With protests, Egyptians mark uprising anniversary
CAIRO (AP) — Two years after Egypt’s revolution began, the country’s schism was on display Friday as the mainly liberal and secular opposition held rallies saying the goals of the pro-democracy uprising have not been met and denouncing Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
With the anniversary, Egypt is definitively in the new phase of its upheaval.
From the revolt that began Jan. 25, 2011 and led to the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the country has moved into a deeply divisive struggle between ruling Islamists, who say a string of election victories the past year gives them to right to reshape Egypt, and their opponents, who say Islamists are moving to take complete power.
Overshadowing their struggle is an economy in free-fall that threatens to fuel public discontent. The vital tourism sector has slumped, investment shriveled, foreign currency reserves have tumbled and prices are on the rise, with more pain likely in the coming months if the government moves to implement new austerity measures.
In Cairo’s central Tahrir square, where the January 2011 uprising was born, and the area outside Morsi’s palace in the city’s Heliopolis district were rapidly filling up with protesters by Friday afternoon. There were similar if smaller crowds in central squares in the Mediterranean cities of Alexandria and Port Said as well as the Mehalla in the Nile Delta, Suez at the southern entrance of the Suez Canal, Assiut and Luxor in the south and Fayoum southwest of Cairo.
The crowds chanted the iconic slogans of the revolt against Mubarak, this time directed against Morsi — “Erha! Erhal!” or “leave, leave” and “the people want to topple the regime.”
Clashes broke out for a second day on some side streets near Tahrir and police fired tear gas to disperse the young men throwing stones. There were also clashes in Alexandria and Suez, and In the Delta town of Menouf protesters blocked off railway lines, disrupting train services to and from Cairo. Some two thousand demonstrators also surrounded the colossal state TV and radio building in central Cairo, chanting slogans against Morsi and his Brotherhood.
The immediate goal of the protesters is a show of strength to push Morsi to amend the constitution, which was pushed through by his Islamist allies and rushed through a national referendum. But more broadly, protesters are trying to show the extent of public anger against what they call the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization Morsi hails from, which they say is taking over the state rather than setting up a broad-based democracy.
“I am asking everyone to go out and demonstrate to show that the revolution must be completed and that the revolution must continue,” opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said in a televised message posted on his party’s website.
“There must be a constitution for all Egyptians. A constitution that every one of us sees himself in it,” said the Nobel peace Laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Unlike in 2012, when both sides made a show of marking Jan. 25 — though, granted, not together — the Brotherhood stayed off the streets for Friday’s anniversary. The group said it would honor the occasion with acts of public service, like treating the sick and planting trees. The Brotherhood’s ultraconservative allies known as Salafis are also staying off the streets. Their absence may reduce, but not entirely remove, the possibility of violence.
The night before, Morsi gave a televised speech that showed the extent of the estrangement between the two sides. He denounced what he called a “counter-revolution” that is “being led by remnants of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime to obstruct everything in the country.”
Brotherhood officials have increasingly depicted the opposition as undemocratic, trying to use the streets to overturn an elected leadership.
In another sign of the increasingly bitter tone, new militia-like groups opposed to the Islamists have declared in video messages posted on social networks this week their intention to defend the opposition protesters if attacked. At least 10 people were killed and hundreds injured in December when Morsi’s supporters descended upon protesters camped outside his palace, starting clashes that lasted for hours with firebombs, swords, knifes and firearms.
Police and protesters near Cairo’s central Tahrir square were clashing for the second successive day on Friday, with police using tear gas. Clashes began in Cairo on Thursday when the protesters tried to dismantle a concrete wall erected by police to protect the nearby buildings housing parliament and the Cabinet. Scores were injured.
The demands of Friday’s protesters vary. Some on the extremist fringe of Egypt’s loosely knit opposition want Morsi to step down and the constitution adopted last month rescinded. Others are calling for the document to be amended and early presidential elections held.
Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer, took office in June after a narrow election victory with just under 52 percent of the vote to become the country’s first freely elected president.
On the horizon are key elections to choose a new lower house of parliament. The opposition is hoping it can leverage public anger into a substantial bloc in the legislature, but it is still trying to weld together an effective campaign coalition in the face of Islamists’ strength at the ballot box.
Last winter, the Brotherhood and Salafis won around 75 percent of the lower house’s seats, though the body was later disbanded by court order.
Opponents say Morsi and his Islamist backers have taken that election mandate too far, accusing the secretive, closed Muslim Brotherhood of simply stepping in to fill the shoes of Mubarak’s ousted ruling party, only now with a conservative religious bent.
The most glaring example is the constitution itself: Islamists finalized the draft in a rushed, all-night meeting, throwing in amendments to fit their needs, then pushed it through a swift referendum in which only a third of voters participated. The result is a document that could bring a much stricter implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, than modern Egypt has ever seen.
At the same time, Morsi has kept government policy-making and the choice of appointments almost entirely within the Brotherhood. Members and supporters of the group are being installed bit by bit throughout the state infrastructure — from governor posts, to chiefs of state TV and newspapers, down to preachers in state-run mosques.
