- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO — The world will see this city tonight through the prism of Tahrir Square, with tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathering to raucously celebrate their new freedom. But not far away, there was a different set of demonstrations going on. And far from massive parties, they seemed to be under siege.
The crowd in favor of now-deposed president Mohamed Morsy had set up its main rally around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, in the neighborhood of Nasr City. However, a military cordon blocked the path of protesters trying to reach the demonstration from a major highway. The confrontation soon turned tense: The protesters gathered directly in front of the troops, chanting, "With our souls, our blood, we will defend you, oh Islam."
A small group of demonstrators set off firecrackers right in front of the army, prompting the soldiers to fire a hail of gunfire into the air that sent demonstrators scattering (and ended up with me under a car). But within two minutes, the chants had returned.
After eventually working our way past the military, three cordons of civilian security forces — many armed with wooden sticks and some protected with light armor — guarded the entrance to the pro-Morsy rally. One man, dressed in a gallebeya and sporting a long beard, clutched the leg of a chair. Behind the protesters lay piles of rocks — ammunition to hurl at anyone who might try to break up their demonstration.
"Against the army, it is nothing," shrugged Mohammed, a teacher in the city of Tanta who had come to Cairo to support Morsy. "They are for the thugs."
Mohammed said that the pro-Morsy demonstration had been attacked by civilians two nights ago. He did not know when they would come back, but sounded certain that bloodshed was in the future. "All these people," he said, waving at the crowd to the front, "70 percent will die."
While that sounds like a gross exaggeration, the threat of violence — and this crowd’s anger at the military coup — was very real. "This is a kidnap for our democracy, for everything we worked for," said Mohammed. Why had the army chosen to overthrow Morsy? It wasn’t solely because the president had made mistakes, but because "they think that he is weak."
Despite all the evidence that a coup was imminent, the pro-Morsy crowd tried to keep its spirits up before the military’s announcement, shooting off fireworks and chanting in support of their president. "Democracy works only when they win!!!" read one sign; "Warning: Respect results of democracy or it’s going to be Islamic Revolution," read another.
A hush fell over the crowd as the army statement announcing its takeover was read over the radio, but the crowd could not stay silent until the end. "Down, down with the military government," protesters started chanting, drowning out the announcement. Another volley of shooting — from where or what sort of weapons was unclear — filled the square.
"The army, the dogs, kill the Egyptian people," a protester who gave his name as Mohammed Abdel Fattah said, even as the shooting continued. "The Egyptian people will not go down."
Even the military takeover did not change the Brotherhood’s talking points. The front-page headline of their political party’s newspaper tomorrow blares, "The People Come Out To Support Legitimacy." Morsy harped on how his victories at the ballot box conferred democratic legitimacy in a speech on Tuesday night, repeating the word "legitimacy" 57 times.
Just a short walk away, other protesters were honking their horns happily and waving flags at Morsy’s fall from grace. Protesters waving Egyptian flags filtered into the square throughout the day, the crowds growing larger as evening — and the military’s announcement that it was taking power — approached. As the declaration neared, the famous slogan of the protests — irhal, "leave" — was replaced by signs bearing the word rahal, "he left."
But just under the joyous surface, there was an ambivalent undercurrent. Were Egyptians witnessing a new birth of the revolution? Or a military coup that undermined the democratic gains of the past year?
The case of Adolf Hitler was on some protesters’ minds as a justification for bringing down their president. Like the Nazi leader, the argument goes, Morsy was democratically elected — but then used his power to subvert the institutions he had been elected to serve. Omar Rezda, a Cairo investment banker who supported the president’s ouster, was one who made that case. "I don’t really like calling this a coup," he said, "because this has come about due to overwhelming popular support."
Around 3 p.m. in Cairo, the news started to break that the army was tightening its grip on major thoroughfares and state institutions throughout the city. The Maspero building, which houses the state TV apparatus, was one of the first targets. The building was open but largely empty of its civilian employees. Soldiers stood at attention by the doors, while others crouched together inside in small groups, waiting. Graffiti aimed at the Brotherhood was scrawled across the buildings around Maspero: "Revolutionary trials immediately," and "Leave, you cowards."