Egypt's Morsi courts hardline Islamists ahead of mass opposition rallies

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CAIRO, Egypt — As Egypt counts down to mass opposition protests this Sunday, the increasingly isolated president, Mohamed Morsi, is moving to rally his Islamist base.

Protesters are planning large demonstrations across Egypt June 30, stirred by the grassroots Tamarod (Rebellion) movement that is calling for the president to step down on the anniversary of his inauguration. They claim to have collected 15 million signatures for a petition to overthrow the leader.

But Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, hopes his Islamist political allies will act as a counterweight to the secular and liberal opponents gearing up for his ouster. The moves are even stoking sectarianism, critics say.

On Friday, thousands of Morsi supporters and opponents across the country held rallies ahead of the weekend protests, with clashes sometimes turning violent.

“We are seeing a clear attempt to mobilize the Islamist street behind Morsi,” said Dr. Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “He now feels that he has lost secular and liberal support and so this is the only way to maintain power.”

Many Egyptians have grown frustrated with Morsi, who has presided over a period of instability and economic decline.

In a two-hour long speech Wednesday night, Morsi insisted he is in fact a revolutionary. But instead of the revolution’s goals of “bread, freedom and social justice,” Egypt has seen food prices skyrocket, press freedoms limited, and growing crime and insecurity.

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In recent weeks, both Morsi and the Brotherhood, a relatively moderate Islamist force, have taken steps to shore up support ahead of what anti-government activists hope will be the largest protests since the demonstrations that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

The Brotherhood has called for mass rallies to defend the president’s record, including a crowd of 100,000 people who turned out to support Morsi in the Nasr City suburb of Cairo last Friday.

The president also rewarded his backers by installing 11 Islamists as governors of various provinces. That move backfired in Luxor, where Morsi appointed a former member of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya movement whose gunmen killed 58 foreigners at local tourist site in 1997.

But Morsi has continued to reach out to more conservative groups like Gama’a al-Islamiyya — and its political arm, the Building and Development Party — and the Salafi Al Nour Party ahead of the demostrations.

“The Brotherhood see Gama’a al-Islamiyya in particular as an ally that they can draw support from,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank. “The organization has become increasingly vocal in support of Morsi, which is important because it has the ability to mobilize supporters in the rural areas where it has forged strong local relationships.”

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In a further attempt to boost Islamist support ahead of June 30, Morsi severed diplomatic ties with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad earlier this month.

Assad is a member of the Muslim Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shia Islam, and which many hardline Sunnis see as apostasy. He has also overseen Syria’s bloody, two-year descent into civil war, in which more than 90,000 people have been killed.

Morsi’s decision to cut relations, announced at a packed stadium of Islamist supporters, won praise from many at last week’s pro-Morsi rally in Cairo.

“Dr. Morsi’s message shows that he is a strong man who will stand up to oppressors," said Mahmoud Ali, an English-language teacher. “Our president is a champion of the Arab people.”

According to Hamid, “Syria is an issue that Islamists in particular feel strongly about.”

“If you really want to rally your Islamist base, Syria is a good way to do that,” he said.

But critics and rights groups say the move, among others, is also tragically stoking sectarian tensions in Egypt.

Morsi’s appearance at the June 16 rally was preceded by speeches from Salafi allies, including Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, who called on the president to prohibit Shias from entering Egypt, describing them as “unclean.”

The following week, Sunni residents in a village outside Cairo took part in a highly unusual public lynching of Shia residents there. The mob killed four, including a prominent imam.

Some estimates say Egypt’s Shia population numbers roughly 2 million, or 2 percent of the population.

Morsi strongly condemned the violence in a statement issued Monday, but his office has failed to admonish the rhetoric of the country’s Salafi sheikhs.

According to his critics, the president’s decision to share a platform with these men offered a green light to the killings.

“The brutal sectarian lynching of four Shia comes after two years of hate speech against the minority religious group, which the Muslim Brotherhood condoned and at times participated in,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday.

Hamid says Morsi’s strategy of keeping Islamist allies close has crippled his ability to condemn inflammatory statements from hardliners like Abdel-Maqsoud, for fear of alienating religious conservatives.

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“Morsi and the Brotherhood’s energies are being channeled toward just one thing at the moment: survival,” Hamid said. “And when survival is your number one concern then, as we’re seeing, you become increasingly willing to make moral compromises.”

The Middle East Institute’s al-Anani says this policy could damage the Brotherhood’s reputation for years to come.

“Morsi is trying his hardest to appeal to all Islamist forces, and these come in varying shades of conservatism and extremism — but he cannot keep everyone happy for long,” al-Anani said.

“Attempts to appease such a range of groups could easily backfire in the future, threatening the Brotherhood’s moderate reputation and, ultimately, their political project,” he said.