(Originally published by the Times)
By Martin Fletcher and Evan Hill in Cairo
Tens of thousands of opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday night, laying bare the country’s deepening political chasm.
Liberals, socialists, secularists, Christians and even some supporters of the old Mubarak regime came to demand that President Mohammed Morsi rescind the decrees with which he awarded himself absolute powers shorn of judicial oversight.
More generally, they came to reject the replacement of the Mubarak dictatorship by what they perceive to be the religious tyranny of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Although the protests were not in the massive numbers seen during the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year, they gave an indication of the scale of the problem facing the regime.
“I’m not changing an oppressive totalitarian regime with religious fascists,” an accountant, Hany Mohammed, 36, declared as he held up a placard proclaiming “Down with the Muslim Brotherhood’s occupation. Egypt free and independent.”
Father Doud Nagib, a Coptic Christian priest, came in full regalia. “I am refusing and rejecting Morsi’s constitutional announcement,” he said. The Brotherhood was splitting the country into two – Islamists and the rest. “They want to be the only party. They love only themselves.”
The Brotherhood has its own competing narrative. It contends that Mr Morsi seized exceptional powers merely to ensure that last year’s revolution succeeds, and that it is not derailed by remnants of the old regime that still occupy senior posts in the judiciary and elsewhere. It insists he will surrender his new powers the moment a new constitution is approved.
On Monday night, Mr Morsi spent five hours reasoning with senior judges, but to no avail. Tahrir Square began filling up at sunset, and the great throng swelled as feeder marches arrived from across the capital.
The scene of last year’s revolution was once again festooned in banners reading “Muslim Brotherhood are Liars”, “No Brotherhood Here” and “The Brotherhood stole the country”. The protesters chanted “The people want the fall of the regime” – the very slogan they used against Mubarak during those 18 historic days of February last year.
“Leave, leave,” and “The rule of the Brotherhood is illegitimate”, they shouted.
They waved national flags. One group carried a mock coffin for democracy through the melee while another sang revolutionary songs.
Two women held up the front page of a newspaper bearing a picture of Mr Morsi with a Hitlerian moustache. Other protesters brandished home-made signs on which they had written “Our revolution is for freedom” and “Mubarak didn’t listen – Morsi doesn’t understand”.
There were no clashes with the security forces, though earlier in the day a 52-year-old man, Fathi Garreb, died after inhaling tear gas during skirmishes with riot police on the edge of the square. Similar protests were also being staged last night in Alexandria, Suez, Minya and other cities.
To date, the international community has largely refrained from criticising Mr Morsi – a man it was lauding last week for brokering the Gaza ceasefire and to whom it still appears inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. In a typically muted statement, Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, noted that Egypt’s judges had challenged the president’s decrees, but continued: “I have also noted that Morsi wants to resolve the problem in a dialogue. I will encourage him to continue to do so.”
Human Rights Watch was more outspoken. It said: “Egypt’s president now has more power than last year’s military rulers who used their position to violate human rights. And President Morsi has exempted himself from any independent judicial review.”
The Brotherhood itself sought to play down the rally. “As long as it’s peaceful, it’s the right of speech. It’s a sign of a new democracy in the making,” Gahad El-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood, said. “We wanted our own rally today but because of fears of clashes, we were responsible enough to cancel it.”
The Brotherhood and its political arm, the Justice and Freedom Party, will hope that the protests will fizzle out, and that the opposition is too disparate and fragmented to pose a serious threat to the presidency.
Hani Sabra, Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group, a global consultancy, believes they are right. “Today’s anti-Morsi protests bringing together most of Egypt’s anti-Islamist forces will be large, but will not threaten Morsi’s government; his support base is robust and he remains confident that his power consolidation and decision to speed the transition is backed by a majority of Egyptians,” he said.
In Tahrir Square, however, the protesters vowed to fight on. “The Brotherhood used the people as a tool to gain power,” said Ashraf Maurice, 47, a trader who spent the revolution in Tahrir Square. “Now we have to use the same tool to kick them out.”