The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s countdown to June 30

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod -- or "Rebel" campaign -- has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi's inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi's removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt's transitional drama now recognize the campaign's significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod's goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi's government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod -- or "Impartiality" -- to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign's attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country's deeply divided polity. The Muslim Brotherhood and other pro-Morsi supporters have repeatedly vilified the Tamarod movement and some have gone as far as labeling those who turn out to protest on June 30 as traitors or unbelievers. Calmer heads within the Islamist movement have taken a more centrist position. The ultraconservative Salafi al-Nour Party has surprisingly demonstrated one of the most level headed attitudes with its promise to refrain from participating in protests, but urging the Muslim Brotherhood and the government to make concessions to opposition forces to diffuse the volatile situation. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh's Strong Egypt Party fell on the side of peaceful protests but stood firm against calls for a military coup to replace Morsi.

The revolutionary fervor and scathing vitriol between the two groups has gone beyond talking heads exchanging barbs in the Egyptian media. A number of violent incidents, not the least of which involved an arson attack by unknown assailants on one of the Tamarod offices in Cairo on June 7, and hours of clashes between Muslim Brotherhood and Tamarod campaigners in Alexandria on June 12, have heightened tensions between opposing ideologies in the days leading up to the planned mass demonstration and worried government security forces. The clashes involving attacks on Tamarod have prompted Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim to publicize its security plans for June 30, but interestingly confusing messages have come out of the ministry. Initial statements indicated a police withdrawal from demonstration areas but Ibrahim subsequently announced his commitment to protecting all citizens on June 30. Outraged Islamists called for Ibrahim to be held accountable for his initial refusal to protect Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and private property.

Other rumblings within the Morsi administration also indicate some fear within the government that impending protests may shake the foundations of the current system. Morsi reached out to the National Salvation Front for yet another national dialogue in an effort to subdue the rising tide but without suitable guarantees that any negotiations would lead to binding decisions, opposition leaders declined. Instead, Morsi met with the Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation, an independent multi-party coalition of Muslim scholars that includes Salafi and Muslim scholars whose deputy chief threatened the opposition with counter-rallies on June 30. Tamarod members have taken a similar hardline stance, demanding nothing short of the formation of a presidential council and a technocratic government with an eye toward Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) President Manar al-Beheiry to replace Morsi.

The scene is certainly set for what could possibly be a game-changing display of popular outrage. To hear either side of the political chasm talk of June 30, one might think an Egyptian Armageddon is right around the corner, with both sides bracing for an outbreak of violence. It is distinctly possible -- even probable -- that protests could come to blows. In past confrontations, it took little to provoke competing political forces into a street battle. Today, not only are the Ultras (the hardcore soccer fans who regularly clash with police) a factor, Black Bloc anarchists are also planning to join the protests adding to an already volatile mix, despite promises of nonviolent protests. "Popular committees" formed to prevent violence are just as likely to instigate as they are to prevent fights from breaking out. Even ordinary citizens, fed up with the dire economic conditions and a deteriorating quality of life, may have little patience for Islamists who may goad them into throwing the first punch. Some Egyptians who see no political or legal avenue through which to channel their disapproval have even admitted hopes of a confrontation to spark the army's intervention and another round of revolutionary change. In this highly charged political climate, all it takes is one angry reaction to ensnare an entire country.

