CAIRO – During a more than 2-hour television interview, Egypt's Islamist president sought to depict himself as a man of the people, his voice rising and tears welling in his eyes as he spoke of the country's poor and portrayed the masses protesting against his rule as "thugs" and "outlaws."
The long interview, aired after midnight in the early hours Monday, appeared to be a push by Mohammed Morsi to burnish his image amid widespread unrest ahead of parliamentary elections that begin in April.
But it illustrated the dynamic that has characterized Egypt's politics throughout political turmoil that has shaken the country for months. The Morsi administration, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, has pushed ahead offering no concessions to the opposition but has also presented little by way of a program to resolve the country's mounting troubles. A disorganized opposition has been unable to find a foothold to pressure the president or provide an alternative, while street protests grow angrier.
Critics on Monday denounced Morsi's comments as mere bluster and, worse, as reminiscent of the rhetoric of his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Morsi's depiction of the protesters as criminals will likely only deepen the hostility in the already dangerously polarized nation.
"I am no longer optimistic about this presidency and I fear the days ahead because the anger is rising," prominent activist and rights lawyer Gamal Eid said of the interview. "We now have a presidency that does not listen, an opposition that is in tatters and, more importantly, a bloc of angry youth who are out of control."
Egypt has been mired in unrest for months, with protests over a wide range of issues, from demanding justice for slain protesters to anger over price hikes and fuel shortages.
Amid the instability, Egypt's economy has been in an unchecked decline. Economic reforms that Morsi is quietly, gradually taking — including reducing subsidies on fuel and other items — are likely to only stoke further protests.
In his interview, Morsi, who came to power in June as Egypt's first freely elected president, gave no outlines for his economic plans or for bringing security amid increasing lawlessness. Instead, he sought to come across as a firm pair of hands, an uncompromising patriot and a compassionate leader in touch with his people.
"I will not allow anyone to harm the march of the revolution," Morsi said, referring to the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011. "Egyptians must be assured that I don't sleep and that I am keeping an eye on anyone who tries to resist the revolution," he said, raising his voice.
"I love Egypt very, very, very much," he said emotionally. "I feel the people with my entire being ... I live their suffering and feel for them."
Referring to a general strike in the Mediterranean city of Port Said that has entered its second week, Morsi said, "these are acts of thuggery and violence ... There is no place for thugs and no place for outlaws."
He suggested protesters were paid to take to the streets — though he didn't say by whom. He said he had heard of a 13-year-old boy whose mother was given 600 Egyptian pounds — a little under $100 — to send him to a protest so he could throw firebombs. The mother, Morsi said, sent the son with his birth certificate in his pocket so he could be identified if he were killed.
Appearing to hold back tears, Morsi said he "wept profusely" when he heard the story. "I will never allow anyone to so cheaply take advantage of the needs of the Egyptian people."
For the political leadership of the mainly secular and liberal opposition, Morsi repeated his calls for them to join his national dialogue — a new session of which is to be held to discuss how to ensure the integrity of the parliamentary elections. Most opposition have rejected his past calls to dialogue as empty gestures.
"It is all useless talk," said prominent democracy campaigner George Ishaq on the independent ONTV network.
Already, most opposition parties said they would boycott the vote on the grounds that the country could be mired deeper in unrest and violence if the vote was to go ahead without first tackling the issues at the root of the instability.
Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan said Morsi seemed to be taking the same dismissive attitude toward the opposition that Mubarak did. "He takes his opponents lightly. It shows him to be arrogant and also raises questions on whether he sincerely believes in the peaceful transfer of power," said Hassan.
Morsi's interview, recorded on Sunday, was also marred by a long delay. It had been scheduled to air at 8 p.m. on the private state El-Mehwar, but it wasn't broadcast until 1:30 a.m. on Monday, well after the bedtime of most of Egypt's 85 million people. The station gave no explanation for the 5 ½ -hour delay, fueling speculation in the press that Brotherhood leaders wanted to view it first.
Also in the style of interviews of Mubarak during his rule, the tone of the interview was decidedly soft-ball. The interviewer, TV celebrity Amr el-Leithi, asked few follow-up questions or challenge Morsi's responses. At times, he seemed to prompt Morsi to show his common-man principles, noting that the president continues to live in a rented apartment rather than move into the opulent presidential palace and pointing to Morsi's "limited income" in his former position as an engineering lecturer at a provincial university.
"This is where I work," Morsi said with a smile of the palace.
Morsi dismissed calls by protesters that he step down, pointing to what he called his popular mandate — he won with just under 52 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election — and to the adoption of the constitution supported by his Islamist allies, which was passed in a national referendum with 64 percent of the vote — though turnout was only 32 percent.
"Impossible," he said, moving forward in his arm chair when he was asked whether he ever thought of stepping down. "I have a mandate for a massive task. I am continuing on this path until its end and I have a popular and constitutional mandate for four years."