Nearing One Year In, Egypt's Leader Is Besieged by Critics

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CAIRO -- Across Egypt, angry crowds have barred President Mohamed Morsi's appointees from their offices, millions have signed petitions calling for his ouster and work crews have fortified the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood that propelled him to power to prevent attacks the police have failed to stop.

As the one-year anniversary of Mr. Morsi's inauguration as Egypt's first freely elected president approaches, he faces widespread discontent from a swath of society and stinging grass-roots campaigns that have undermined his ability to wield power and address the country's most pressing problems.

"If I were a ruler, I would be very concerned about this, because the street is out of your control," said Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. "It is out of everyone's control."

Mr. Morsi inherited a dysfunctional state, one worn down by decades of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian system, which marginalized the masses and empowered and enriched an elite few. But during his year in office, life has grown only harder. Now as the summer heat arrives and the holy month of Ramadan approaches, power cuts, gas shortages and rising food costs have made the crisis a profoundly personal matter for many citizens.

"The whole country is sinking, and it is people like us who feel it the most," said Emad Mohammed, who reupholsters chairs in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Deir al-Malak. He said that all of his costs had risen and that drivers charged more for deliveries because buying gas means waiting in hourlong lines.

All of this has left Mr. Morsi with few allies beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. This week the country's top Muslim cleric rebuffed those who called anti-Morsi protests un-Islamic and declared it religiously permissible to protest peacefully against one's leaders, and the patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Church publicly criticized Mr. Morsi's performance.

And the situation may soon grow even worse for the president. Egypt's disparate and disorganized opposition is calling for mass protests on June 30. Many worry that demonstrations could inflame the country's intensely polarized politics and ignite new unrest, further weakening the nation.

Mr. Morsi and his allies argue that he still has electoral legitimacy and that the opposition has rebuffed his efforts to reach out, leaving him no choice but to rely on Brotherhood members for support and top posts. They also say post-revolution difficulties are no surprise.

"When it comes to our current performance, we had hoped to do better, but the challenges are great and we believe that nobody could have performed better," said Murad Ali, a spokesman for Mr. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party.

Egypt's economy has been declining since the revolution, with unrest chasing away investors and tourists. Foreign currency reserves are half of what they were under Mr. Mubarak. The country's stock exchange hit an 11-month low last week, Reuters reported, and the Egyptian pound has fallen by 10 percent since last year.

Analysts describe the government as stuck in a downward spiral: its weakness prevents it from taking decisive measures, which allows the situation to get worse, which causes more discontent.

For months, the government has been negotiating a $4.8 billion loan on fairly easy terms from the International Monetary Fund. The thinking is that if the I.M.F. approved a loan, that could give the government the credibility it needs to unlock billions more dollars in aid and loans. But if a deal is reached, it will probably mean reducing subsidies for energy -- a step many fear will incite the public.

Ragui Assaad, an economist at the University of Minnesota who studies Egypt, said such a deal had been possible in other countries -- but only when there had been a strong government.

"There are ways to do it, but you need a credible government so that when you say people will be compensated, they believe you," he said.

But it is just that -- credibility -- that Mr. Morsi is struggling to regain as protesters challenge his authority across the country.

His newly appointed culture minister has not entered his office in two weeks since demonstrators who accuse him of trying to "Brotherhoodize" the ministry occupied the building.

Mr. Morsi seemed to aggravate the situation this week when he appointed 17 new governors, 7 from the Muslim Brotherhood, setting off protests in many cities as activists burned tires, chained shut doors and blocked some new appointees from reaching their offices while besieging others inside, the state news media reported.

In the city of Tanta, clashes between Brotherhood members and protesters left 32 people wounded.

In Luxor, the naming of a member of the Gamaa al-Islamiyya, a group that once carried out terrorist attacks in the same area, prompted carriage drivers to block the city's Nile-front boulevard. Egypt's tourism minister threatened to resign in protest, though it was unclear on Thursday if he had left his post.

Harnessing the anti-Morsi feeling is a grass-roots campaign that claims to have collected millions of signatures calling for Mr. Morsi to step down.

The group's volunteers have fanned out to cities across the country to gather signatures, holding signs that read "Leave!" The group says it will present its final petition to Egypt's Constitutional Court to request that it withdraw confidence from Mr. Morsi and appoint an interim president to lead until new elections.

The campaign has exasperated Mr. Morsi's supporters, who have initiated a countercampaign and accuse the opposition of being antidemocratic. The Muslim Brotherhood is planning its own rally on Friday under the banner of "No to violence," although activists on both sides acknowledge that the anniversary protests could lead to clashes.

"When George W. Bush had a 22 percent approval rating, Americans didn't talk about early presidential elections," one aide to Mr. Morsi said.

Mr. Morsi himself has dismissed the opposition as antirevolutionary and loyal to the old government.

"With the current state of polarization and without reaching an understanding or working together, we will reach hell and kill each other in the streets," said Mr. Ali, the spokesman for Mr. Morsi's party.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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