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Lina Attalah: Millions expected to protest across Egypt demanding new elections as pro-Morsi forces stage counter demonstrations – fear that army may intervene and re-establish direct control

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of Egyptians hit the streets, calling for the resignation of President Morsi. On Friday, we spoke with former Egypt Independent editor and cofounder of Mada Masr, Lina Attalah, to help us unpack these unfolding events.


So, Lina, we’re hearing from opposition groups that they’re expecting millions of protesters out in the streets on Sunday. Do you think they’ll have those kind of numbers?

LINA ATTALAH, COFOUNDER, MADA MASR: Well, in the past few weeks, we’ve seen mobilization for the June 30 protests taking up different forms, with calls to protest being made by political parties, social movements, civil society groups, individual activists, and just basically promises of a big show up on 30 June. I can’t really speculate the exact numbers, but I’m expecting a big show, because also a lot of people are just mobilized to take to the street to express their disenchantment with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi.

DESVARIEUX: I just want to get a sense from you: who is the opposition? What are their motives? And who are the forces here at play?

ATTALAH: It’s hard to classify who is who. And, you know, we risk being reductionist in an attempt to classify who is in the opposition. It’s quite a diverse group of people. But there is clearly a group that belongs to the former regime and that wishes to see a return of the former regime, or at least a military takeover, believing that only the military has the power of overthrowing the rule of the president.

Then you have another group of opposition manifested in groups like the 6 April youth movement, [incompr.] campaign, and other groups which are basically also against President Morsi but don’t necessarily want to see a return of the former regime. And, you know, they talk about, you know, maybe early elections, the, you know, handing over of power to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as a measure against a military takeover, and so on.

And then a third more radical revolutionary group is basically quite cynical to the whole setup. And even though there is a strong opposition to the rule of the Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi, there is a fear that his forced ouster is going to set dangerous precedents in terms of democracy in Egypt. So this group is a little bit skeptical towards the other groups and their demands, even though they still are against President Mohamed Morsi and they want to eventually see him go. But they don’t want to set some dangerous or precarious precedents on the road for democracy in Egypt.

But the main polarization was in the opposition is basically [incompr.] towards the military. So there is a group who wants to clearly have a military takeover in order to end the rule of the Brotherhood. And these are mostly groups that are [incompr.] old regime. And then you have the progressive revolutionary groups who do not see any solution in a military takeover but basically a step back for the revolution.

DESVARIEUX: So we already saw on Friday that the supporters of the president have already turned out in several thousands east of Cairo. And I wanted to get a sense from you: if the protests that are planned for Sunday are not at the levels that the opposition groups are saying, what does that mean for the opposition?

ATTALAH: Of course it’s going to be a major weakening thing to the opposition, because the opposition has been very successful so far at mobilizing people, particularly through the signatures campaign through which they claim that they managed to gather what has exceeded 13 million signatures on petitions calling for the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi. And this number basically exceeds the number of votes that Morsi had actually garnered in the presidential elections just a year from now. So if this move is not complemented by a big show on the streets of Cairo and outside of Cairo, but particularly in Cairo on 30 June, I think it can be, like, a green card for the regime to not only say that the opposition is basically weak and to, like, completely disregard any form of pressure they try to exert, but it can also lead to some forms of retaliation by the regime against this opposition, which is the more scary thing, really.

DESVARIEUX: So ahead of these protests, there are in fact rumors spreading that pro-Mubarak factions are going to try to incite violence on the streets and then cause massive chaos, which would then allow the army to come in and potentially a military coup to happen. What is your take on what’s brewing?

ATTALAH: It’s very hard also to speculate what’s going to happen in terms of institutional and higher politics. We do not have a clear sense of what is the position of the army vis-à-vis the current stalemate between the opposition and the Brotherhood. But our sense is that also there isn’t a finalized position of what its position or what its role should be on that day in terms of to which party they should be siding.

