President Mohammed Morsi, right, meets with Lt. Abdul Fattah El-Sissi, Minister of Defense, left (Photo: AP)
Having received identical reports on wide and increasing support of planned 30 June demonstrations demanding early presidential elections, President Mohamed Morsi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are independently considering their options.
For his part, Morsi has demanded the announced support of both the grand imam of Al-Azhar, who some Islamists called for his removal, and the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose inauguration Morsi declined to attend despite a prior visit to Abbaseya Cathedral to attend Christmas Mass when he was a presidential runner.
Both Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, and Pope Tawoudros II, the Coptic patriarch, declined an appeal by the president to issue statements dissuading followers from joining the 30 June demonstrations, sources close to both men told Ahram Online. The carefully worded demand and the politely put refusal were made during an otherwise tense meeting that took place at the now heavily secured presidential palace Tuesday.
A day later, El-Tayeb issued a statement in which he stressed that "peaceful opposition against [rulers] is accepted according to Sharia … and has nothing to do with belief or lack thereof," adding that violence and militant actions are a "great sin" but not an act of "disbelief (kofr)."
Similar statements were made a few days earlier by the Pope in a televised interview in which he stressed that the church cannot, and will not, dictate any political position to Egypt’s Copts, “who are present in all the 50 political parties in Egypt.”
The response that Morsi received from Al-Azhar and church leaders came after key Salafi leaders insisted that they are not joining the 30 June call, but neither will side with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The maximum that Morsi and strongman Khairat El-Shater, second in command of the Muslim Brotherhood, managed to secure out of their Salafi interlocutors was a statement that supported the right of Morsi, who was elected last year, to see out his four-year term.
Meanwhile, Morsi has been working hard with his allies to lobby international support for his presidency, especially from Washington, whose ambassador in Cairo has been making a round of contacts with top opposition leaders to mediate a deal that could defuse the call for demonstrations demanding early presidential elections.
The demands that have been put forward by the US ambassador in Cairo Anne Patterson, seconded but with less enthusiasm by the British ambassador, failed to catch the interest, much less the support, of leaders of the National Salvation Front (NSF), who have been telling both, and equally European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton during meetings she held in Cairo during the past 24 hours, that Morsi has failed to honour past promises of inclusive political management and that it is too late for any political leader to stop the momentum towards 30 June.
The dismay of the NSF was conveyed with understanding by Ashton to Morsi. Ashton also reminded the president that he had failed to make good on promises of a more participatory approach made during their last meeting in Cairo.
Ashton’s sense of dismay, according to some sources, was not put off by Morsi’s recent show of support for the Western stance on Syria, when he bowed to Washington's will to sever relations with Syria, something Morsi announced Saturday in a packed gathering of supporters at Cairo Stadium, embracing sectarian anti-Shia calls in a controversial speech.
“The West is still willing to [back] Morsi, but they are also getting more and more aware that he is not playing his cards well. I think it would be safe to say that it would not be easy to expect key Western capitals to criticise Morsi in the early days of the demonstrations that will start 30 June. But it is also safe to say that the patience of the West towards Morsi's failure, or rather that of the Muslim Brotherhood, to accommodate some political opponents has started to wear thin,” said a senior diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Morsi is well aware that the 30 June demonstrations are coming his way — maybe even earlier than 30 June, according to some reports he has received. This is a realisation that is shared by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF, whose leader, Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, has been lately challenged by a president who is unsure of the army's support, despite the fact that it was Morsi who assigned El-Sisi to his post last August after having toppled his predecessor who had run the country since Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down 11 February 2011.
On Tuesday, Morsi, who has been in constant consultation with an angry and provoked leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, held a meeting with his prime minister and top aides in anticipation of 30 June. The meeting, according to one source, anticipated demonstrations of no less than three to four days. Aides to the president, according to the same source, disagreed on what it would take to defuse what they expected to be a strong start to the protests 30 June.