“Egypt is in a bad place, It’s been wholly consumed with issues of power, and governance has been left by the wayside. None of this had to be,” said Michael W. Hanna, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. “It was a conscious decision to eschew reform by consensus. … For them (the Brotherhood) it’s not about reform it’s about power.”
In Egypt, the danger for the Brotherhood now is that it stands alone as it faces the difficult task of stopping the accelerating slide of the economy. That will require some highly unpopular decisions, including raising taxes and reducing subsidies on fuel and basic foodstuffs. Morsi’s government has so far not put forward a cohesive plan, and public anger is growing over mounting prices, unemployment and poverty.
If Morsi and the Brotherhood can’t fix the economy, they may try to keep the support of their Islamist base by focusing instead on “the culture war,” pushing through a religious agenda of stricter Shariah and more sectarian rhetoric against Egypt’s Christian minority, warns Hanna. “We’ll see more polarized politics, and that’s a bad omen for actually governing,” he said.
Syrian regime urges opposition, refugees to return
BEIRUT (AP) — Twin car bombs in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights have killed eight people, activists said Friday as the government called on those who fled the country during the civil war to return, including regime opponents.
The persistent violence and the moribund peace plan offered by President Bashar Assad — now enforced by his appeal to refugees and political opponents to come back — underlines the intractable nature of the 22-month conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people and left the international community at a loss to find a way to end the bloodshed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two cars packed with explosives blew up near a military intelligence building in the town of Quneitra on Thursday, killing eight. Most of the dead were members of the Syrian military, the Observatory said. The Syrian government has not commented on the attacks.
There was no claim of responsibility for the blasts. Car bombs and suicide attacks targeting Syrian troops and government institutions have been the hallmark of Islamic militants fighting in Syria alongside rebels trying to topple Assad.
Quneitra is on the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel, which controls most of the Golan Heights after capturing the strategic territory from Syria in the 1967 war.
Since the conflict began, more than half million Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Those who left include opposition activists and defectors, both ordinary soldiers and army officers who switched to the rebel side, which is fighting to topple Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
The state-run SANA news agency said the government will help hundreds of thousands of citizens return whether they left “legally or illegally.” Syrian opposition figures abroad who want to take part in reconciliation talks will also be allowed back, according to an Interior Ministry statement carried by SANA late Thursday.
If they “have the desire to participate in the national dialogue, they would be allowed to enter Syria,” the ministry said.
The proposed talks are part of Assad’s initiative to end the conflict that started as peaceful protests in March 2011 but turned into a civil war. Tens of thousands of activists, their family members and opposition supporters remain jailed by the regime, according to international activist groups.
Opposition leaders, who have repeatedly rejected any talks that include Assad, could not immediately be reached to comment the Syrian regime’s latest appeal. The opposition — including the rebels fighting on the ground — insists he must step down. Their demand is backed by the international community, but Assad clings to power, vowing to crush the armed opposition.
Both sides remain convinced they can win militarily, and while Assad’s forces maintain control over the capital, the rebels have in recent weeks captured large swaths of territory in the country’s north and east, including parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its main commercial hub.
Also Friday, regime troops shelled Homs and soldiers battled rebels around the central province with the same name, which was a major frontline during the first year of the revolt. An amateur video posted online by activists showed rockets slamming into buildings in the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the provincial capital, Homs. The sound of heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.
Another video showed thick black and grey smoke rising from a building in the besieged city. “The city of Homs is burning… Day and night, the shelling of Homs doesn’t stop,” the narrator is heard saying.
Troops also battled rebels around Damascus in an effort to dislodge opposition fighters who have set up enclaves in towns and villages around the capital. The troops fired artillery shells at several districts, including on Zabadani and Daraya, according to the Observatory.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime warplanes carried out airstrikes on the suburb of Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held ground near Damascus.
Both groups depend on a network of activists on the ground around the country.
As violence in the past weeks continued unabated in the south and in central Syria, thousands have been fleeing their homes daily, according to aid agencies, seeking shelter in Jordan and Lebanon, where authorities have struggled to cope with the unprecedented refugee influx.
The Britain-based Save the Children said Friday that 10,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, fled to Jordan over the last 24 hours due to intense fighting between troops and rebels in southern parts of the country, including in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad first erupted.
More than 3,000 of those have reached Jordan’s overcrowded Zaatari refugee camp, where five buses, crammed with “frightened and exhausted people who fled with what little they could carry,” pull up every hour, according to Saba al-Mobasat, an aid worker of Save the Children in Zaatari.
Last month, the United Nations refugee agency said it needed $1 billion to aid Syrians in the region, while $500 million was required to help refugees in Jordan. The UNHCR says 597,240 refugees have registered or are awaiting registration with the agency in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some countries have higher estimates, noting many have found accommodations without registering.
Jordan hosts more than 300,000 Syrians.