Cairo - Egypt's Islamist president told his opponents to use
elections not protests to try to change the government and said the military
should focus on its role as the nation's defenders in a nationally televised
address on Wednesday, days before the opposition plans massive street rallies
aimed at removing him from office.
Mohammed Morsi's words to the military came amid opposition
hopes that the powerful generals will protect their protests on Sunday in an
implicit show of support.
Morsi's supporters accuse the opposition of fomenting a
coup. Speaking at a giant conference hall packed with people, Morsi reminded
his audience that "all agree" that the president is the supreme
commander of the armed forces.
"There are some who don't want the armed forces and the
presidency to have a healthy relationship," Morsi said. "All state
institutions work in harmony and with discipline under the leadership of the
head of state."
The audience, packed with Cabinet members, officials from
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters, cheered his remarks on the
military, which at times sounded like a rebuke to Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah
Sitting on the front row, el-Sissi, sat silently. Days
earlier he issued a sharp demand that both sides in the crisis reconcile and a
warning that the military will not sit by if the nation is endangered by the
Earlier on Wednesday, military officials said they were
bringing reinforcements closer to Egypt's main cities, apparently aimed at
keeping security if violence erupts on Sunday.
In his 2 ½-hour address, Morsi defended his performance in
his first year in office, admitting to making mistakes but also claiming
At one point he apologised for fuel shortages which have
caused long lines at gas stations and have increased frustration and anger at
the government. "I am saddened by the lines, and I wish I could join in
and wait in line, too," he said. At another, he apologised to the nation's
youth for not doing enough to involve them in the new political system and
ordered Cabinet ministers and provincial governors to appoint assistants under
the age of 40.
But he offered no compromises in the confrontation with his
opponents. Those organising the protests for Sunday — the anniversary of
Morsi's inauguration — say he must go because he has mismanaged the country,
given a monopoly on decision-making to the Brotherhood and his Islamist allies
and has encroached on the judiciary.
Protesters are hoping to bring out massive crowds on Sunday,
saying they have tapped into widespread discontent over economic woes, rising
prices and unemployment, power cuts and lack of security.
As Morsi spoke, several thousand of his opponents gathered
in Tahrir square, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat
Hosni Mubarak, chanted "erhal!" or leave. Some chanted "the
people want to overthrow the regime". Several took off their shoes and
held them up in a sign of contempt.
Morsi took aim at his opponents and critics. He demanded
"some in the media stop spreading rumours". He told the judiciary,
with which he has clashed repeated over the past year, to stay out of politics,
though he added he "respects very, very much" their status.
He told his political opponents to "enter elections if
you want to change the government" and scolded them for brushing off his
past appeals to hold a dialogue on the nation's problems. "I have been
surprised" by their refusals, he said repeatedly.
Morsi said protests were a legitimate way "to raise
your opinion" but they cannot be "used to impose your opinion".
Morsi's supporters say the protest organisers are trying to
overturn democracy by reversing the election victories of Morsi and his
Islamist allies. They have accused Mubarak loyalists of trying to foment a
In the long speech, Morsi was often animated, at times
angry, raising his voice. He frequently departed from his prepared remarks,
switching for formal Arabic to Egyptian dialect to make jokes and present a
common-man image. He was rewarded with rounds of applause from his supporters
who, after the address, chanted "Oh president, we love you!"
On the whole, the address was a bid by Morsi to present
himself as the nation's safest pair of hands at a very difficult time,
something that he sought to convey with talk about outside plots to destabilise
Egypt and Mubarak loyalists trying to undermine his government.
He pledged "radical and quick" reforms in state
institutions to address public complaints. He demanded the Cabinet and
provincial governors remove all officials "who have caused crises for the
He also announced steps against gas stations suspected in selling
subsidised fuel on the black market — a sign of what a major political issue
the gas lines have become.
He blamed the security woes on "thugs", some of
whom he contended were paid to foment chaos.
He also promised to form a panel to draft amendments to the
Islamist-backed constitution passed in a December referendum, an offer that is
similar to one he made about six months ago but never bore fruition.
Morsi's opponents calculate they can force him out through
the sheer number of people they bring into the streets starting Sunday. But
they are looking to the military to protect their crowds against possible
attacks by hard-line Islamists.
Security officials, who spoke anonymously because they were
not authorised to speak to reporters, said army commanders have carried out
reconnaissance missions in areas and facilities they intend to protect.
The commander of the central military region on Tuesday
inspected a media complex on the western outskirts of Cairo that houses several
TV networks, some critical of Morsi. The complex was besieged at least twice in
recent months by Islamists loyal to Morsi attempting to intimidate the networks
and hosts of talk shows critical of the president.
Besides that complex, the military plans to protect the
massive Nile-side building housing state TV, the Suez Canal, the Cabinet
offices and parliament.
Morsi's supporters have accused organisers of the weekend
rally of planning to use violence, but the protesters have repeatedly vowed to
keep their demonstrations peaceful.
Morsi backers plan a rally of their own in Cairo on Friday
for the second successive week. In last Friday's rally, hard-line Islamists
addressing the crowd vowed to "smash" the demonstrating opponents,
whom they denounced as Mubarak loyalists.