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As millions take to the street across Egypt calling for President’s ouster, the Army threatens to take action if Morsi fails to reach agreement with protestors in 48 hours

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Millions of Egyptians took to the streets across the country Sunday, calling for democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi to step down one year after his election. According to Egypt’s health ministry, 16 were killed in clashes Sunday and hundreds more injured. The protests have been said to be amongst the largest in Egypt’s history.

To give us an update on the latest in Egypt, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s a correspondent for Democracy Now! and a fellow at the Nation Institute. His most recent article for The Nation magazine is called “Egyptians to Morsi: ‘We Don’t Want You’”.

Thank you for joining us, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS, JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me, Jaisal.

NOOR: So, Sharif, can you start off by telling us your reaction to this latest news being reported by the AP that the Egyptian army has given the president, Mohamed Morsi, 48 hours to come to some type of agreement with the protesters or they will take action?

KOUDDOUS: Right. I mean, this is pretty earth-shattering news. As you mentioned, the Armed Forces read a televised statement that also appeared on their official Facebook page, which is the way they make statements here in Egypt, telling political forces to reach some kind of solution to what they called, what they said was to meet the people’s demands; otherwise, they would be forced to intervene within 48 hours and install its own roadmap for the future.

It’s unclear exactly what all this means technically. What it does mean, what we can say, is that it looks like the army is threatening to stage a coup, to force out Mohamed Morsi within 48 hours if he doesn’t make some kind of major concession that is accepted by Egyptians and by the political opposition.

This sets a dangerous precedent in many ways, that the army is ousting or is intervening in the politics of a democratically elected president.

Having said that, you know, much of the reason why Morsi and the Brotherhood are in this position was their own doing. As you mentioned, yesterday was arguably the biggest protest in Egyptian history. There were millions of people on the streets in Tahrir, in the presidential palace, and not just in Cairo but around the country, in Alexandria, in the Delta and upper Egypt.

And this was not organized by any one political group. This protest came after a year of Mohamed Morsi’s rule that saw extreme polarization amongst the political class, with the Muslim Brotherhood refusing to really reach out in any kind of inclusive or consensual process on the political level, that saw them really withdraw inward into their own organization, and a few core Islamic supporters, even the major Salafi party, the ultraconservative Muslim party, the [incompr.] party does not back them anymore.

But also on a broader level, for the majority of Egyptians life has become much more difficult, especially economically. The prices of food and medicine and other basic goods have gone up. The pound–and this is part of the reason is because the Egyptian pound has witnessed a 13 percent decline since Morsi came into office, which–and Egypt imports many of its major goods. There’s been electricity blackouts during summer that have become a daily part of life. There are fuel shortages with long lines, people waiting hours to get diesel or fuel, which cause crippling traffic jams around the country.

So all of these grievances have come to a head.

And we saw this massive protest yesterday that was first called for by a group known as [t@mArUt] here in Egypt, which is the Arabic word for rebel. They started a very grassroots campaign that was from the ground up, really handing out these petitions that were calling on early elections, the president to call for early elections, and a vote of no-confidence. This started on May 1 in Tahrir Square, quickly became a very decentralized campaign, with people photocopying the petition, handing it out everywhere, including universities, and in shops, in groceries, at the grocer’s, or even in government buildings, government offices. And then they now claim that 22 million signatures–they said that on the eve of these protests. So there’s really widespread dissatisfaction and alienation with the presidency, with Mohamed Morsi.

