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Tensions Mount as Egyptian President Morsi Addresses Nation

June 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Amid growing turmoil and just days ahead of planned mass protests, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi called on his opponents to help end the country's political polarization. For an update from Cairo on the violent clashes and reaction to Morsi, Margaret Warner talks with Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight to Egypt, where there was unrest today and a major address by the country’s president.

Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: Trying to defuse growing defiance to his rule, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called on his opponents tonight to help end the country’s political polarization.

In a live speech televised nationwide, Morsi warned that if the breach isn’t healed, Egypt could slip into chaos. He did acknowledge he had made mistakes, but he also accused remnants of the old regime of fomenting anti-government violence. He spoke just days before mass protests set for Sunday on the one-year anniversary of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood assuming power.

Earlier today, two people were killed and more than 100 injured as clashes broke out between Morsi opponents and supporters.

And for more, we turn to Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers in Cairo.

Nancy, thanks for joining us.

The president’s speech ended really just about an hour ago. We saw there were throngs, thousands of people in Tahrir Square watching. What was the reaction?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, just as Morsi has been a divisive figure throughout his presidency, this speech had just a divisive reaction.

If you were in Tahrir Square, the iconic Tahrir Square, where the uprising of 2011 led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, there were chants of “leave” and cursing. In fact, you could barely hear the speech there because of all the chants.

If you were in Nasr City, which is near the presidential palace, there were cheers of support for Morsi. Those who support him saw the speech as confirmation that he needs more time, that he has been bullied by remnants of the former regime. And opponents saw this as another example of a president who wasn’t going to reach out to them.

So, in a sense, this speech really confirmed what people felt going into it. So the ultimate goal of pacifying concerns that this weekend’s protest that could turn violent, in that effort, he failed. Rather, it solidified the lines that have been here really since the early days of his presidency.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, in fact, the lines have been there since the early days of his presidency. Has it been growing? Is the polarization growing? How severe is it now, say, compared to a year ago?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, when he took office initially, he had won with 52 percent of the vote, and his popularity rating was as high as 74 percent early on.

You talk to Egyptians now, and more and more of them are frustrated by everyday problems. Today, in Egypt alone, I spoke to Egyptians who had stood in line for literally 24 hours in nearly 100-degree heat to fill up their car with gasoline. More people are hungry. More people are unemployed. The hopes and dreams of the 2000 uprising are gone. People are just looking for basic services to come back.

A good day in Egypt is one where one has water and electricity for the entire day. And so I think his popularity has clearly fallen. And in fact the poll numbers show that they’re back to Mubarak levels. But at the same time, there are people who say that the solution is not to just keep going to the streets and calling for protests, that is, that the moment of accountability is at the ballot box, not on the streets.

And that’s really what’s at stake this weekend. Who decides what the political will of this nation is, the ballot box or a popular referendum, as opponents are calling the protests that they have planned for this weekend?

MARGARET WARNER: So the protest that is planned for Sunday, which is the one-year anniversary of his taking power, does it have an objective? Or is it just to vent?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, that’s a great point.

The — one of the reasons that — that opponents have had a hard time winning over support or winning their fight to call for Morsi’s resignation is that they are disenfranchised and disorganized amongst themselves, and can’t even agree on what they want to come up of these protests.

Some will say Morsi needs to step down and be replaced by the constitutional court leader. Some will say that the army should take over again. Some will say that there should be new elections right away. Some will say that elections should happen in six months from now. So there’s really no agreement amongst them.

It’s this chorus of calls for change without really defining what that change should look like. And that’s one of the reasons that Morsi has been able to hold onto power in a way that I think most people here wouldn’t have expected had there been a viable opposition movement here.

MARGARET WARNER: And you mentioned the army. What has been the army’s role in all this? I gather that the army chief made a — issued kind of a warning on Sunday to both sides in this conflict.

NANCY YOUSSEF: That’s right.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi in August, said that both sides needed to come to some sort of reconciliation. He gave them a week deadline. And, in fact, Morsi in his speech tonight called for a committee, a reconciliation committee.

He also said, though, that the military would only intervene if it turned into a — quote, unquote — “uncontrollable conflict,” no matter who started it. That is, if the Brotherhood and the Morsi supporters instigate violence, they will defend Morsi opponents, and if Morsi opponents start to shoot at the Brotherhood and Morsi supporters, they will stop that.

And, so, that the military spoke up, it is a very big deal in this country, because it’s the most revered institution here, and really seen as the last nationalist force here that could actually serve as an arbiter in what’s become a protracted conflict that has really defined Morsi’s first year in office.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what’s the atmosphere like, at least in Cairo and elsewhere, as this weekend approaches?

NANCY YOUSSEF: It’s very tense.

In 2011, when the uprising started, it began as an effort to rid the police of corruption and evolved into a call for Mubarak’s fall, whereas here, it’s starting as — already as a call by many for Morsi to step down. And so there’s a real feeling of tension. Grocery stores are empty. People are stocking up on food, on water, on ammunition in some cases.

People are looking down in their homes. People are trying to find gasoline wherever they can. And there’s a real expectation of violence.

And when you ask Egyptians why is it OK for people to die, they will say, we might have to die to get rid of Morsi, that he will not leave easily and that this is the price to really bring about a revolution in Egypt.

So it really is the most tense that I have that ever seen this country. And I think that’s why this speech was the most important speech delivered since Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Nancy Youssef with McClatchy, that’s saying quite something.

Thank you so much.