Tens of thousands took part in the largest demonstration of its kind outside the presidential compound. A few hundred pitched tents and stayed for a sit-in. What happened the next day marked a serious escalation in the crisis. Senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood called on their members and other supporters to head to the presidential palace in order to, quote, “protect the legitimacy” of the president.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: This was an attempt at a coup. And the Muslim Brotherhood put its supporters, and the rest of the supporters of his, of President Morsi’s, stand—stood by them as a human shield to protect the president and the presidential palace.

KHALED FAHMY: Very senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood gave orders to the rank and file to take to the streets to clean the area around the presidential palace. That’s a very, very ominous sign. And this is not the way to run a country. And they knew this.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Many thousands of Brotherhood members and their supporters came to the palace grounds. They cleared the area of protesters, beating some of them and destroying their tents. When news of the attack spread, the protesters regrouped and retaliated against the Morsi supporters. The clashes quickly escalated, with both sides hurling rocks at each other as well as firing shotguns and live ammunition. At least seven people were killed and hundreds more wounded. Lobna Darwish is one of the anti-Morsi protesters.

LOBNA DARWISH: What happened last Wednesday was especially horrifying, because for the first time there were civilians who were not in the street because—attacking us because they were paid or because this is their job or whatever, but because they believed in something. And this belief was kind of—it’s, I think, for everybody on both sides—and I like to think that on both sides it was very shocking and very sad to—to, all of a sudden, instead of being opposed to the regime and its official ranks, I mean, for someone wearing, you know, a policeman-like outfit or manning like army outfit or whatever, you’re seeing normal people that you probably live on the same street with, or like everyday people, chanting against you as if you are the enemy or you’re like—or someone who’s occupying the land or the infidels or whatever. And this was a very different experience on the emotional and political level.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The presidential guard was called in, and a dozen tanks were deployed around the palace. Meanwhile, five presidential aides to Morsi resigned, blaming him for the violence. The next evening, Morsi had a nationally televised address where he blamed the outbreak of violence on a “fifth column” and claimed that Mubarak regime remnants had been hiring thugs. This echoed much of the Brotherhood’s criticism of the opposition as being driven by former members of Mubarak’s regime.

AHMAD SHOKR: While that may be true that a number of Mubarak-era state elites are in fact trying to obstruct their plans, but that is not the case, I would say, for many of the newly emerging non-Islamist parties and the thousands of protesters who have been turning up onto the streets over the past couple of weeks. These are people that are demanding a voice in the process.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The president also stood firmly by his plan to hold the referendum on December 15th. Opposition groups planned mass protests the next day and held a series of large marches to the presidential palace. The presidential guard had built barricades to prevent people from approaching the compound.

We’re standing on a newly built wall that’s separating tens of thousands of protesters from the walls of the presidential compound just a few hundred yards away. There’s tens of thousands of protesters that have gathered here that are calling now on the president, Mohamed Morsi, to leave. No longer is the call for it to him to reverse his decree. The presidential guard has been deployed. They have locked arms and are preventing people from going, and there are presidential guard tanks that have been deployed, as well. People here are very determined, and the protest is vigorous.

With vast numbers, the protesters peacefully overwhelmed the presidential guard, crossed the barricades, and rushed towards the palace. Protesters began to graffiti the walls and chant against Morsi and the Brotherhood. Many said they now wanted Morsi to step down, following the violence on Wednesday night.

YASMINE ALAA: [translated] My name is Yasmine. I’m 23 years old. I’m here because I saw when they cleared out the sit-in, and they came in on us, and we were very few. I’m originally here to say no to the constitution and no to the constitutional decree and no to Morsi after the massacre that took place on Wednesday that I witnessed. Morsi lost his legitimacy after I saw people die in front of me on Wednesday. He should fall. Yesterday in his speech, he didn’t apologize or anything, and he still says there’s a third party, and he still says there are thugs. We are not thugs.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In his speech, Morsi insisted the referendum go forward on December 15th. He also invited members of the opposition to a dialogue on Saturday. The National Salvation Front, an alliance of fractured opposition groups that came together for the first time to oppose Morsi’s constitutional decree, refused to attend. This is Khaled Dawoud, the spokesperson for the group.

