A burly wall of a man in a leather jacket and traditional ankle-length jellabiya stood guard outside the city council headquarters in Mahalla El-Kubra, a large industrial city along Egypt’s Nile Delta. As we approached the two-story complex, the poker-faced, no-nonsense guard asked for a visa—that is to say, a traveler’s document for entering the city of Mahalla, located two hours north of Cairo. Like any perfectly timed comedian, he waited just long enough for concern to peak on our faces before letting out a thunderous laugh.
“You don’t need a visa!” he said, his belly still jiggling from laughter. “Our independence is a concept, but Mahalla is open to all Egyptians!”
As Egypt’s latest political crisis over an Islamist-proposed constitution threatens to tear the country in two, several of its largest cities have found unity online once again, triggering a sovereignty campaign in which several cities—including Alexandria, the country’s second largest—would secede from the nation, albeit satirically. It began after hundreds of protesters enclosed around the Mahalla City Council, hanging signs for the “Front of Revolutionary Salvation” around town and, on city buses, for “Mahalla Airlines.” The photos went viral within days and a secession campaign was born, with photo-shopped images later circulating on Twitter of men carting in the chair for “The Republic of Mahalla” into the U.N. General Assembly. And on Friday at protests outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo, a sign on one tent reads: "temporary headquarters for the embassy of Mahalla.”
Mahalla, a city of about 450,000, was home to the first “April 6" secular revolutionary protests and has been the scene of several uprisings and labor protests since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
The six-month old regime of President Mohamed Morsi has come under fire in recent weeks, after the president shocked Egyptians with a decree granting him sweeping powers and immunity from judicial interference. The constitutional committee, which had been toiling on a revised version of the country’s political framework these recent months, is also protected under the new decree. After almost three dozen committee members walked off in protest, the Islamists who remained wrapped up the draft constitution in haste and presented it to the president. Egyptians will vote “yes” or “no” in a referendum that begins on Dec. 15.
“There was an impression among the workers of Mahalla and several other cities that the revolution would bring change quickly and make the economic wheel turn faster,” said Ismail Salama, president of the Mahalla City Council, who denied that the city council itself declared independence from the central government, as several local reports claimed. “Of course, this is not a correct way of thinking. But for the past 30 years they felt like they were cut off from the rest of the country and now, even with the new government, they still feel that they are cut off.”
Similar protests were held in Alexandria, Mansoura, and Assuit. The cybercampaign denounces the “Muslim Brotherhood State” and calls upon Egyptians to vote “no” in the referendum.
“People are tired,” said Sayed Taha, 19, a Mahalla resident studying trade and commerce at nearby Tanta University. “We feel the Brotherhood is taking us backwards. Politics is new to so many of us but it is easy to see that these people are going to destroy the country.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, insists that the referendum will pass and that his party enjoys the support of the majority of Egyptians. But this is a hard argument to make as hundreds of thousands continue to spill into the streets in cities large and small. Morsi just barely edged by in the presidential runoff in June to beat his opponent—a Mubarak-era stalwart—by a margin of 51.7 percent to 48 percent. However, it is the previous rounds of voting that are more telling. Alexandria, the socially conservative coastal city of 10 million, proved itself politically liberal, going overwhelmingly to the third-place contender—Arab socialist Hamdeen Sabahi.
From Tahrir Square to Mahalla’s Shoon Square, secular and liberal groups have aggressively taken to the streets in protest of the proposed constitution. But the Muslim Brotherhood has done the same. Pro-Morsi demonstrations continue across Cairo—the two camps recently crossing paths in a violent and deadly rage. Those with the Muslim Brotherhood assert that the constitution will pass, and efforts by the opposition to hinder that are only hurting the country.
“They say President Morsi is trying to be a dictator,” said Ali Abdullah Aboul Shaheed, 34, a supporter of the president. “The people chose President Morsi to lead the country. Now, they want him out. They are the ones destroying Egypt, not us.”
While Morsi has become the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in recent months, his waning influence within the organization is growing more apparent. With just days to go before the constitutional referendum, he made the decision to hike taxes on alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, and a range of goods and services, a move that further infuriated the country’s liberal crowd. At 2 o'clock the next morning, the president’s office announced via Facebook that the tax hikes were scrapped. The immediate flip-flop inspired a number of political cartoons, including one in which Morsi receives a slipper-spanking from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide for making a decision without his consultation.
Official figures show unemployment has risen from 9 percent to 12 percent since the uprising began last year, and analysts say this figure is a low estimate. Traffic has clogged the country’s largest cities, delaying people from going to their jobs and getting from place to place. A desperately needed $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan decision was postponed this week, the country’s finance minister citing the escalating crisis as cause for the move.
“We are unhappy,” said Maged Magdy, 29, a secular engineer from Alexandria. “Paying for a loaf of bread has become so difficult and anyone who earned EGP 2,000 [$300] or EGP3,000 [$450] a month now makes EGP1,000 [$150] or less. Unemployment is everywhere you look. Garbage is filling the streets. Traffic is a disaster. The Muslim Brotherhood will only make it worse.”