And there’s been also, it must be said, widespread calls or at least a big portion of these protests that were calling for the army to step in. We saw the military helicopters flying over the protests yesterday and people cheering them and chants of, you know, the people and the army are one hand. And this is really worrying for many of the more young revolutionaries who were really at the heart of this uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster, have been at the heart of the struggle on the streets ever since, because the army, of course, has been the backbone of dictatorship in Egypt for 60 years, and it came to the helm of power after Mubarak’s ouster and led the so-called transition for a year and a half, and during that period we saw people being killed on the streets by the military. Perhaps the bloodiest incident, one of the bloodiest incidents of the Revolution: on October 9, 2011, when 27 people were killed by army soldiers in the street. We saw them jail or put on trial more than 12,000 civilians on military trials, a process that lacks due process rights. And so, you know, this has been the reality of the army’s rule. And thus far we’ve seen them kind of stay on the sidelines after they handed over power to Mohamed Morsi upon his inauguration exactly one year ago. And they have been content to sit on the sidelines because, as I like to say, they want to go back to ruling Egypt and not governing it. And so many of their economic and political privileges are now enshrined in Egypt’s new constitution, which was written and backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But one thing the army does need is stability. And I think when we saw these massive protests happened yesterday, calls for escalation tomorrow with civil disobedience and strikes, that the stability of the country and really a state collapse was being threatened. And that’s why the military has stepped in. We’re seeing right now over Tahrir–that Tahrir’s packed up till this army statement came out. Military helicopters are flying, circling over the square, carrying huge Egyptian flags, and people are cheering them.

So this is the mood and this is the situation we’re in. It’s a very tumultuous time. We’ll have to see going forward what exactly is going to happen, but it certainly is–and really something that has regional implications. Egypt, of course, is the largest, most populous Muslim Arab country in the Middle East [crosstalk]

NOOR: Sharif, is there a sense that this is what the Egyptian army wanted all along?

KOUDDOUS: It’s hard to say. I mean, look, you know, in Egypt there’s conspiracy theories for every kind of color you want.

I doubt that the army wanted–you know, could have orchestrated such a complete and perfect scenario where the Brotherhood becomes–gets elected and then, you know, puts the economy into such dire straits and so forth. No one party could have orchestrated what we saw yesterday. That’s for me, you know, what dispels a lot of these conspiracy theories that this was something driven by the anti-Morsi media or this was something that the army wanted or that the former regime elements orchestrated. This was a grassroots uprising against this president and a mass uprising that included many different segments of Egyptian society.

True, there are elements of the former regime that are a part of this. We saw police officers marching and taking part in the protests yesterday. The Ministry of Interior said it would not oppose any of its own policeman or officers taking part in the protests. We saw army officers do the same as well. So there are certainly parts of the former regime that are a significant part of this that have taken over the media narrative of this.

But to say that the army orchestrated this, I think, is disingenuous, because the army got what it wanted out of this Constitution, and I think it was content to go forward as long as things were stable in Egypt. I think the only reason they’re intervening is because of the threat of mass instability and the collapse of the state, which in turn threatens their own interests.

NOOR: Now, you talked about this diverse array of opposition groups taking part in this. Is there any type of coherent political platform? Do these demonstrations mean that if there is another election that perhaps the secular party could win a bigger share of the government, maybe take the lead of the government in the future?

KOUDDOUS: Well, part of the problem that we’ve seen in Egypt is really a failure of the entire political class to represent ordinary Egyptians, be it the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist parties or the political–what we can call the secular liberal opposition, although they’re not fully either of those things, in the country. So groups headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Hamdeen Sabahi, whose a Nasserist politician, they formed something called the National Salvation Front, which is a loose umbrella coalition of opposition, not-Islamist parties. But, you know, a lot of times they have acted in a crass and opportunistic way, and they speak in a language that doesn’t represent the grievances of Egyptians on the street. They did not lead the calls for these protests. They are following them from behind. They certainly supported them. So there’s no–no, there isn’t a united political platform. What the NSF (the National Salvation Front) and the [t@mArUd] campaign have backed as a roadmap before this protest began was that Morsi step down, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court acts as interim president, while backed by a cabinet of technocrats for six months, until we have other presidential elections.

So, you know, I think we’ll have to see what happens. But throughout this transition, since this revolution began, there’s been this tug-of-war between conventional politics and revolutionary politics, conventional politics meaning the ballot box and electoral democracy, and revolutionary politics meaning the politics of the streets and means of achieving economic and social justice. So there’s always been this battle between the two.