KHALED DAWOUD: The president, when he offered the dialogue, he offered the dialogue over an agenda that was his own agenda, while insisting on disregarding our two key demands in his speech on Thursday. He said, “Come and talk to me about expanding the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, and come talk to me about the next election law,” and insisted in taking it, throughout his speech, that he is going to hold the referendum on the new constitution on time. So, basically, we felt there was no need to talk on an agenda that’s already determined in advance and that ignores our own demands.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The National Salvation Front is headed by Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, along with former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi. The group is seen as the face of the political opposition, yet it does not necessarily represent the protest movement, parts of which are calling for a more fundamental change.

LOBNA DARWISH: Part of it is anger towards the constitution and the decree and all this, but it’s not only this. For Baradei, for Hamdeen Sabahi, for Amr Moussa, for the whole Salvation group or Salvation Front, their demand is to be represented in this constitution. Their demand is have a say as political, you know, opposition.

For us, we’re not opposition; we are revolutionaries. Our problem is not to have a better constitution, but our problem is to get to the demands of what we’ve been demanding for two years now: topple the regime, get a better life, have a life that we think we deserve and that we’ve been fighting for for at least—at least two years. So, they have very different demands than ours. What they want is a liberal representation in the constitution and decision making and to be heard. For us, what we want is a different Egypt, a different future.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: While the National Salvation Front did not meet with Morsi, a number of less prominent figures did engage in the dialogue. And by late Saturday night, the group announced the president had canceled the November 22nd decree, including the powers that placed him beyond the judiciary. The referendum, however, would proceed as scheduled on December 15th.

KHALED FAHMY: Effectively, we’re given a week, from now ’til next Sunday, when we vote. A week is not enough to debate these things. We did not have time last week to do this. We were busy killing each other on the streets. So, how can a responsible president think that by giving this text to the people to vote on it in a matter of a week, he will end up increasing his legitimacy? Or—I mean, he might, but the problem is that this increased legitimacy will be at the expense of the very stability of society.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Many expect the referendum to pass, given the Brotherhood’s proven electoral prowess. The Brotherhood insists a vote on December 15th is fair.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: It’s not our fault that the opposition’s arguments are too weak to attract the voters. We can’t be the ones responsible for paying the price for their failure to be representative to their own demographics. At the end of the day, we had an argument, they had an argument, we were voted in. The yea vote has a road map; the no vote has a road map. At the end of the day, some will find reasons to say yes; many of us will find reasons to say no. Whatever the outcome, we will go through the process. And we don’t mind it, as long as it’s the will of the people.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: With mass protests by both supporters and opponents of the president, the situation in Egypt remains highly volatile. The military began to deploy troops this week across the country to secure polling stations for Saturday’s referendum. The deployment comes after Morsi gave the military the authority to arrest civilians until the result of the referendum is declared. The military has a stake in the outcome of the vote.

AHMAD SHOKR: Well, again, it’s clear in the constitution that the army’s core prerogatives will be protected. They’re getting a very good deal with this constitution. Their budget will remain secret. They will have a strong say in national security decisions. The defense ministry will remain under the control of officers, not civilians. They have the right to continue trying civilians before military trials. And so, the army has essentially preserved all of their key interests and have managed in this new constitution to carve out enough autonomy to preside over its interests without any democratic oversight.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, protesters say they will struggle against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in power.

LOBNA DARWISH: When the protests against Mubarak started, there was this term that the fear barrier was broken or crossed. And again, the fear barrier was crossed with the Muslim Brotherhood. For years and years and years, we’ve been like terrified with what the Muslim Brotherhood can do to Egypt, and here they are. They’re in power. They’re unable to do anything, except what exactly Mubarak has been doing for years and years. And even on the ground, we’re seeing their numbers like decreasing. We’re seeing their support decreasing. We’re seeing people who are like everyday people, not people who you usually—I mean, usually expect to see them against the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that, like, “This is enough. We’re not going to take this. These people want to steal this country from us. We’re not going to let them do it.” And I think, for the 80-something years that the Muslim Brotherhood has been like operating, this is, I think, the lowest popular support moment.

KHALED FAHMY: Because the Muslim Brotherhood is resorting to violence and is saying, “We are much more than you are. We will crush you, if not by the police or the army or the presidential guards, then by our own thugs.” This is what the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood had explicitly said. But the determination and the principled opposition—with their bodies, nothing else—is, again, what gives me confidence that the revolutionary spirit in this country is very much alive and kicking.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For Democracy Now!, I’m Sharif Abdel Kouddous, with Hany Massoud, in Cairo, Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to Syria. Stay with us.

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