The subdued nature of Cairo’s underground was interrupted Friday when the train stopped at the station located in the iconic Tahrir Square. A man in his 30s was berating Egypt President Mohamed Morsi with little opposition from passengers.
“Morsi thinks he is a prophet. No, even the prophet did not have such powers,” the man, bristling with anger, shouted after taking part in protests against a stunning decision by the president to maximise his powers.
“Didn’t he learn from what happened to Mubarak? He may face the same fate. It’s not that difficult. Another revolution is on the cards,” he added, excited to start a debate that never materialised. The glum-looking passengers had no appetite to either defend or attack Morsi.
Boldly issuing a decree that shields his decisions from all legal challenges, Morsi incurred the wrath of youth protesters, many of whom opted to elect the 61-year-old in June to avoid the prospect of Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, becoming head of state.
These same protesters grasped the chance to go to Tahrir en masse to oppose what they perceive as a dictatorship in the making.
Branded by many protesters as “the new pharaoh,” Morsi embarked on an early confrontation with pro-democracy activists who he tried to win over in his first months in office when he made some equally audacious decisions, such as ordering military chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to retire. He also attempted to relieve public prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud of his duties.
The latter decision, made in October to heed a key demand of Egypt’s revolutionaries, initially backfired due to legal obstacles. But Morsi sidestepped that hindrance Thursday after issuing the controversial decree that makes his decisions immune to judicial review.
Mahmoud was effectively sacked and Morsi also ordered a retrial for Mubarak and his aides over the killing of protesters in last year’s uprising. But that did not go down well with tireless protesters this time around, being decisions sandwiched by measures that grant the president supreme powers.
The controversial articles in the new constitutional declaration that drew the ire of youth activists include protection of the Constituent Assembly — the body tasked with writing the country’s new constitution — from dissolution by the judiciary. The assembly is stacked with Islamists and has been plagued by walkouts from secular-minded members.
“Morsi usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh. A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences,” said reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei, a popular figure among pro-democracy activists and who was present in Tahrir during Friday’s protests, on his Twitter account.
“In light of staunch and broad opposition, Morsi should rescind his ‘power grab’ constitutional declaration before situation gets out of hand,” ElBaradei added.
Strong support base
Last year’s incessant protests in Tahrir swiftly sealed the fate of former strongman Mubarak, but the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, has a strong support base that will come in handy if demonstrations escalate.
In chants not heard since Mubarak fell, Tahrir protesters shouted “The people want the fall of the regime” and “We will not go unless he goes.” The scenes were reminiscent of last year’s 18-day uprising that gave the Brotherhood a new lease of life after the Islamist group was oppressed for decades by former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar El-Sadat and Mubarak.
However, in Cairo’s upscale Heliopolis district, there were equally vociferous chants cheering Morsi as Brotherhood supporters gathered in front of the presidential palace to stand by their man.
Morsi addressed the enthusiastic crowd in a long speech, a move that prompted some critics to question whether the president was deliberately stoking a popular divide, in stark contrast to a famous speech he gave in Tahrir after being elected president when he opened his jacket to show that he was not wearing a bullet-proof vest — a gesture meant to convey that he was the president of all Egyptians.
Although Morsi struck a conciliatory tone toward his opponents, in an attempt to appease them, he is highly unlikely to visit Tahrir Square anytime soon.
“The president’s decision may eventually lead to a civil war,” said Tarek El-Kholy, a prominent member of the influential 6 April Movement that endorsed Morsi in the elections but fiercely opposes his latest decree.
“Morsi said he sought stability, but we can all see that his decision only stirred troubles and clashes. It’s time for him to backtrack; or is he waiting for blood to be spilled?”
The growing contempt was evident Friday when unknown assailants ransacked an office of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Alexandria and attacked its buildings in Port Said and Suez.
Those who oppose Morsi’s decree might take heart from the international pressure he is set to face, a few days after he earned worldwide acclaim for mediating a truce between Palestinian Islamist faction Hamas and Israel following the latter’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
The United States, an important Egypt ally, the United Nations and the European Union expressed concern over the controversial Morsi decree, deemed authoritarian by many.
“We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay's spokesman told a press briefing at the UN in Geneva.
“We also fear this could lead to a very volatile situation over the next few days, starting today in fact.”
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “The decisions and declarations announced on 22 November raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community.”
Whether Morsi succumbs to international pressure remains to be seen, but he is likely to find it difficult to rest over the next few days.
“We will never let him continue like that,” the 30-something man in Cairo’s underground shouted, to no response.