Egyptians have gone to the polls four times over these last two years, and this democratic process has become increasingly alienating and dissatisfying. It does not address their grievances whatsoever. And so we’re seeing an upsurge of revolutionary politics that culminated in this massive, massive, biggest-ever protest in Egypt. So, you know, elections by themselves won’t solve anything.

And what the Brotherhood–I think its fatal mistake was it viewed it as a winner-take-all, we won the elections, we’re going to act in this majoritarian way of winner-take-all politics with no inclusion whatsoever to other groups. And this has led to their isolation right now. We saw ten ministers have–reportedly have resigned. There’s governors resigning right now. And, frankly, it’s difficult to see the opposition negotiating with them now when they have them in such a tight corner with, you know, the army now looking to be on the side of the protesters. Although we already went through an army-led transition, they helped lead us into this mess that we’re in right now. So it’s not that encouraging to see another army-led transition as a prospect.

NOOR: Now, Sharif, you’ve talked about the upsurge in revolutionary thinking as demonstrated in the protest yesterday. Where do the Egyptian elites stand in all of this?

KOUDDOUS: By elites you mean the political class?

NOOR: The political and economic elites as well.

KOUDDOUS: Well, you know, there are economic elites that are certainly tied to the former regime that have been at the forefront of critiquing the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them own television stations and newspapers that have been really shrill opponents of the Brotherhood. There’s many things you can criticize the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice party of doing, but there’s been a lot of kind of these shrill accusations of things like–you know, that Hamas was involved in breaking him out of jail at the beginning of the Revolution, that they wanted to sell the Suez Canal, and things like this, which, frankly, are not true. And I think with elements of the deep states, you know, the Interior Ministry, parts of the military, they have been trying to oust the Muslim Brotherhood ever since Morsi came into power. And we have to remember that Morsi won the presidency on a razor-thin majority, 51 percent last year against a stalwart of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister. So there’s always been this kind of polarization and battle. But really the real opposition is from ordinary Egyptians in the streets.

As far as the political elites, as I said earlier, there is a real problem with the entire political class, I think, in representing the grievances of Egyptians. And that’s why we’re seeing this return to the street. So, you know, I think what’s very important to remember is that this revolutionary–despite the fact that members of the former regime were involved yesterday, despite the fact that people are calling for the army to come back, yesterday was–and what is happening right now is still a revolutionary moment, that I think–and gives people strength and, I think, faith in their own ability to cause changed by participating as citizens, not only going to the ballot box, but by participating with their very bodies, by going into the streets and making their voices heard.

NOOR: And finally, Sharif, millions obviously went to the streets this weekend in Egypt, but millions more stayed at home. You have a sense of where public opinion lies in Egypt right now?

KOUDDOUS: I mean, I get that. That’s a very hard to gauge. There were–you know, the Brotherhood and its Islamist supporters also had quite a large protest not two miles away from the presidential palace yesterday. They had another one last week that was quite large. Nothing compared to what happened yesterday.

But, you know, let’s remember, you know, revolutions and public opinion, I mean, the percentage of people that went down yesterday–and the estimates vary–was quite large when you compare it to, you know, the rest of the country. So I think from what we can say from yesterday, this mass expression of the sense that, you know, popular will is against President Morsi right now, I think that’s a fair statement to say. You know, there’s a very big difference between winning elections, which the Brotherhood are very good at, that involves very different requirements, that involve money, patronage networks, grassroots campaigning, you know, knocking on doors on the ground. That gets you–and mobilizing your base and getting people to the actual polls. And they’ve won successively that these elections.

But democracy is much more than the ballot box. And that’s what I think they fail to understand, that they have just tried to divide up the post-Mubarak cake in some kind of way and ignored the ambitions and dreams and grievances and demands of a majority of the Egyptian people. And I’m talking about the rural urban poor who have seen their lives become harder but not seen any change in economic policy, but have not seen any reform whatsoever of the security apparatus. And this has spilled over into this popular anger. And so there has to be some kind of consensual process to move forward. This winner-take-all of elections is what got us into this problem in the first place. It’s not the solution.

NOOR: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, thank you so much for joining us.

KOUDDOUS: Thank you for having me, Jaisal.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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