Several thousand Egyptians rallied today in the first significant protests against the country’s Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, accusing him and his Muslim Brotherhood group of trying to monopolise power.
The main protest in Cairo, which counted around 3,000 people and converged on the presidential palace from several locations, drew a far smaller turnout than the mass demonstrations that helped topple Mr Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, or the later rallies against the council of generals that took power after Mubarak’s fall.
While the turnout was low for Friday’s rally in Cairo, as well as similar ones in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and elsewhere, the protests point to the fears many Egyptians feel with the Islamist president and his policies, and reflect the deep divide in Egyptian society over the country’s future direction under Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Other than minor scuffles, the demonstrations in Cairo were peaceful. However, a mob wielding knives and sticks attacked around 1,000 anti-Brotherhood protesters in Alexandria. Several people were wounded and someone in the crowd lit a flare that sent clouds of smoke into the air. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.
Protesters accuse Mr Morsi of monopolising power and say that he exceeded his authority when he assumed legislative powers after forcing senior generals into retirement following a deadly attack this month by militants that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula.
The protesters in Cairo appeared to be largely made up of supporters of the former regime and those calling for Egypt to remain a secular state. Notably absent, however, were Egypt’s liberal and secular parties as well as the youth activists who helped engineer last year’s uprising against Mubarak.
In Cairo, protesters carried Egypt’s red, white and black flags and signs that read “Down with Brotherhood rule” while chanting “illegitimate” in reference to Mr Morsi’s wide-sweeping powers.
Khairy Hassan, an English teacher taking part in the rally in Tahrir Square, accused the Brotherhood of betraying the people.
“What is happening from the Brotherhood is not accepted by logic or by people,” Hassan said. “What is happening is the ’Brotherhoodisation’ of the government.”
Days before Mr Morsi was sworn in as president in late June, Egypt’s then-ruling generals who were locked in a power struggle with the Islamists dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament after the Supreme Court ruled that a third of the legislature was elected illegally.
The Mubarak-appointed generals also granted themselves legislative powers and the right to form the committee that would draft Egypt’s new constitution – a stab at guaranteeing the military power over the future direction of the country.
Earlier this month Mr Morsi struck back, pushing the most senior generals into retirement and giving himself full legislative powers, adding to the executive authority he already held as president.
Protesters also took aim at the Brotherhood, saying it does not have the legal status to operate as a non-governmental organisation as required by law and complaining that the group’s finances are out of government purview.
The Brotherhood’s political arm, though, known as the Freedom and Justice Party, was formed after the uprising and does have legal status.
The Brotherhood has been in existence for more than 80 years and did not register itself in Egypt in the past because it was outlawed and persecuted under previous regimes.
“The Muslim Brotherhood should not be above the Egyptian law,” said protester Mohamed Amin. “They have to adhere to the Egyptian law pertaining to political parties, civil societies and associations by paying taxes.”
The Brotherhood, which has on numerous occasions in the past 17 months demonstrated its ability to mobilise thousands of people into the streets, called upon its members to secure the group’s offices in case of attacks by protesters after some had called for violence against Brotherhood property.