Hopes of such clashes ousting Morsi, however, run into some heady challenges. The Tamarod campaign managed to surpass its goal of 15 million signatures calling for Morsi's resignation and snap elections. It rekindled the revolutionary flame sparked by its cross-party and youthful energy and captured the imagination of the silent majority in Egypt, but falls short of a legal avenue to realize a change in leadership. Currently, the constitution allows only a few ways by which to remove the president (articles 150 through 152): if the president falls ill or can no longer perform his duty; if he is charged with high treason and is subsequently impeached by at least two-thirds of the House of Representatives: if he puts his own presidency up to popular referendum: or if he voluntarily resigns. Anti-Islamist activists who argue that the constitution -- by virtue of the highly flawed process of its formation -- lacks the legitimacy to set appropriate standards for a post-revolution Egypt may be right, but neither opposition forces nor the judiciary have yet blatantly crossed the ambiguous legal boundaries that have guided (or misguided) it through its transition. The irony of Tamarod's support for the SCC's president to unconstitutionally lead the country is not lost on those paying attention. The judiciary, in particular, has remained conspicuously silent on the issue. However, judging by the SCC decision to allow the Shura Council to continue operating until a new parliament is elected, despite the court's ruling to invalidate the council, suggests its unwillingness to rock the boat.

With all of Egypt's dramatic twists and turns over the past two years, those who claim to know what will happen on June 30 will find themselves either wrong or lucky. The number of variables that factor into any one event outstrip the imagination every time. The truth is, no one can claim with any degree of certainty what might change after June 30, but Tamarod has certainly revealed how the deep polarization affecting Egyptian society at large might run deeper than previously imagined. It has tapped into a disaffected population that lost all faith in Morsi or that elections under his leadership could be free and fair. It has garnered the support of millions of Egyptians by avoiding the partisan politics that many citizens have come to abhor. Lastly, it has called on the aid of the army and the judiciary, the two institutions with the most support in Egypt, to lead the country to a new beginning. June 30 may amount to nothing more than a mass protest, but Morsi would be wise to take the advice of fellow Islamists, abandon the confrontational stance toward his detractors, and build the consensus that Egypt desperately lacks sooner rather than later. The countdown begins.

Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. He previously reported on the Middle East with Human Rights Watch's MENA division and served as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations/African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur. Mr. Radwan specializes in Egypt, with a focus on civil society, human rights, the constitution, and judicial issues.


The Middle East Channel

Jordan's website blocking controversy

Last month, King Abdullah II released the fourth in a series of "discussion papers" on reform and change in Jordan. Like the first three, the new one was a well-crafted discussion of liberalization and reform. Unfortunately for the regime, however, there has been a great deal of discussion in Jordan about reform and change, but most of it recently centered on a series of crises -- from media censorship to unrest in Ma'an (in the south of Jordan) -- rather than on the fourth paper. Clearly that was not the intention. So what overshadowed this latest treatise and reform initiative? Partly timing, and partly a Jordanian public that is focused on different issues right now, not least of which is economic hardship.

Importantly, the fourth paper called specifically for civil society activism and citizen empowerment, yet the timing of its release could not have been worse: as it coincided with government blocking of more than 200 news websites across the country. The new paper was linked to a new initiative -- Dimuqrati -- that was unveiled on June 2 with great fanfare at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman. The Dimuqrati initiative is designed to empower citizen groups and grassroots civil society organizations, providing grants and funding for their work, and it is led by a highly regarded reform advocate, Omar Razzaz. The flourish amounted to more of a fizzle, however, as the initiative was -- ironically -- overshadowed and even eclipsed by the move against many independent media sites on precisely the same day. The wave of internet censorship also came immediately after Jordan had played host to the World Economic Forum (WEF), where the kingdom's openness and reforms were key points of discussion and pride, and even the international meeting of the International Press Institute (IPI), where Jordan's Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour had praised the importance of press and media freedoms. 

The move to block select internet news sites had been building for some time. A year ago, the previous parliament and the previous government passed controversial legislation restricting internet news sites. The idea was to rein in tabloid style journalism that critics argued was shoddy at best, and amounted to chronic character assassination, libel, and outright disinformation at worst. The new law, however, targets all news websites and requires them to register with the government and to have an editor that is a certified member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA). But the JPA has, thus far, been limited to print media journalists, and many sites objected to registering with the state as a matter of democratic principle. 

