CAIRO – Thousands of volunteers are hitting the pavement around Egypt, on streets, in metro stations, even in hospitals, passing out black-and-white forms to whoever will take them. The goal: To collect millions of signatures on a petition calling for the removal of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The signature drive, known as "Tamarod" or "Rebel" in Arabic, is helping galvanize an opposition that has been in disarray and demoralized. It has also provoked a paper war, as Morsi's Islamist supporters in turn have launched a counter-campaign gathering millions of signatures in his support, called "Tajarod" or "Impartiality."
The Tamarod campaign reflects the growing discontent with Morsi over Egypt's ailing economy, fuel shortages and a lack of security, as he nears the end of a tumultuous first year in office.
It also marks a shift in tactics. The mainly liberal and secular opposition parties have made little headway in building on the discontent to form a popular political force able to counter the Islamists' lock on elected bodies. A wave of anti-Morsi protests earlier this year by revolutionary youth groups and others also faded away, from exhaustion, frustration and a heavy crackdown.
Activists now hope the signature campaign can show the strength of anti-Morsi sentiment among the large sectors of the public that have largely given up on politics. The organizers, joined by other opposition movements, are planning massive anti-Morsi rallies around the country on June 30, the one-year anniversary of Morsi's inauguration.
On Tuesday, Ali Ahmed pulled over the truck he was driving and jumped out when he saw a group of campaigners in the Cairo district of Shubra, so he could add his name. "We can't find food," was his only explanation before climbing back in to finish off a day's work.
Tamarod says it has 7 million signatures so far and it aims to collect 15 million — around 2 million more than the number of votes that Morsi garnered in last year's presidential election, which he won with 52 percent of the votes. Egypt's population is around 90 million.
The petition calls for early elections to be held, declaring that "Morsi has been a total failure." It says that since his inauguration in June last year, "the average citizen feels none of the goals of the revolution have been achieved — a life of dignity, freedom, social justice and national independence."
But the petition has no legal force — underscoring the limitations of the campaign. The organizers say they will take the petition to the Supreme Constitutional Court to seek new elections, but there's no constitutional basis for doing so. Morsi has three more years to his term.
Morsi said last month that Tamarod's calls for him to step down "are not possible," telling reporters that he has a "constitutional responsibility" to complete his term.
He said some involved in the campaign are "sincere" and he urged them to "get involved in political activity with a party or organization."
"But from a constitutional and legal perspective, I am the legitimate president of Egypt. Everyone must accept democratic mechanisms and we must not waste time or lose opportunities through conflicts," he said.
The reaction from officials in the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails and which has the largest bloc in parliament, has ranged from dismissing the campaign as irrelevant to denouncing it as an attempt to overturn democracy. The website of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has posted claims of forged signatures in a bid to discredit the campaign — a claim Tamarod denies.
"Anyone who signs should go directly to prison because it's a call for to overturn the legitimate, elected authority," one local FJP leader, Ibrahim Abu Ouf, said last month.
The political arm of the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya, a former militant group that waged a campaign of violence in the 1990s but since forswore its arms and is now an ally of Morsi, launched the pro-Morsi "Tajarod" petition campaign.
So far, the group says, it has gathered 2 million signatures on its petition, which expresses support for "the president to complete his legitimate and constitutional term" and opposition to any attempt to counter the "decision of free Egyptians."
The Brotherhood and other Islamists, who have the country's strongest political machines, have repeatedly shown their strength at the polls, winning parliamentary and presidential elections since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Their opponents accuse them of using their electoral majorities to seal a monopoly on power, marginalize others and ram through their own agenda.
Morsi repeatedly says he is a president for all Egyptians and denies focusing decision-making with the Brotherhood, while Brotherhood officials and other Islamists say they have a right to implement their program given their election wins.
One of the top organizations of the anti-Morsi Tamarod campaign, Mohammed Haikal, acknowledges the realities. But he says, at the least the signature drive "exposes Morsi's mistakes."
"This initiative at this time is uniting the opposition parties around a cause and a document," said Haikal, a 29-year-old who worked with the independent Al-Badil newspaper until he quit to work on the campaign. "It brings politics back to the streets after people became scared of joining protests where people were being killed."
The campaign was launched by youth protesters disappointed with the direction of the country. Since then, opposition political parties have backed the campaign, but Tamarod still relies on its thousands of volunteers to garner signatures. Signatories fill out the black and white form with their name, national identity number and the province where they live.
Some of the group's volunteers have been attacked while passing out petitions, allegedly by Morsi supporters. On Monday, Tamarod organizers said one volunteer traveling from the southern city of Assiut to Cairo to turn in signed leaflets from the university there was abducted and his documents stolen. No further details were immediately available.
Haikal says the signatures are being safeguarded in opposition party offices and that volunteers have offered to hide some in their homes, with one woman keeping signed leaflets in her freezer.
The spokesman for the main opposition umbrella group, the National Salvation Front, called the campaign a "civilized way" to tell Morsi and the Brotherhood "that they have failed in running this country."
"I tremendously understand the importance of holding elections once every four years," Khaled Daoud said. But "I don't think that this country can take three more years of failure, three more years of lack of security, three more years of failed economy and division and polarization."
Hisham Amin, a 39-year-old father of two, signed the petition after spotting Tamarod volunteers standing on a median in a busy Cairo street. He had heard about the campaign and was eager to sign. His reason, like for many: the economy.
"Things are getting worse," he said. "Under Mubarak things were moving, but now under Morsi everything is stopped."
Policeman Ahmed Fargallah was among those inking his name to a Tamarod leaflet in Shobra on Tuesday.
He vowed to join protesters on Morsi's one-year anniversary in office.
"Morsi is not qualified and is not up to the task," he said.