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Dispirited Egyptian Oppositions Gain Momentum With Palace Protests

December 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The opposition to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi felt a change in their spirits after descending on the presidential palace to protest. Jeffrey Brown talks to Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers from Cairo about the role of the police and military in the conflict and the upcoming constitutional referendum.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I spent to Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers in Cairo.

Nancy, thanks for joining us again.

You have been at these protests all day. Describe the scene.

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, it started today as a protest that was supposed to only be at the presidential palace by opponents of Mohammed Morsi’s constitutional decree giving himself absolute judicial power and his decision to hold a constitutional referendum December 15.

And then, this morning, the protesters decided to expand it to Tahrir Square. And just a couple of hours ago, it moved to the headquarters of the state news services. The most interesting protest was at the presidential palace, because protesters there were able to take down the barbed wire protecting the palace, move towards it, commandeer a police truck, and it appeared to actually get some of the police officers on their side.

And so it was a real momentum changer I think for opponents here, who had really felt kind of dispirited by some of the events here. The judges who had said they wouldn’t hold the referendum announced yesterday that they would.

And just on Saturday, Morsi supporters, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, came out in the hundreds of thousands all over Cairo.

And so I think what happened at the palace today really boosted the confidence and spirits of those who believe that Morsi’s gone too far and that he’s not representing all of Egypt, but instead just his core constituency, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who are they this time? Who are the protesters that are coming out in such numbers?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, it was a somewhat diverse group. I think what was notable is the absence of Islamists.

There were a lot of liberals and secularists, Christians, moderates, people who perhaps voted for Morsi during the election because they didn’t want to vote for his counterpart, Ahmed Shafiq, as he had been a member of former President Hosni Mubarak’s government, and are now angry that this man who was supposed to really represent the demands of the revolution instead has really only served his base.

And so we’re starting to see a little bit more diversity in the crowds than we saw even a week ago, when it was so clearly liberal and so clearly members of the Christian community and other minority groups.

We’re starting to see a little bit more diversity, but not enough to suggest that that core base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which makes up such a big part of the population here, has broken in any real way from Mohammed Morsi.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the police. I wonder about their role and even more about the military. Those were big questions, of course, two years ago when the Mubarak regime fell. What do we know at this point?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, those are two big questions now. What I saw were police who, in a matter of minutes, went from taking the abuse of protesters yelling at them that they were defending a dictator to actually joking and joining along with the protesters, which is pretty extraordinary.

The key question will be what the military does, because they remain the nation’s arbitrator in this conflict and in this dispute, and in all disputes really in Egypt and who side that they take, whether they will continue to back Morsi or side on the revolution.

As you point out, the military was key two years ago. While the 18 days of protesters played a big, big role, it wasn’t until the military essentially said to Mubarak you have to go that things really changed. And so I think they continue to play a key role. And it’s one of the things we’re waiting to see.

Up until now, we haven’t seen any indications from them one way or the other. And, in fact, they denied a report that they were defending the presidential palace.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, Nancy, what about the referendum on the 15th? Have opposition groups figured out how they’re going to respond? Are they going to vote against it or boycott or try to stop it? What’s the situation? What’s known?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, you raise a very important point, which is that where Mohammed Morsi’s backers are really unified behind the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains the best-organized group here in Egypt, the opponents aren’t as organized. And they haven’t even named a leader.

What we’re hearing from the people that we talk to is those who had boycotted the elections are now saying they plan to vote no against the referendum on Dec. 15. They argue that the constitution was written by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constitutional assembly, that it doesn’t represent their interests.

And, in fact, when you read the 234-article document, it leaves a lot of things to the parliament. And I think opponents here fear that what they’re doing is passing a constitution that a then Muslim-dominated parliament would act on and actually change laws.

For example, the constitution says that the government can’t read your e-mail unless regulated by law. There are 33 instances of this in the constitution. And it would be, of course, the parliament that writes the law.

And so there’s a lot of concern that this isn’t a longstanding, clear contract between the people in the government, but really another way for the Brotherhood to expand its power grab here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nancy Youssef of McClatchy in Cairo, thanks so much.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thanks.