Many reform activists and journalists assumed, at the time, that the king would overturn the decisions of parliament and the government, but he did not. A year later, many assumed that the government would not really implement what was seen as a fairly draconian, and rather un-Jordanian, approach to online media. After all, Jordan has been one of the most open and most advanced countries in the entire Arab world when it comes to information technology, the internet, and social media. Most Arabic-language content on the internet in the region comes from Jordan. And Abdullah himself has predicated economic development on encouraging international investment in the kingdom, based on its openness to international business. This case is made often, in state visits to foreign capitals, and in semi-annual meetings of the WEF (most recently in May at Jordan's Dead Sea resort). Shutting down hundreds of news sites, and indeed restricting the internet at all, clearly runs counter to these messages.

"Is this what was meant by democratic empowerment?" asked Basil Okoor, editor of the blocked website, at a protest rally. "It's hard," he noted in a discussion earlier that day, "people will continue to work, to fight the system, but advertisers?" Similarly, Daoud Kuttab, editor of the blocked Ammannet, noted "they didn't stop us from working, they stopped Jordanians from seeing our work" --  at least temporarily. Many sites continued to post articles via Twitter and Facebook and included instructions on how to get around the blocking by using proxy servers. This was a skill known to many in Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, but new to many Jordanians.

Why now, many Jordanians asked? For some, it seemed evidence that the royal court and the bureaucracy of governance were simply out of sync. Other journalists and activists I spoke with wondered aloud whether it was a more deliberate effort to put existing sites on notice, and hence to encourage Jordan's already problematic media culture of self-censorship, and simply to silence others outright. "They are after the chilling effect," suggested one editor. Others cited a very real set of internal and external crises -- from unrest in Ma'an to the Syrian civil war -- suggesting a state desire to tone down coverage of these volatile issues. Still others suggested that the motivation may lie with the problem of sensationalist news coverage and web-based viral videos, and concerns over what these may mean for Jordan's domestic stability later this summer, when electricity prices will likely be raised and protests and even riots are just as likely to follow.  

The change in media and internet openness has led not just to criticism from domestic democracy activists and journalists, but also to a torrent of international criticism, especially from NGOs (compared to relative silence from many allied Western governments), including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. To his credit, Ensour (who, as a member of the previous parliament, voted against the internet restrictions) met with representatives of many of these press freedom NGOs this week in Amman to discuss the issue.

Some Jordanians are sympathetic to the blocking of sites they deem irresponsible in their reporting. However, the act of censorship undermines Jordan's economic development goals, its business climate for would-be investors, and very importantly, the democratic and reform initiatives that the king has been discussing in his four papers, and in the series of reforms that have emerged since 2011. These include amendments to the constitution, creation of a constitutional court and an independent electoral commission, and new laws on elections and parties, all of which culminated in the January elections. 

It is not too late to undo the damage of the press and internet restrictions. With a prime minister who had voted against the law, a core of parliamentarians willing to revisit the issue, and a king who has, up to this point, always supported internet openness and media freedom, the law can be radically revised, or better yet, repealed. That will still leave the real issues of tabloid sensationalism and libel concerns that had led to the restrictions in the first place. But these would be better dealt with via the courts, and perhaps through a collective effort at a code of ethics for online journalism. Former Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa'i tried this measure before but his government fell shortly after the start of the regional "Arab Spring." It might be time to revisit these contentious issues from that angle, rather than the more sweeping move of shutting down websites outright.

Meanwhile, the shadow of the Syrian war looms ever larger and ever darker over Jordan. The kingdom now hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. As tensions increase, and the war continues to spill over each of Syria's borders, U.S. military backing of Jordan now includes "leaving behind" (following joint military maneuvers) Patriot Missile batteries and F16 Jet fighters for use, if necessary, by the Jordanian armed forces. The tensions and dangers to Jordan's borders and internal security are real, but all the more reason to underscore and reinforce Jordan's record of openness and inclusion, by restoring its internet and media openness to match in real terms the ambitions of the regime's reform program.

Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.