Support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Erodes in an Islamist Bastion
A school with old posters of Mohamed Morsi, now the president, in Al Talbeya, a neighborhood in Giza, where disaffection with the government is growing
AL TALBEYA, Egypt — Mohamed Salamah used to vote with the Muslim Brotherhood. But in Saturday’s referendum on the Islamist-backed constitution, Mr. Salamah says he is voting against it, mainly because he no longer trusts the movement.
“They aren’t even doing anything very Islamic,” said Mr. Salamah, a 24-year-old waiter in a cafe in Al Talbeya, a working-class neighborhood in Giza across the Nile from Cairo that was an Islamist stronghold in previous votes. “They are just doing things that aren’t very competent.”
Throughout the neighborhood, both loyal supporters and critics of the Brotherhood described a deep erosion in the group’s street-level support. That was evident, they said, even before the low turnout and narrow margin in last weekend’s first round of voting on what residents here call “the Brotherhood constitution.”
The results so far appear to have surprised leaders of the Brotherhood and their opposition. And even if the draft constitution is approved, as expected, on Saturday in the second half of the vote, the new questions about the charter’s popularity and the Brotherhood’s mandate could prolong Egypt’s political turbulence and, as a result, defer badly needed economic reforms as well.
Residents here and around Cairo say the damage to the Brotherhood’s popularity is unrelated to its religious ideology. It reflects a consistent trio of complaints: confusing economic policies of the Brotherhood-led government, a near-monopoly on power and civilian supporters’ use of force against opponents in a street battle two weeks ago. Even so, many say the Brotherhood remains the most potent political force, in part because of the incoherence of the opposition, which has often focused on accusing the Brotherhood of imposing religious rule.
But for now economists say the battle for power is jeopardizing progress on the bread-and-butter issues that are paramount across the ideological spectrum. “What the economy needs are decisions that are politically courageous and credible, and no government can do that now,” said Ragui Assaad, an economist at the University of Minnesota with an office in Cairo.
A critical loan of more than $4 billion from the International Monetary Fund, expected to be signed this month, has been delayed until the political situation settles. The Egyptian pound is slipping against the dollar. And the most obvious step to improve the growth and fairness of the economy requires a government with credibility and political skill. Attempts at overhauling Egypt’s vast subsidies to energy prices have in the past set off riots.
“What we have now is a government that lacks legitimacy but also economic competence,” Mr. Assaad said. “I don’t see anything better coming out of this government.”
Brotherhood leaders have acknowledged the emergence of hostility against them. Mobs attacked more than three dozen Brotherhood offices, including its headquarters, in the prelude to the first round of voting on the constitution. “I am telling everyone, do not hate the Muslim Brotherhood so much that you forget Egypt’s best interest,” said Mohamed Badie, the group’s spiritual leader. “You can be angry at us and hate us as much as you want; we cannot control affection. But I say to you, be rational. Protect Egypt. Its unity cannot survive what is happening.”
For many in Al Talbeya, the defining moment of the prelude to the referendum was the night of Dec. 5, when the Brotherhood called its supporters to defend President Mohamed Morsi against protesters outside his office. Ten died in the fight. And although the Brotherhood has claimed all those killed were its members, seemingly everyone in Al Talbeya still blamed the group for the violence.
“People don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood as much as they used to, because they saw how they tried to control everything and how they beat people up,” said Emad Mohamed Yosri, 37, a tailor who still counts himself a supporter of the group.
Omar Ateh, 30, a shopkeeper and Islamist, said he was trying to defend the Brotherhood. “We are trying to make people understand, they are not from another planet,” he said, “they just like politics more than we do.”
But Ahmed Ragab, 14, interjected, “If they are such good people, why are they beating people up in the streets?”
Many here accused Mr. Morsi, of the Brotherhood’s political party, of focusing too exclusively on his Islamist base. Others pointed to Mr. Morsi’s decree — which he later repealed — elevating his decisions above the judiciary until the passage of a constitution.
“No, no, no, that does not work for us,” said Mohamed Omar, 37, a street cafe owner. “Morsi tried to take everything for himself.”
Others pointed to policy missteps. Mr. Morsi campaigned on an elaborate “renaissance project” to turn around Egypt’s bureaucracy, but no plans have materialized.
Al Talbeya residents complained about the Morsi government’s plan to impose a 10 p.m. closing hour on the restaurants and shops of this all-night metropolis to save electricity, a plan that was abandoned at the last minute. Others noted that during the heat of the constitutional battle this month, the Morsi government unveiled tax increases on liquor, cigarettes and other goods to reduce a deficit. That, too, was suspended, through a 2 a.m. statement on Facebook.
A few criticized Mr. Morsi as both an authoritarian bully and a pushover. “He shouldn’t have made the order, and then he shouldn’t have retracted it,” Mr. Omar said. “It made him look weak.”
After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood’s party and ultraconservative Salafis received more than 70 percent of the vote in the first parliamentary elections. Mr. Morsi’s victory in the presidential runoff was closer, with about 52 percent of the vote. But his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, was a well-known former prime minister with the networks of the former governing party at his back.
The up-or-down vote on a new constitution, however, should have been an easy win for the Brotherhood, many analysts said. The charter would end two years of transitional chaos, and the organized opposition was negligible. But on the first day of voting, turnout was less than 33 percent, and only about 56.5 percent voted yes, according to the Brotherhood’s own tabulations.
Some say they will vote yes this Saturday even though they have lost confidence in the Brotherhood, in the hope of establishing a more stable political process. “Every time there is a problem now we have a fistfight, because we are still learning the culture of dialogue,” said Sayed Abu Gabal, 45, a German teacher who previously voted for Islamists. “We can’t choose a new president every day.”
But after this, he said, “I am not going to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis ever again.”