Sharif Abdel Kouddous: As Morsi-Army Showdown Grips Egypt, Protesters Reject Authoritarian Rule

Democracy Now*

democHAVANA TIMES – Egypt is in a state of crisis as President Mohamed Morsi faces possible ouster from the military. The Egyptian army is threatening to take over unless Morsi responds to a deadline of today to outline a “roadmap” for reconciliation after millions of Egyptians took to the streets to oppose his government.

A leaked plan shows the military is prepared to overthrow Morsi, scrap a draft constitution and impose a government headed by an army general.

We go to Egypt to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporting from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “The more important struggle is the one that is coming from the ground up — and that is a rejection of authoritarianism and a paternalistic form of government,” Kouddous says. “We saw a rejection of Hosni Mubarak that threw him out of office, a rejection of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ruling Egypt, and now a rejection and a revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood. [The people] are revolting against these authoritarian elements that deny them political and economic agency.”

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Egypt, where the nation is in a state of crisis. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has rejected an ultimatum from his country’s armed forces to respond to massive protests or face removal from office. On Monday, the armed forces gave Morsi 48 hours to outline a “roadmap” for reconciliation or be ousted by the military. That deadline runs out today. The army has announced it will issue a statement at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. Egypt’s military leaders have already issued a call to battle in a statement headlined “The Final Hours.” They say they were willing to shed blood against “terrorists and fools” if Morsi refuses to give up his elected office. Senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have described the army’s threat as a “coup.”

In a 45-minute speech broadcast last night on national television, Morsi said he would refuse to resign and declared his right to serve out his term as the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED MORSI: [translated] How can we make sure that our January 25th revolution and the achievement of its goals and protecting legitimacy is not stolen from us? The price of legitimacy is my life. My life. I want to take care of the people’s lives.

AMY GOODMAN: But pressure is growing on Morsi to resign or call for a referendum on early presidential elections. Several of his ministers have already resigned. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, and Coptic pope reportedly met with Egypt’s army chief earlier today.

Meanwhile, violence is escalating on the streets. The Egyptian Health Ministry said 16 people were killed and another 200 injured near Cairo University Tuesday when gunman attacked a pro-Morsi rally.

We’re joined right now by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who’s overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Sharif, can you tell us the latest? What’s happening?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, we’re almost at zero hour, what could be one of the most pivotal moments in Egypt since this revolution began. The army’s deadline, as you mentioned, is due to expire just a couple of hours from the time of this broadcast. And what the army said in its original statement was that if the political forces couldn’t meet what they called the people’s demands, then they would issue their own roadmap.

Well, as you mentioned, Mohamed Morsi, the president, last night did a very late night address, a very defiant speech where he rejected those calls. He repeatedly said he was the legitimate president. He used the word “legitimacy” dozens of times and warned of violence many times, if his legitimacy was challenged, even going so far as to say he was willing to die to respect his legitimacy. He gave no real concrete concessions whatsoever in the speech, reiterating only a call for dialogue that has been rejected for many months now by the political opposition. So, that’s where it stands right now.

The Facebook page affiliated with the armed forces released a statement right after, in the name of the head of the armed forces, saying that they were willing to sacrifice their own blood for Egypt and its people, saying, “against any terrorist, radical or fool.” So, a lot of—a lot of bluster and language from both sides that is happening right now.

And as you mentioned, the army—we’re all waiting waiting for this army’s decision, because the deadline is set to expire. Reportedly, the army has taken control of state media, including the main flagship newspaper, Al-Ahram. And on its front page, it has an outline for what it would call a roadmap, which would include a interim presidential council headed by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, abolishing the constitution and appointing a panel to rewrite a new charter, and having a military leader act as interim prime minister. Subsequently, a military source this morning denied that roadmap was going to be put in place or imposed today, and said, instead, they were going to gather political forces, economic and social forces’ leaders to talk. That may be what is happening right now with Mohamed ElBaradei and other people reportedly meeting with the military. It’s very unclear what is happening behind the scenes.

Everyone is waiting. But as you mentioned, violence is escalating on the streets. Yesterday was incredibly bloody. Sixteen people were killed. The Health Ministry actually updated those numbers. More than 550 people were injured. So, everyone is—this is a very tense moment in Egypt. As you can hear behind me, protesters are continuing to fill Tahrir. Protesters who support Morsi are filling other squares around Egypt. And so, the moment is very pivotal and tense.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, can you talk about how the anti-Morsi protesters, millions around the country now, not just in Cairo—how do they relate to the military? And what about the pro-Mubarak forces?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, there’s been this narrative that the Brotherhood and the military are—have been at loggerheads for decades. And in some ways that is true, ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in 1952. Two years later, in 1954, he cracked down on the Brotherhood, jailed and killed many of their leaders and banned the party. Hosni Mubarak outlawed the party, as well, and cracked down on many of them.

