Muslim Brotherhood

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Egypt’s Islamist president has been significantly weakened by a week of violent protests across much of the country, with his popularity eroding, the powerful military implicitly criticizing him and some of his ultraconservative Islamist backers distancing themselves from him.

In his seven months since becoming Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi has weathered a series of crises. But the liberal opposition is now betting the backlash against him is so severe that he and his Muslim Brotherhood will be forced to change their ways, breaking what critics say is their monopolizing of power.

Critics claim that Morsi’s woes are mostly self-inflicted, calling him overconfident and out of sync with the public. Now the relatively high death toll — around 60 — the spread of protests and the use of excessive force by the police are feeding a wave of anger at the Egyptian leader and the Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which he hails and which is the foundation of his administration.

Morsi did not help matters when he addressed the nation Sunday night in a brief but angry address in which he at times screamed and wagged his finger. In that speech, he slapped a 30-day state of emergency and curfew on three Suez Canal provinces hit the hardest by the violence and vowed to take even harsher measures if peace is not restored.

In response, the three cities defied the president in a rare open rebellion that handed him an embarrassing loss of face.

Thousands in the cities of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez took to the streets on Monday and Tuesday just as the 9 p.m. curfew went into force. Underlining their contempt for him, they played soccer games, stores stayed open and there were even firework displays — all while troops deployed in Port Said and Suez stood by and watched.

Morsi was forced to back down somewhat and authorized the local governors to ease the measures. All three quickly did on Wednesday, reducing the hours of curfew from nine hours to as short as three.

The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, demands Morsi create a national unity government and rewrite controversial parts of the constitution that the Brotherhood and other Islamists rammed through to approval last month. A broader government, they insist, is the only way to ease the violence and start dealing with Egypt’s mounting woes — particularly, an economy many fear is collapsing.

The liberals gained an unusual ally on Wednesday: one of the main political parties of the ultraconservative Islamist movement known as Salafis, the al-Nour Party, which has usually supported Morsi.

Morsi appears to see no need for concessions. On a quick visit to Germany on Wednesday, he downplayed the significance of the week’s violence.

“What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy,” Morsi told reporters in Berlin.

There is no need to form a unity government, he added, because a new government will be formed after parliament elections — expected in April at the earliest.

Morsi’s reply to critics who demand he widen the circle of decision-making has been to invite opponents to a national dialogue conference to discuss key issues. Almost all opposition parties have refused, calling the conference window-dressing for Brotherhood domination. The conference has held multiple sessions, mainly attended by Morsi’s Islamist allies.

Morsi’s supporters — and some of his aides — accuse the opposition of condoning violence and trying to overturn the democratic results of elections that brought Morsi and the Brotherhood to power.

Meanwhile, anger on the streets is mounting. Politicians may call for a unity government, but a growing bloc of the protesters say Morsi must go outright. 

Egyptian protesters chant slogans against President Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday. Egyptians gathered in the square Tuesday for a protest against Egypt's president in a significant test of whether the opposition can rally the street behind it in a confrontation aimed at forcing the Islamist leader to rescind decrees that granted him near absolute powers.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — More than 200,000 people thronged Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, protesting against Egypt’s Islamist president Tuesday in an opposition show of strength, as the standoff over Mohammed Morsi’s assertion of near absolute powers escalated into the biggest challenge yet to his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.

The massive, flag-waving, chanting crowd in the iconic plaza rivaled the size of some of the large protests of last year’s uprising that drove autocrat Hosni Mubarak from office. The same chants used against Mubarak were now turned against Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” and “erhal, erhal” — Arabic for “leave, leave,” rang across the square.

Protests in Tahrir and several other cities Tuesday were sparked by edicts issued by Morsi last week that effectively neutralized the judiciary, the last branch of government he does not control. But it turned into a broader outpouring of anger against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Opponents say have used election victories to monopolize power, squeeze out rivals, and dictate a new, Islamist constitution, while doing little to solve Egypt’s mounting economic and security woes.

Clashes broke out in several cities as Morsi opponents tried to attack offices of the Brotherhood. At least 100 people were injured when protesters and Brotherhood members protecting their office pelted each other with stones and firebombs in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra.

“Power has exposed the Brotherhood. We discovered their true face,” said Laila Salah, a housewife in the Tahrir protest who said she voted for Morsi in this summer’s presidential election. After Mubarak, she said, Egyptians would no longer consent to an autocrat.

“It’s like a wife whose husband was beating her and then she divorces him and becomes free,” she said. “If she remarries she’ll never accept another day of abuse.”

Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, said Morsi would not back down on his edicts. “We are not rescinding the declaration,” he told The Associated Press.

That sets the stage for a drawn-out battle between the two sides that could throw the nation into greater turmoil. Protest organizers on a stage in the square called for another mass rally on Friday. If the Brotherhood responds with mass rallies of its own, as some of its leaders have hinted, it would raise the prospect of greater violence.

A tweet by the Brotherhood warned that if the opposition was able to bring out 200,000-300,000 “they should brace for millions in support” of Morsi.

Another flashpoint could come Sunday, when the constitutional court is due to rule on whether to dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and Islamist allies. Morsi’s edicts explicitly banned the courts from disbanding the panel. If the court defies him and rules anyway, it would be a direct challenge that could spill over into the streets.

“Then we are in the face of the challenge between the supreme court and the presidency,” said Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession. “We are about to enter a serious conflict” on both the legal and street level, he said.

CAIRO — Egypt’s powerful Islamists on Monday faced a backlash on two fronts as they try to solidify their hold on the country’s politics, as liberal politicians quit a panel tasked with drafting a new constitution to protest its domination by Islamists.

More ominously, the ruling military issued a veiled threat of a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood if the group persisted in demands to form a new government.

The warning pointed to a growing possibility of confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military, which emerged as Egypt’s two most powerful institutions since the fall of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak a year ago. For months, they have moved between cooperating and jostling for position.

But the Brotherhood appears to be growing in confidence over its position. The group holds nearly half the seats in parliament, making it the largest bloc — and its strength grows even more on some issues in which it is backed by the second-largest bloc, the ultraconservative Islamic Salafis.

Published on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 as: Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt faces dual opposition

CAIRO — Islamists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt’s first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.

Final results, expected Friday, will be the clearest indication in decades of Egyptians’ true political views and give the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood a major role in the country’s first freely elected parliament. An Islamist majority could also herald a greater role for conservative Islam in Egyptian social life and shifts in foreign policy, especially toward Israel and the Palestinians.

Judges overseeing the Egyptian vote count said Thursday that near-complete results show the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest and best organized political group, could take as many as 45 percent of the contested seats.

In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood wins, parties backed by ultraconservative Salafist Muslims looked poised to take 20 percent, giving Islamist parties a striking majority in the first round of voting.

The Islamist victories came at the expense of a coalition of liberal parties called the Egyptian block, the group most closely linked to the youth activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising — and which is expected to win only about 20 percent of seats.