CAIRO — Egypt’s Islamist president has been significantly weakened by a week of violent protests across much of the country, with his popularity eroding, the powerful military implicitly criticizing him and some of his ultraconservative Islamist backers distancing themselves from him.
In his seven months since becoming Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi has weathered a series of crises. But the liberal opposition is now betting the backlash against him is so severe that he and his Muslim Brotherhood will be forced to change their ways, breaking what critics say is their monopolizing of power.
Critics claim that Morsi’s woes are mostly self-inflicted, calling him overconfident and out of sync with the public. Now the relatively high death toll — around 60 — the spread of protests and the use of excessive force by the police are feeding a wave of anger at the Egyptian leader and the Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which he hails and which is the foundation of his administration.
Morsi did not help matters when he addressed the nation Sunday night in a brief but angry address in which he at times screamed and wagged his finger. In that speech, he slapped a 30-day state of emergency and curfew on three Suez Canal provinces hit the hardest by the violence and vowed to take even harsher measures if peace is not restored.
In response, the three cities defied the president in a rare open rebellion that handed him an embarrassing loss of face.
Thousands in the cities of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez took to the streets on Monday and Tuesday just as the 9 p.m. curfew went into force. Underlining their contempt for him, they played soccer games, stores stayed open and there were even firework displays — all while troops deployed in Port Said and Suez stood by and watched.
Morsi was forced to back down somewhat and authorized the local governors to ease the measures. All three quickly did on Wednesday, reducing the hours of curfew from nine hours to as short as three.
The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, demands Morsi create a national unity government and rewrite controversial parts of the constitution that the Brotherhood and other Islamists rammed through to approval last month. A broader government, they insist, is the only way to ease the violence and start dealing with Egypt’s mounting woes — particularly, an economy many fear is collapsing.
The liberals gained an unusual ally Wednesday: one of the main political parties of the ultraconservative Islamist movement known as Salafis, the al-Nour Party, which has usually supported Morsi.
Morsi appears to see no need for concessions. On a quick visit to Germany on Wednesday, he downplayed the significance of the week’s violence. “What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy,” Morsi said.
There is no need to form a unity government, he added, because a new government will be formed after parliament elections — expected in April at the earliest.
Morsi’s reply to critics who demand he widen the circle of decision-making has been to invite opponents to a national dialogue conference to discuss key issues. Almost all opposition parties have refused, calling the conference window-dressing for Brotherhood domination. The conference has held multiple sessions, mainly attended by Morsi’s Islamist allies.
Morsi’s supporters — and some of his aides — accuse the opposition of condoning violence and trying to overturn the democratic results of elections that brought Morsi and the Brotherhood to power.
Meanwhile, anger on the streets is mounting. Politicians may call for a unity government, but a growing bloc of the protesters say Morsi must go outright.
The wave of resentment has engulfed the three Canal cities along with Cairo, Alexandria on the Mediterranean and a string of cities to the north and south of the capital. Protesters have clashed with police, cut off roads and railway lines, and besieged government offices and police stations.
The fury has been further fanned by reports that the police in Port Said at the northern tip of the Suez Canal randomly fired at protesters, killing innocent bystanders. In Cairo, protesters are seething over what they call the excessive use of tear gas and birdshot in clashes that have left three dead and hundreds injured.
Some protesters now demand Morsi be tried for killing protesters just as Mubarak before him was. Mubarak was convicted in June and sentenced to life in prison for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 2011 uprising against him. On appeal, a court has ordered his retrial.
“This man (Morsi) is responsible for the killings but no one is trying him. Is he above the law?” said Ashraf Helmi, a protester in Port Said.
In Cairo, protester Mabrouk Hassan Abu-Zeid, 26, said he expected things to get so much worse.
“A failed state? I see much more than that on the horizon. There could be a revolution by the hungry,” he said near Tahrir Square as fellow protesters hurled stones at police firing tear gas.
In comments to cadets on Tuesday, the army chief and defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, made what was seen by many as an implicit warning to Morsi that he must do something.
He said if political forces can’t end their difference over how to run the country, it “could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations.”
There was no threat, implicit or otherwise, of a coup in the comments by el-Sissi, who many in Egypt suspected to have made a deal with Morsi when the president appointed him in August.
But military analyst and retired army general Hossam Sweilam said they conveyed the “gravity” of the situation and the possibility that it could a reach point where the armed forces could no longer stand by without intervening.
“Gen. el-Sissi understands the Brotherhood well and they will not be able to play him,” he said. “Even if he was loyal to them at some point in the past, he is aware now that he is being closely watched by his own men.”
Egypt’s military saw its reputation tainted in the nearly 17 months it spent at the helm following Mubarak’s ouster, with rights activists blaming the generals for mismanaging the transition to democratic rule and widespread human rights abuses. The top brass handed over power to Morsi following his June election, but tried to keep many of his powers.
Morsi struck back in August, forcing out the army chief and replacing him with el-Sissi.
The military remains widely popular and revered as the nation’s protector. Some privately speak of their wish to see the military rid them of Morsi, his Brotherhood and other Islamists, provided the army’s rule is short.
Now Salafis appear less willing to stand by Morsi, who has relied heavily on their support. Salafis won nearly 25 percent of parliament’s seats in elections held in late 2011 and early 2012, in which the Brotherhood won around 50 percent.
After his talks with the Salvation Front on Wednesday, al-Nour Party leader Younis Makhyoun told reporters that Egypt must not be left in the hands of “a single faction,” a thinly veiled reference to Morsi and his Brotherhood.
“There must be a real partnership,” he added.
It is not clear at this stage how durable any cooperation would be between the Front and al-Nour, which are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Al-Nour and other Salafis were key in ensuring passage of the constitution, which has a distinct Islamist slant and which liberals vehemently oppose. Salafis also push relentlessly for strict implementation of Shariah in Egypt, a mainly Muslim nation of 85 million people, and take a hardline stand on the rights of women and minority Christians.
But Salafis, too, worry about domination by the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood is so confident in its own strength it thinks it doesn’t need anyone’s support, said Hamada Nassar, a spokesman for the political arm of the onetime jihadist Gamaa Islamiya group.
“The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in the street is eroding,” he said, “but its leaders think that if they nominate a rock to run for parliament, it will win.”