The Morsi consultations are being conducted in parallel with consultations El-Shater has been holding with supporters whose loyalty he has managed to garner, either through the shared faith or through some limited deals and promises to some ‘notables’ of families in the Delta and Upper Egypt, and ‘elements’ within an otherwise unsympathetic police force. The scheme of El-Shater is based on “all the way confrontation and no compromise.”
“The line is that Morsi was elected in June last year and his legitimacy was supported by the yes vote for the constitution that [the Muslim Brotherhood] designed in the face of considerable opposition and that there is no reason to give in to any pressure from the opposition, especially that Washington is still on board and that there are some ideas on how to fix [the ailing] economy,” said an informed source.
“It seems that Khairat El-Shater and the rest of the Guidance Bureau are convinced that they could eliminate their opposition the way Hamas did with its opposition in Gaza,” said a yet more informed source.
In July 2007, Hamas, a strong ally of the Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders were in Cairo for meetings and to offer words of support during the past few days, applied what was then qualified as “a military choice” that eliminated the presence of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza following many political disputes.
The fear of a truly ‘militant’ confrontation between Morsi’s supporters and opponents have prompted some Islamist intellectuals to propose an elementary solution that could settle for early presidential elections - some say in October, others say in January - provided that they come second to parliamentary elections that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is still hopeful would grant them a majority sufficient to compose the next government.
Sources in many opposition quarters have qualified this proposal, which comes in different forms, as a testing balloon that would not fly. Others have suggested it is only an attempt to defuse the momentum towards 30 June. Only a few said that it was something Morsi, but not El-Shater and the rest of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, could settle for.
Also qualified as a non-starter by the opposition is a circulated proposal for a referendum on the call for early presidential elections. Opposition forces of different shades are unanimous in saying they don’t trust any voting process to be held under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For their part, leaders of SCAF have been conferring repeatedly with leading legal and judiciary figures to examine possible scenarios and the "constitutionally correct reaction" that SCAF could have. Informed sources say that the basic line of SCAF in talks is that it is disinterested in assuming responsibility the way it did in the wake of Mubarak's removal in February 2011 — a fact stressed by Minister of Defence El-Sisi on a number of occasions.
“The overall impression amongst the SCAF leadership is that it is unlikely that the 30 June demonstrations would immediately introduce swift changes to the political scene, but they feel obliged to be prepared for all possible scenarios,” said a prominent analyst who has recently been meeting SCAF on a consultancy basis.
One scenario that SCAF feels particularly obliged to be prepared for is the resort of the Muslim Brotherhood to using their "militias" to defend their headquarters and leadership, as well as the presidential palace, in case of the failure of the police and armed forces to live up to Brotherhood expectations. Another scenario includes considerable bloodshed and "signs of state disintegration."
In both cases, the same source said SCAF was assured by legal advisors that it has an unequivocal constitutional mandate to act to prohibit the use of militias, or prevent the disintegration of central state command.
“It is a question, however, of what this intervention is really about? Would they intervene with Morsi in office or would they intervene and ask him to step down? This is a question whose answer I believe is only in the head of El-Sisi,” the informed analyst said.
In recent weeks, the US ambassador had made repeated statements expressing Washington’s reluctance to see the army going back into politics.
“This is very true; but the army is not planning to go back to politics and what the US ambassador says here is not necessarily the same thing that army leaders are hearing from Washington. There is a bit of discrepancy there,” said an informed government source. He added: “At the end of the day, when push comes to shove, Washington would not wish for great instability in Egypt, if only to avoid compromising the firm commitment that Morsi, like Mubarak, demonstrated to Israeli security interests.”
Securing stability on the borders of Egypt , especially the borders with Israel, is something that army and intelligence forces have been bracing for. “We cannot take any risk, especially at the borders with Israel if one mad or ill-intentioned man decided to get us engaged in an unsolicited confrontation with the Israelis,” said an intelligence source.