The sheer numbers who protested on 30 June against the rule of Egypt's first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, have put pressure on him to pay more attention to the swelling opposition. But he is unlikely to step down voluntarily, and the biggest beneficiaries of the protests may be rival Islamists rather than the disparate liberals of the opposition National Salvation Front, which is still struggling to organize and to find leadership.
The anti-Morsi demonstrations have taken their cue from the Tamarrod (Rebel!) movement launched by activists who had been involved in agitation against the Mubarak regime. Their goal is to enact a popular impeachment of Morsi, based on an interpretation of an article in the new constitution, to be followed by a fresh presidential election.
The National Salvation Front (NSF), the main formal opposition movement, has lined up behind Tamarrod, arguing that the national interest in bringing to an end an incompetent regime ruling on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood stands above any concerns about riding roughshod over the result of a freely contested election. The Muslim Brotherhood has rallied round Morsi, and the president himself has made clear that, while he accepts that he has made mistakes, he has no intention of standing down; he has also pinned the blame for the recent disturbances on elements of the former regime. The army high command remains supportive of the president, and Morsi also enjoys the backing of the United States -- although the position of these two critical actors could shift.
The scale of the anti-Morsi demonstrations is testimony to the strength of feeling among millions of Egyptians that the president has forfeited the right to govern. The fact that he won a free election has been negated in the eyes of his opponents by his performance in office, critically the steps that he took in November 2012 to assume powers over the judiciary in order to push through the constitution. The Tamarrod activists have, nevertheless, used articles from that constitution in order to validate their campaign to make Morsi stand down. Mahmoud Badr, one of the founders ofTamarrod, explained in a briefing with the Middle East Institute that Morsi had failed to uphold the requirement of Article 5, affirming that the rule of law is the basis of government and that the state is bound to uphold the independence of the judiciary. He also claimed that Article 153 indicates that there are a variety of reasons that the presidency could become vacant, as it refers to the post becoming vacant owing to death, resignation, disability or 'any other reason' - which, in his view, could include impeachment. However, the same article specifies that the vacancy must be announced by the House of Representatives (or the Shoura Council, if the lower house is dissolved, as is currently the case). Given that the Muslim Brotherhood dominates the Shoura Council, such an announcement is unlikely.
From the Morsi camp's point of view, such constitutional arguments are specious, and any claim that the protest movement has to the moral high ground is contradicted by the support that it receives from elements from the Mubarak regime and by the appeals that some sections of the opposition have made for the army to seize power. Morsi himself accepted during his speech on 28 June that he bears much of the responsibility for the polarisation in Egyptian politics and for the poor performance of the economy. However, the humble tone in which he started the speech gave way to a more aggressive stance, in which he railed against individual judges and against the businessmen in charge of two television stations that have been critical of his rule. He spoke of cutting off the 'invisible fingers' seeking to stir up conflict between the civilian authority and the military.
In the face of the Tamarrod campaign, Morsi's supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood sought to show their own strength in numbers by staging loyalist demonstrations, but these were dwarfed by the massive turnout of Egyptians in Cairo and across the country on 30 June. The other principal weapon in Morsi's armoury is the reluctance of the military high command to move against him -- this may be partly out of concern that such a step would provoke a violent backlash from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
Morsi is unlikely to step down voluntarily. He has options to try to defuse the crisis, for example through forming a new government. This could be a government of national unity, but that would require an accommodation with the NSF, which seems improbable. Another possibility would be for Morsi to appoint the head of the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, as prime minister, with a mandate to appoint a technocratic cabinet until the election of a new House of Representatives. However, if the protests turn violent, Morsi may come under pressure from the military to yield to the opposition's demand for an early presidential election.
Missing from the Tamarrod campaign has been any indication of who they might have in mind as their favoured candidate in such an election. None of the NSF leaders have managed to distinguish themselves in their opposition to Morsi, and with the Muslim Brotherhood damaged by the anti-Morsi uprising the Salafist movement could find itself with a golden political opportunity.
David Butter is an associate fellow in Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme.