Divisions and confusion reign supreme in Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Monday 10 Dec 2012

Ordinary citizens do not know what to expect next from government; Islamists and liberals cannot find middle ground; Brotherhood and Salvation differ from within; army and police wait and see

Supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi clash near presidential palace, 5 December 2012 (Photo: AP)

"I really don’t know what is going on but it looks like prices will increase very soon – maybe not this week but certainly soon," said Hanna, the owner of a small, old-fashioned grocery in Cairo's upmarket suburb of Heliopolis.

Unlike the big supermarket chains, Hanna’s 'Al-Mahbah' grocery survives thanks to a limited group of mostly older clients who never look for fancy packaged soup boxes or imported bottled water and whose limited shopping is still largely done on daily rather than weekly basis, which makes them immune to the better priced offers made by the supermarket chains for the large buyers.

For those clients, and due to the small budget of his shop, Hanna has enough commodities to last for eight weeks or so.

"I don’t want to raise the prices for my clients because they are mostly retired civil servants and middle class people; this is why I will go stock up for another month's supplies now that they say there is a decision to increase the prices – if it is true; I really don’t know."

Hanna’s perplexity is prompted by what many commentators and citizens qualify as first-rate confusion in state management. On the afternoon of Sunday, an announcement was made over an increase in the prices of both some commodities, including certain grocery items, and some services, including those related to the storing and distribution of almost all commodities, food items included. Hanna heard the news on his 1950s-style radio which sits on a shelf in the dimly-lit grocery.

He went home and shared his concerns over the future with his wife, Samira. As Coptic Christians, Hanna and Samira are very concerned for their future and that of their children and grandchildren as they see "the country being ruled by a group of Islamists who show no love and no compassion to Christians."

Indeed, Hanna and Samira were particularly concerned about the implicit accusations made by the second and most powerful man of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat El-Shater, on Saturday afternoon during a press conference that he held along with "other heavily-bearded and very angry-looking men", when he suggested the Coptic church was involved in inciting demonstrations against the president over the past few days.

This concern is also aggravated by the worry over the future from an economic perspective. Hanna's income is not exactly generous and it is partially allocated to him and his wife, and partially to help some of his five children make ends meet. "I never used to work on Sundays but recently I have been."

By Monday morning, Hanna was surprised to hear people talk about a presidential decision to annul the decree that was just issued in November – he did not know it had already been out a few days ago, before it was effectively announced Sunday.

Hanna does not also know that El-Shater, according to Muslim Brotherhood sources, is behind the reversed decision of the increased prices that was already issued by the president, in line with state commitments to the IMF in preparation for a $4.8 billion loan, the final agreement for which should be signed later this month.

Speaking to Ahram Online, sources from the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) say that El-Shater received calls from FJP representatives across the nation warning of the negative influence of these price hikes, especially that of cigarettes, on their attempts to mobilise support for a yes vote in the upcoming referendum over the controversial draft constitution.

Muslim Brotherhood sources insist that this is not the first drop in communication between Morsi and El-Shater, as well as other members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau. Previous disagreements, the same sources argue, have occurred on several key decision-making points, including that of the reshuffle of military leadership in August and upon the announcement of the controversial constitutional declaration by the presidency on 22 November.

"Many people may find it hard to believe, but Morsi is trying to be independent, or let me say somewhat independent, from the Guidance Bureau but it is not easy," said an informed state official.

It is not clear how far this "give and take but not a tug of war", as this source liked to qualify the situation, will go, but it is not going to go away very soon.

Morsi, according to the same source was "somewhat open to delay the referendum on the constitution from 15 December to a later date to defuse public anger and demonstrations but the Guidance Bureau saw otherwise."

The decision by Morsi to keep the referendum over the controversial draft constitution in mid-December failed to defuse the momentum behind anti-Morsi demonstrations, despite the fact that it came along with a concession from the president on previously self-bestowed sweeping powers, by virtue of the 22 November constitutional declaration.

The call for a massive demonstration on Tuesday was made by opposition group the National Salvation Front (NSF) despite some deep disagreements within this fragile coalition of political adversaries. Sources attending extended sessions of the meetings describe a "clash of views" that started upon the call that was offered by the president on Thursday evening to the NSF and other opposition forces to create dialogue to look for an exit from the political quagmire.

According to one source, some thought it is worth sending an envoy from the NSF to explore a way out of the demonstrations that have led to casualties, while others thought that the NSF should stick to its position of conditioning dialogue upon a presidential announcement to delay the referendum and to drop the 22 November constitutional declaration.

The disagreements resurfaced as the presidency offered a political package, including a partial elimination of the controversial constitutional declaration, but not on the referendum, with some suggesting that the time has come for an exit to avoid continued demonstrations that could allow for wider political division and possible bloodshed. Aides to both men deny it but independent sources insist that the main disagreement is between Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, whose personal chemistry has yet to click.

The disagreements of Morsi and El-Shater and those of ElBaradei and Moussa are not the only political differences that seems to be sweeping the country. Disagreements are also apparent and getting wider within the police and armed forces on the current political battle.

Muslim Brotherhood sources complain over what they qualify as the failure of the police to adequately defend the headquarters of the oldest Islamist organisation in Egypt and those of its political army, the FJP. They also suggest that police force has turned a blind eye while buses carrying Muslim Brotherhood-FJP members from governorates across the nation to demonstrate before the presidential palace in Heliopolis in support of the president.

This "police laxity" the same Brotherhood sources argue would be compensated for by a recent presidential decree to allow the armed forces to take part in observing and executing law enforcement on the national front – a decision that is being met with unease from many quarters within the police forces and indeed within the army.

According to police sources their reluctance is prompted by a fear that when the confrontation between supporters and protestors come to an end the winner would blame them for siding with the adversary. The reluctance within the army comes mostly from a keenness to keep the armed forces out of political disagreements and indeed out of home front security responsibilities.

Ministers of interior and defence have recently received demands from their top aides to refrain from intervening in the current political quarrel. This wish is interpreted in the world of the Brotherhood-FJP as a sign of anti-Morsi sentiment and a continued alliance with a conspiracy that El-Shater spoke about earlier in the week to topple Morsi to allow for the introduction of a new ruler who would be more inclined to accommodate the interest of the regime that was toppled when the 25 January Revolution forced Hosni Mubarak to step down almost two years ago.

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