The political lines are now starkly drawn. The country is polarized, and the stakes are high. Defying millions of protesters’ demands for his resignation in a fiery speech late Tuesday night, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi refused to resign and offered no new proposals for sharing power. Declaring himself Egypt’s only “legitimate” elected ruler, Morsi said he was willing to “sacrifice” his own blood to protect the presidency. He warned the army not to re-inject itself in politics, as his Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen vowed to fight to defend him.
The army, meanwhile, has continued demanding that Morsi compromise with the opposition and respond to their demands by Wednesday, while spokesmen for the protesters insist that Morsi step down—that it’s too late for a political deal. Anything could happen now.
Yet what appears to be the largest popular protest in history has been inspiring for those seeking a modern, civil future for Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous nation and self-proclaimed “mother of the world.” The military’s deadline for political compromise may be as fluid as the volatile protests themselves, but the millions of Egyptians who have rallied again in Tahrir Square and in cities and villages throughout Egypt have articulated in chants and banners a clear and uncompromising demand to Morsi: “Irhal!” or “Go Away!” Organizers of the grass-roots Tamarod (“Rebel”) movement say that their petition demanding that Morsi resign has been signed by over 22 million people—nearly twice the number who brought him to office.
The Egyptian military appeared to be offering Morsi a face-saving way out of office that did not exclude the Muslim Brotherhood’s future participation in the nation’s politics. He has now rejected these overtures. But the chants of millions show that he has worn out his welcome in this country of more than 85 million. Egyptians don’t want to be ruled by an Islamic pharaoh—let alone, in this case, an incompetent one.
Economists say that this unprecedented protest—larger than that which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak two years ago—is about shortages of subsidized bread, gasoline, and cooking oil. Unemployment is officially over 13 percent; among young Egyptians, it’s twice that. Hard-currency reserves have plunged by more than half since Morsi’s narrow election victory almost a year ago. So yes, there is an economic underpinning to the calls for his resignation.
But make no mistake: This rebellion is not about shortages alone. Protesters in Tahrir have been chanting demands for a “Modern Civil Society”—a phrase that rhymes in Arabic. It’s not a demand for “secular” rule; Egyptians remain God-fearing people. They don’t want to expel Allah from their lives or from all aspects of their politics. But they are fed up with President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement’s effort to use God as a political weapon to legitimize an authoritarian power grab.
On Tuesday afternoon, a rumor spread in Cairo—and there are many going around—that Morsi had left the Presidential Palace and was being “protected” by the Presidential Guard, in other words, by the military. But his defiant speech seemed designed to box the army in—to make the military responsible for any blood that may be shed. Also on Tuesday, “sources” inside the Egyptian military told Reuters that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had already drafted a “political roadmap” if the Muslim Brotherhood–led government cannot agree on a power-sharing formula with the quarrelsome opposition parties. But can the military impose its will?
Despite his defiance, many in the street maintain that Morsi, dubbed “Morsillini” by Cairo’s chattering class, is a political dead man walking—his departure is inevitable. If so, Egyptians will get a second chance to prevent their Arab Spring from becoming a permanent Islamist winter. Much will depend on whether the fragmented, fractious secular opposition can agree on an alternative tactical and strategic course for Egypt. When I was in Cairo four months ago, political activists joked that the opposition National Salvation Front needed salvation itself.
So far, the Obama administration seems to be playing its limited cards well. President Obama has said that Egyptians, not Americans, must choose Egypt’s government, suggesting that America remains neutral in this monumental power struggle. But, tipping his hand in favor of the protesters, Obama also said that democracy means more than winning elections. Indeed, democracy demands a civil society—equality, fairness, tolerance, respect for human and minority rights, and individual freedom. That’s just what Egyptians are demanding, and what the Muslim Brotherhood has denied them during its hapless rule.