But I think it’s very important to remember that since the Brotherhood’s rise to power with its election to parliament, and subsequently with Mohamed Morsi’s rise as president of Egypt, there’s been very close collaboration. And the military—the Brotherhood and Morsi’s position in power is part of a political pact with the military. We have to remember that the Brotherhood did not participate in what was perhaps the biggest uprising against the military, in November 2011 in Mohamed Mahmoud, instead choosing to contest seats in the parliamentary elections. They gave the military everything and more in the constitution that they forced through, which includes military trials of civilians, the national—a dominant say over national security decisions, the control over the Defense Ministry with a stipulation that the defense minister has to come from the ranks of the armed forces, and no parliamentary oversight of its military budget. So it gave the military its own fiefdom to enjoy its economic privileges. Furthermore, in April, when a report by the fact-finding commission, that Morsi himself appointed, found that the military was responsible for the killing and torture of protesters. Instead of holding them to account, he instead offered promotions to military leaders.

So, they enjoyed a very comfortable relationship, in many ways, but I think what happened was this mass mobilization that we saw, a popular backlash against Morsi’s rule on the streets of Egypt on June 30th, forced the military to step in, because it threatened instability, a state collapse, and that in turn threatened the military’s economic privileges, which range—you know, they create—they manufacture macaroni and fertilizer, tablet laptops, you name it. So, that’s the situation right now that we’re seeing.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, what about the news of the foreign minister resigning? “Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, who in a sign of [the] quickening pace of events,” The New York Times writes, “had already submitted his resignation to [Mr.] Morsi.” And then the Brotherhood saying—a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader suggesting all those in the party who have resigned are, quote, “remnants of the Mubarak government.”

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Six Cabinet ministers have resigned, including, as you mentioned, the foreign minister. Kerry called him after he had resigned, so it shows you how fast things are moving here. Also, two spokesmen reportedly resigned, spokesmen for the presidency’s office resigned, as well. So there’s an increasing isolation of Morsi and the Brotherhood, alone in power, with a range of political forces.

You can hear the crowd behind me getting very loudly—loud. They’re screaming, “Ad-dhab!,” which means “Leave!” calling on the president to step down.

So, there is this increasing isolation of the presidency, really, in many ways, of their own making. They have not sought to engage in any kind of inclusive or consensual political process since the very beginning, instead engaging in backroom deals with people like the military. And this really began in November with a constitutional declaration that placed Morsi’s decisions outside of the reach of any courts, which really there’s been a downhill spiral since then. So this is the culmination of that. But I think it’s important to remember that the main force behind this, while there is a struggle between political elites, remnants of the former regime, the military, the police apparatus, what really is forcing change is coming from the ground up, and that is the revolutionary struggle that is continuing.

AMY GOODMAN: The question I wanted to end with you, Sharif, before we move on to the great Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, I wanted to ask you: Who is more powerful, the military or the people who are protesting now in the streets?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, if you look at the events of what’s happened, it’s the people who are forcing the military’s hand. It’s always been, since the beginning of the revolution, mass mobilizations and popular forces that have really guided what’s happened here. I think we have to divide what’s happening, the struggles that are happening. And Jack Shenker very eloquently outlined this in The Guardian, saying that there’s a political faction—political factions that are fighting amongst themselves, and that’s where you’re seeing this struggle between the army, the Brotherhood, who has become a powerful political faction, and elements of the former regime, and they’re jockeying for power in the midst of this popular backlash. But a more important struggle is the one that is coming from the ground up, and that is the rejection of authoritarianism and a paternalistic form of governance. And that has continued. We saw a rejection of Hosni Mubarak that threw him out of office, a rejection of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the army that was ruling Egypt, and now a rejection and a revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood. And they’re revolting against these authoritarian elements that deny them political and economic agency. And so, there’s these two struggles that are playing in parallel, and it’s not just a binary of the military or the Brotherhood or elements of the former regime.

AMY GOODMAN: But are the people afraid of the military, as well?


AMY GOODMAN: Are people afraid of the military, as well? I mean, we can hear the resounding calls below and the call and response in Tahrir, as you speak, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there’s—you know, there’s been a warm embrace of the military by large portions of the people here. We’ve seen helicopters fly overhead to wild cheers from the crowd, people saluting officers, even having police officers in protests with them. However, there are also other portions which completely reject the military, as well as the Brotherhood. So it’s a complicated scene. I think many people have been driven into the arms of the military, which is a stunning turnaround from just a year ago, when the resounding call of the revolution was “Down with military rule!” Now we have people calling for the military to step in and force this president from power. So, it’s a mishmash of different opinions and political views, but that have come together in this uprising.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re just about to go to break and introduce Ahdaf Soueif, but maybe you would like to just give us a little introduction to who Ahdaf is, her family, the significance of who we’re about to hear from.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we’re honored to have Ahdaf Soueif join us today. She’s a very well-known novelist who was runner-up for the Booker Prize. And her family really is one of the most revolutionary families in Egypt. Her sister is a well-known protester and dissident and activist. Her brother-in-law was jailed under Mubarak and tortured as a leftist dissident. And her nephew, Alaa Abd El Fattah, has been on Democracy Now! a number of times, a leading dissident and blogger, as well, who was jailed by Mubarak and by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and called for questioning by this current regime. Mona Seif, his sister, founded the No to Military Trials group, which is really one of the leading groups of advocacy against military trials of civilians. And so, it’s really one of the—it’s like a revolutionary royal family that she’s a part of, but also a great analyst and dissident who wrote a fantastic piece in The Guardian. And I’m happy, too, that she’s able to join us today.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we want to thank you for being with us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporting from Tahrir Square, Democracy Now! correspondent, Nation fellow.

(*) Watch this program on Democracy Now.