Middle East

Egyptians worry as old and new guard struggle for power

Cairo graffiti comparing Mohammed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak (2 July 2013)

Cairo is a huge, teeming place, a human power station of energy, but it's also a city of small neighbourhoods where everyone knows everyone else.

Mohammed Mahmoud Street is a long road that leads off Tahrir Square, the centre of Egypt's protests. Ripples in national politics splash down here as waves that the street's residents feel are eroding the foundations of their lives. And they blame President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I asked four middle-aged men, two taxi drivers and two accountants, sipping sweet tea and puffing tobacco through water pipes in a scruffy pavement café, whether they would prefer to have a man like former President Hosni Mubarak back in office.

They all said yes, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "It's because back then we were safe!" finished one of the accountants, Said Ahmed, back home from his job in Saudi Arabia.

The epidemic of crime, especially street robbery, is a big concern of many Egyptians.

Old-style Middle Eastern police states were usually very safe, as long as the security services were not after you. These days Egyptians worry constantly about the security of their families.

The police have been mostly inactive since the revolution, nursing their own grievances about being treated badly, and with a legacy of conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood.

'Dictatorial tendency'

Ali Fathalk, one of the taxi drivers, complained about the current fuel shortage. It is partly caused by inefficiency, one of Egypt's curses, and partly by the government's shortage of hard currency to pay for exports. The value of the Egyptian pound has plummeted.

"I rent a taxi to work, then have to spend half the day queuing to get petrol," Ali said. "I should be able to spend money on my kids."

I asked them where President Morsi had gone wrong. They all scoffed.

"Everywhere," said Yasser Abbas, the other taxi driver, adding: "Morsi talks about his legitimate electoral victory, but he's done illegal things too."

Image caption Critics say President Mohammed Morsi has made Egypt a less safe place

He was referring to last year's constitutional declaration, which put the president above the law. Later, after big protests, he replaced it with another one, but for many Egyptians it showed a dictatorial tendency they did not like.

As they drank tea and smoked, the men echoed a common complaint in Egypt - that the presidential election last year was unsatisfactory because it came down to a choice between a veteran of the Mubarak regime and Mr Morsi of the Brotherhood.

They were convinced, without really having any proof, that there were irregularities in the vote. The choice of candidates, by the way, was not down to any manipulation but to the failure by secular liberals and revolutionaries to organise themselves well enough to get their candidate into the final round of the ballot.

Since his victory, the four friends complained, President Morsi has been governing for the good of the Muslim Brotherhood, not for the good of the country.

High stakes

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928, though its roots go back to religious revivalists in the 19th Century. It has spread across Islamic countries, seeking the long-term goal of states shaped by Sharia, or Islamic law.

From the 1950s until the overthrow of President Mubarak, the Brotherhood in Egypt was persecuted at times, tolerated at others, but was always illegal.

After Hosni Mubarak was ousted, the Brotherhood built itself a splendid new headquarters in a suburb of Cairo. Its emblem, of a Koran and swords, was fixed proudly above the door.

Image caption Once a splendid symbol for the Brotherhood's rise to power, its headquarters are just a burnt shell after protesters stormed the building

The building was the symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood's rise from being a banned organisation under the old regime to power in the new Egypt.

I visited it when it was new. Expensive cars lined the streets outside, owned by some of the rich businessmen who are among the Brotherhood's backers. Inside in the spacious foyer, old timers from the movement received visitors and held court. Many of them had spent years in prison.

Now the headquarters building is a wrecked and burnt shell, ransacked and torched by opponents of President Morsi.

The Brotherhood, whatever the hopes of the opposition, will not give up power easily. They argue they should not have to, because they won a free election, the kind where you don't know the result before you vote.

Egypt has been through hard times, and it might be that harder times are coming.

The military's intervention is a play for high stakes. The generals insist they are not planning a coup, but if they remove an elected president, or take his power, their actions will match most definitions of one.

They risk on one side, a backlash by Egypt's jihadists, which could be bloody. On their other flank are the Americans, who fund the Egyptian army. The sight of armed forces funded by US taxpayers removing an elected president will not go down well in Washington.

All of this matters across the region, not just in Egypt. What is happening here will shape the new Middle East that is emerging in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

So far the Muslim Brotherhood, and political Islam, have looked to be one of the big winners. Anything that damages, tarnishes or even breaks the Brotherhood's power in Egypt will change the struggle for power elsewhere in the Middle East.