Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi pleaded Wednesday night with his countrymen to give him more time to solve his country’s many ills, arguing in what many believe was the most important speech of his political life that Egypt cannot change leaders every year.
Morsi’s televised address, which lasted more than two and a half hours and did not end until after midnight, came on a day when building tensions were obvious ahead of the first anniversary Sunday of his inauguration. Motorists waited for hours to buy gasoline in lines that stretched for miles, tanks took up positions on Cairo street corners, and residents nationwide braced for what they fear will be prolonged civil unrest as Morsi supporters and opponents plan for competing demonstrations.
“All I ask is for you to listen, discuss, put the nation’s interest above anything else,” Morsi said in a speech that opened with verses from the Quran, well wishes to Muslims for the upcoming holy month of Ramadan and gratitude to those who lost their lives during the 2011 uprising that ended the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak.
But the rambling speech also showed why Morsi has had such a hard time closing divisions between his Islamist backers, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the liberals, secularists and former regime officials who oppose his rule.
Twenty-four minutes into his speech, Morsi mocked former members of the regime. Later on he blamed the news media for Egypt’s declining image in the world. He blamed protests for the collapse of the tourism industry. He accused thieves of stealing gasoline and causing the current shortage, and he called on Egyptians to use 10 percent less electricity to help stave off the current power shortage.
He tried to portray himself as empathetic to those who stood in line for hours to buy gasoline. “I of course come and go in the street and I see people’s suffering for myself,” he said. “I would like to go and stand in a line. I’m upset about it.”
But he also portrayed himself as a victim who’s been insulted for a year. “Every time we solve the problem it comes back,” he said.
He ticked off what he saw as the successes of his administration. He said the first law he enacted was to ban the imprisonment of journalists. He said his administration had provided health insurance to children, had advocated a doubling of the minimum wage, and had appointed experts to key Cabinet posts. He boasted he’d done more for the Egyptian economy than had been done for the past 60 years.
In an appeal to opponents, Morsi said he would appoint a broad-based committee to make changes to the constitution that was hastily passed in December. He also said he would create a national reconciliation committee to break the political impasse.
Yet the speech often seemed unfocused. Ninety-seven minutes in, he gossiped about how businessman Ahmed Baghat has a lot of outstanding debts.
The performance seemed unlikely to calm the two sides. Inside the hall where Morsi spoke, supporters saw a man who defended himself against rumors and unfair charges, and they cheered. A crowd outside the presidential palace also yelled its support.
But in iconic Tahrir Square, where the demonstrations that toppled Mubarak began, spectators could barely hear the speech over chants of “Leave!”
Huge protests are expected in the next few days – Friday, by Morsi’s supporters, and Sunday by his detractors.
But violent demonstrations already were underway before Morsi spoke. At least two people were killed and nearly 200 were injured in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura in protests.
How the next several days will play out is anyone’s guess. There is no mechanism for Morsi’s removal, and his supporters say Egypt’s moment of accountability happened a year ago, when he became the nation’s first democratically elected president. Those who oppose him can speak again three years from now during the next presidential election, they say.
Opponents, however, are demanding that Morsi step down. They say Sunday’s scheduled protests count as a referendum on his rule. Egypt cannot wait three more years, they say. Some have called for a military takeover; others want the head of the High Constitutional Court to govern until presidential elections can be held again. There is a growing chorus for change of any kind.
“Only the military is strong enough to lead this country,” said trucker Mohammed Saad, 53, during the 21st hour of his wait for gasoline.
Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, the defense minster and commander of the armed forces appointed by Morsi in August, offered an ominous speech Saturday, saying his forces would intervene if there was “uncontrollable conflict,” no matter which side was responsible. The military controlled the country between Mubarak’s ouster and Morsi’s presidency but has suggested it is reticent to do so again. Sissi’s simple short speech, in local dialect, was a sharp contrast to Morsi’s prolonged lecture in formal Arabic.
Morsi won the presidency with 52 percent of the vote, and early on his popularity rose as high as 74 percent. But since then, the economy has been flailing and Morsi has been unwilling or unable to pacify his opposition. Morsi’s approval numbers now hover around 25 percent, similar to Mubarak’s figures in the months before the 2011 uprising.
To be sure, there will be thousands in the streets in support of Morsi during Friday’s planned demonstrations, many galvanized by the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, opponents already have begun erecting tents around the country in what many believe will be a days-long campaign of protests, much like the 18 days in 2011 that led to Mubarak’s ouster.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed to this report.