Jun 28, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

8 mins read

Egypt's Tamarod Movement Challenges the Muslim Brotherhood

A picture of the inside of the Cairo office of Egyptian Tamarod opposition movement.

The shared interests that have driven the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the country's military together over the past year remain, but large, sustained protests could strain that relationship and force the military to reassess its options. Anti-government protests planned for June 30 by a recently formed opposition movement called Tamarod represent a particularly potent threat to the political legitimacy of President Mohammed Morsi's regime.

The Tamarod movement's ultimate intent with the upcoming demonstrations is to instigate enough unrest on Egypt's streets to force the military to intervene — an unlikely result. However, even if the protests fizzle and fall short of this goal, Tamarod has given a voice to the growing, visceral dissatisfaction with Morsi's government in Egypt — one that could undermine the Muslim Brotherhood's ability to govern and its performance in future elections.

The Tamarod movement claims it has collected some 15 million signatures on a petition calling for an early presidential election and for Morsi to leave office. The opposition wants to delegitimize the Morsi regime to force its removal and — since the military would not want to govern the country — ultimately be installed in its place. But this ambitious plan would require either huge numbers of protesters or security incidents larger than those that occurred in Port Said and other Egyptian cities in March. The opposition may also have underestimated the Muslim Brotherhood's ability to mobilize its own supporters, either for counter-demonstrations or to provide its constituents with staples such as food and fuel.

Thus, it is unlikely that the Tamarod protests will succeed in deposing Morsi. But the size and intensity of the upcoming protests will still test the legitimacy of the regime. Opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government is getting stronger, and Morsi's position appears to be vulnerable because the Muslim Brotherhood's attempts to solve Egypt's economic problems have been ineffective. The opposition hopes to break the political alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most organized political entity, and the Egyptian military, the country's ultimate arbiter of power.

Opposition Parties Unite

Tamarod, which means "rebel" in Arabic, has united a range of Egyptian opposition groups. The movement was founded by three activists previously associated with the Egyptian Movement for Change, known as the Kefaya movement, which started in 2004 in opposition to then-President Hosni Mubarak. Though Kefaya was involved in the protests that brought down the former president in 2011, it did not organize them or participate in large numbers. Tamarod began attracting small numbers of volunteers in recent months and announced its existence and platform on May 1.

Since then, Tamarod has seen its support grow exponentially. The group maintains a headquarters in Cairo and boasts networks of grassroots organizers and volunteers in every Egyptian province. Several other secular opposition groups have rallied around Tamarod's momentum, including the National Salvation Front, the April 6 youth movement, the Constitution party and the Egyptian Conference party. Since the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian opposition has been undermined by friction among these smaller parties, but Tamarod has been able to unite them around a common goal — the removal of Morsi. The movement has been so successful that other politicians are trying to co-opt its influence for themselves. For example, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister and Morsi's opponent in the June 2012 presidential election, signed the petition to the chagrin of some Tamarod supporters, who view his participation as an attempt to restore the previous regime.

Morsi has also begun to face opposition from Islamist and religious factions. In April, the Salafist Al-Nour group joined the National Salvation Front, a largely secular and liberal umbrella group for the political opposition, in calling for Morsi to form a new government, and Al-Nour has tried to remain neutral publicly in the Tamarod issue by refusing to participate in any demonstrations — either for or against Morsi. Moreover, though the country's religious establishment at al-Azhar University has long been at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, the university's top religious scholar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, issued a fatwa a week ago declaring that peaceful protests against the government are legitimate under Islamic law.

All of this points to a deeper malaise affecting Egypt's fledgling democracy. The country's political forces are seeking a democratic order, but they remain inherently anti-democratic in their approaches. The Tamarod movement reflects this problem: The secular opposition hopes that instability in the streets will force the army to disassociate itself from the current political process. Divisions among the opposition remain, but a consensus is growing that, one way or another, Morsi must step down.

Still, the full extent of Tamarod's capabilities remain unclear. While the movement has certainly energized and united the opposition, the group's claim of gathering millions of petition signatures is likely inflated. The petitions being passed out by grassroots volunteers cannot realistically be tracked, and anyone can add their name on Tamarod's website multiple times. Thus, the June 30 protests will indicate just how popular the movement has become. The group will be truly effective only if it can force the hand of the military. Absent an intervention, the protests will be no more significant over the long-term than were the Port Said protests in March or anti-Morsi protests in November and December 2012.

The Regime's Waning Popularity

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is struggling to consolidate its power and move Egypt beyond political gridlock, and the group's popularity is waning due to ineffective governance. Because of disputes between the Morsi regime and the judiciary, overdue parliamentary elections have yet to be scheduled — even though Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court ruled June 2 that the interim governing body, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council, is illegal. Egypt's economic crisis has persisted, with little progress made on the subsidy reforms needed for Egypt to secure an International Monetary Fund loan or address its trade deficit and dwindling foreign reserves. The government is considering implementing a smart-card system to ration fuel, but implementation of the program has been delayed multiple times, and fuel shortages have become frequent. Furthering Egypt's woes, Ethiopia recently raised tensions with Cairo by announcing plans to build a dam on an upstream section of the Blue Nile, and militants in Sinai kidnapped security forces in May.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood has been unable to make any of the needed systemic changes, the group is attempting to boost its popularity in other ways. As part of the subsidy reforms, the Morsi government plans to engage in a bread-rationing program and attempt to prevent bakers from selling flour for profit. Reforming bread subsidies is a contentious issue in Egypt, since many of the country's 84 million people rely on them. To limit political backlash, the Muslim Brotherhood is utilizing hundreds of nongovernmental organizations to provide bread directly to people. The group will likely organize other, similar programs to try to stem the rising tide of dissent against it.

The Military's Cautious Role

The Egyptian military is caught between a desire to perpetuate its own hold over the state while struggling to prevent the polity from descending into anarchy, and the best way to do that remains cooperation with Morsi's government. Since the military has no desire to rule the country directly, it needs to maintain the integrity of the office of the presidency and its partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood. Though the army is more ideologically aligned with the secular opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood is still the most organized civilian organization in Egypt. Thus, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are unlikely partners, and the forces binding them together have not shifted meaningfully.

The military would not mind if Morsi's popularity took another hit and would likely welcome organized challengers to balance him. However, it cannot stand aside if the unrest leads to violence that undermines the state. In the past, the army has intervened in limited, tactical ways, such as in Port Said. On June 23, Egyptian military chief Col. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that the army would intervene if clashes with the opposition spin out of control and threaten to lead the country into "a dark tunnel of conflict." Already troops have begun to deploy around media and government buildings.

The Tamarod movement will likely fail to oust Morsi because the protests will probably lack the overwhelming scale necessary to provoke much more than a minor intervention. Moreover, a removal of Morsi by the military would set a dangerous precedent, making street protests the deciding factor in political power. Still, the Tamarod movement is a manifestation of the growing popular dissatisfaction with Morsi's regime — and the first indication that the opposition might be capable of coalescing into something beyond fragmented parties.

If the June 30 protests help the opposition organize around particular leaders and principles, the movement will be remembered as a key development in Egyptian political history. But if it splinters soon after the protests, Tamarod will embody little more than another moment of social catharsis while Egypt continues stumbling along on the same path it has for 28 months since Mubarak's fall.

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