“We are not leaving before Morsi does.” Such was the reaction I heard just about anywhere in Cairo these last days. The determination was reinforced by the historic turn out on June 30th. The armed forces initially spoke of 13 million people, the ministry of information called it at 17 million. Some media stated that in the whole of Egypt no less than 30 million people had taken to the streets.
Whatever the correct number, millions of Egyptians were united in one single message: erhal the Arab word for ‘leave’.
Non-Egyptians wonder what Morsi must have done wrong to get that much people in the streets? Some point to the economy as the main reason. It is certainly true that Egypt is at the brink of the economic abyss. Every day there are multiple outages of power and running water. There is hardly any petrol left, creating very long queues at gas stations which in turn cause big traffic jams. Tourism, Egypt’s major source of income, has fallen drastically to a fraction of what it once was. The currency lost a quarter of its value, making everything more expensive. This is particularly hard on the large group of very poor Egyptians.
Yet, this is not the reason for the massive turn out at protests. It is clearly not a hunger revolution either. While having a cup of tea close to the presidential palace, I could observe the massive crowds passing by. The diversity was apparent: young and old, veiled and unveiled women, poor and rich, Muslim and Christian. Furthermore, it is important to stress that the atmosphere was and still is positive. Yesterday Tahrir and neighbouring streets looked like one big festival. Fireworks were lit. There was singing and dancing.
What brings all of these people together is a sense of betrayal. The Muslim Brotherhood was given a chance after the revolution. They were the best organised and had the most thought-through ideas. People imagined the brotherhood to be the best shot at fulfilling the ideals of the revolution: freedom, dignity, justice and bread. Exactly what was expected of Morsi. And Morsi was off to a good start. He replaced the hated military leader Tantawi and re-seized the power the armed forces had taken from the president.
All changed in November 2012. Morsi and his party were convinced of a major conspiracy in the making. Mursi’s response was a constitutional declaration seizing all power and shoving an Islamic constitution down Egyptians throats. As of that moment more and more Egyptians got convinced Morsi was just a Muslim Brotherhood president and not the president of the Egyptian people.
That is at the core of this week’s protests: people do not accept one group forcing its agenda upon an entire nation, regardless of whether that group has an electoral majority. This rising against “the tyranny of the majority” we see in Egypt today and we saw in Turkey these last months. In Turkey too, people do not accept the economic progress generated under Erdogan’s rule as an excuse to govern as he pleases.
This is Mursi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s big error of judgement. Convinced of their majority, they thought the opposition was small and divided and that people would eventually side by them. June 30th that certainly turned out differently. No one can withstand such masses. Not even the army. The military brass saw what happened and saw that it could result in a huge spiral of violence. This is probably why they issued an ultimatum, to avoid Egypt turning into one giant street fight.
In the meantime everybody is abandoning ship. Ministers resigned. The president’s press secretary quit, as did a number of governors. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are increasingly isolated as the people seem determined to continue to protest. Some claim an elected president cannot simply be deposed. That would be special, but not unique. US president Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment. French president Charles De Gaulle resigned upon losing a referendum. A referendum that was organised in response to the many street protests seen by France in those days.
Whatever the outcome of this battle of titans, some conclusions are already clear. For one thing, a very religious country such as Egypt does not accept its religion to be politically abused in power plays. Islam, like Christianity, is a very diverse religion. Imposing one interpretation on the rest of the population is not tolerated. Secondly, citizens of a country in transition are very aware that democracy is not just holding elections. Whomever is elected will have to listen to the rest of the people. Majority-reasoning is refuted. Finally, it is clear people do not accept the hard won freedom to be restricted again by anyone. Those who try are removed immediately. Those are the signals in Egyptian streets today. And those are reason to be optimistic about the outcome of the Arab Spring.