I think the military has typically been basically waiting to see the outcome of the big day of protests to basically formulate a position. And this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2011 Revolution, whereby they did not just decide to side with with the people from the beginning; they actually had to wait to see the scope of the protests and the extent to which it was generally threatening to the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak. And this is when they decided to step in and ask him to basically step out. So we are expecting something similar.

And this is also an expression of maybe the army not being interested in taking over in a straightforward manner, particularly after what was a bitter experience of trying to run the country in the year and a half period following the ouster of President Mubarak. And it was a year were they faced a lot of challenges and a lot of opposition and a lot of criticism from the people, and it weakened, basically, [incompr.] as the symbol of the Egyptian state. So they don’t have a reason to just believe that they want to step in and side with the people and overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood, but also we don’t have a sense of them completely siding with them. I think they’ll be in a position where they’ll wait and see what happens on the 30th.

DESVARIEUX: So it sounds like you believe that the army will just sort of sit on the sidelines until they get more information and see where the public favor is swaying. But do you have a sense that they will support Morsi at all? Because they’ve had a tumultuous relationship in the past with Morsi dismissing Defense Minister Tantawi and things of that nature. Do you think they want Morsi to stay in power?

ATTALAH: As far as the leadership is concerned, it’s hard to believe that they have a strong position against the Brotherhood. The new leadership has actually been chosen, handpicked by Morsi. So there is reason to believe that there is a level of allegiance from at least this leadership towards Morsi. And in general, the army in Egypt is known to be quite a homogenous body, so it’s also hard to believe that there is a different line when it comes to the rank and file or the second tiers or, you know, the rest of the generals.

But like I said before, I do not think there is clarity around what their position should be and what party to side with. I think the Army has a vested interest in stability. And if Morsi is standing in the face of stability and his rule is just going to be causing a lot more instability, this is enough reason for them to decide to stand against him, in my opinion.

DESVARIEUX: So Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi actually gave a speech on Thursday admitting to some wrongdoing and as well as discussing with the Egyptian people some of the changes he would like to make. Here is a quote from the speech. He said, “I have discovered after a year in charge that for the Revolution to achieve its goals, it needs radical measures.” Lina, what is your sense of what that means, “radical measures”?

ATTALAH: I don’t know, really, what it means. I do not think that President Mohamed Morsi has been good at producing meaning, to be honest with you. It could have a measure of threat against the opposition. And his speech was not short of sending messages of threat to different players of contentious politics, from the media to figures of the old regime, to revolutionary groups, and so on and so forth. So, you know, we could basically interpret that statement as a threat to anyone who basically stands against the president. But also, like I said before, it’s very hard to extract meaning from that speech or in general anything that the president says, to be honest with you.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. He did mention that he wanted to get youth more involved and help them in their economic situation. In Egypt, since he’s taken power, could you categorize there’s been a shift or an improvement in the lives of working-class Egyptians?

ATTALAH: I don’t think so. I mean, the main record of their rule so far has been an extremely deteriorating economy, marked by a rising fiscal crisis that has not translated into any improvement or welfare, or even, you know, preservation of status quo for the working class in the country. But also coupled to that is–or add to that the fact that they have no vision whatsoever for how to have an economic growth map to, you know, have us step out of this crisis that we’re in. So no improvement is the short answer, basically.

DESVARIEUX: Well, Lina, we’ll certainly keep tracking the story. And we look forward to having you back on. Thanks for being with us.

ATTALAH: You’re welcome. Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Lina Attalah is the founder of Mada Masr. She is the former Managing Editor at Egypt Independent (formerly Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition). Lina studied journalism at the American University in Cairo. Before joining Egypt Independent, she wrote for Reuters, Cairo Times, the Daily Star, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. In 2005, she worked as radio producer and campaign coordinator with the BBC World Service Trust in Darfur, Sudan. She also worked as project manager for a number of research-based projects with multimedia outputs around the themes of space, mobility, and intellectual history. Lina is particularly drawn to border areas, where human geography issues of conflict and desire are rampant.