Egypt’s Perfect Storm
A power-hungry general, defiant Islamists, and massive protests have set the stage for a showdown in Cairo.
CAIRO, Egypt — As the sun rose over Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque early Friday morning, the thousands of residents of the pro-Morsy tent city there prepared for their most direct confrontation yet with Egypt’s military rulers. As mothers combed the hair of their young daughters and men read the morning newspaper, teenage boys lined up in military-like formation, chanting in unison that they would defy army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the new political order.
In Sisi’s televised address on Wednesday, July 24, following another deadly bombing that targeted police, the general who orchestrated the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy urged the Egyptian masses to "prove their will" and give security forces a "mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism." His remarks — and the subsequent popular mobilization by both pro- and anti-Morsy groups — have led to fears that Egypt is on the cusp of further bloodshed.
But many Egyptians at Rabaa said they are unfairly being labeled as terrorists, just because they oppose Sisi and his government takeover. "Sisi says he is against terrorism," said Khaled, a middle-aged man who traveled to Cairo from Upper Egypt to join the Islamist protest. "But are we all terrorists? He’s the minister of defense, but he’s not defending us. He wants to murder us."
Mae, a young woman from Cairo, said Sisi’s speech proved he had no intention of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to have a place in the new Egypt — instead, he was trying to "terrify the people."
Just over six miles away from the Islamist camp, Tahrir Square swelled with Sisi supporters in a protest that was a mirror image to the one at Rabaa al-Adaweya. While a line of tanks topped with smiling soldiers greeted protesters at Tahrir’s main entrance, the military was absent from the vicinity of Rabaa al-Adaweya during the day. Protesters said the numbers today in Tahrir and outside the presidential palace represented a mandate to tackle violence they say has been incited repeatedly by the Muslim Brotherhood. Signs dotted the mass demonstration reading: "We authorize you Sisi to confront terrorists."
Just who are these "terrorists" that Sisi said he needed a popular mandate to confront, anyway? Protesters in Tahrir said they were mainly the Egyptians camped out at Rabaa Mosque and in Sinai, where jihadists have unleashed a constant stream of terror attacks on security forces following Morsy’s arrest. Several Tahrir protesters even compared the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions to the 9/11 attacks, a sentiment that is building traction. "To America & the west," Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians Party, wrote on Twitter today. "Egypt is fighting an ideology that put you thru a nightmare in 9/11."
Many Egyptians in Tahrir, who say they have repeatedly been betrayed by their government, view Sisi and the army as the answer to Egypt’s political strife. "I came here today to support Sisi," said one protester, who gave his name as Mohammed. "To tell the world that the Egyptian army is everything. It’s power."
Here, General Sisi has assumed a god-like, celebrity status. Vendors sell t-shirts, kites, and masks plastered with his face. Meanwhile, the military has channeled nationalistic zeal for its own political ends: Army helicopters circled Tahrir all day, buzzing as close as 50 feet above protesters’ heads, and dropping Egyptian flags on the cheering crowd. Their sheer force of the rotors kicked up swirling clouds of dust, completely coating everyone below. But even in the baking sun, complete strangers wiped off the grime from each other’s faces and smiled, chanting Sisi’s name.
Anti-American sentiment in both camps has surged here following the military takeover. At checkpoints leading into Tahrir, civilians told some American reporters that they were forbidden from entering, while pro-Morsy protesters at Rabaa al-Adaweya angrily denounced what they called a love affair between U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson and the Egyptian Army. Washington has treaded cautiously: On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that it was delaying the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, but the State Department said on Friday that it would not label Morsy’s ouster a coup.
Meanwhile, Morsy, who has been held at an undisclosed location since his ouster on July 3, is facing charges of murder and conspiring with the Islamist militant group Hamas.
On Friday night, protesters in Tahrir staged a mock trial for Morsy and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders. The crowd went wild as the fake verdict was read: life in prison.
With all signs pointing to confrontation, Cairo is bracing itself for more bloodshed. In another ominous sign, an Egyptian military official speaking to Reuters gave the Muslim Brotherhood a 48-hour deadline to comply with its political roadmap — the "or else" was left unsaid, but likely portends more violence. As night fell, Interim Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that the massive Rabaa sit-in will be "brought to an end soon and in a legal manner," noting that residents around Rabaa — many of whom support Sisi — have filed complaints against the nearly month-long protest.
Outside of Cairo, violence is already spiking. At least five Egyptians were killed and more than 100 were injured in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsy protests in the coastal city of Alexandria on Friday, according to the Egyptian daily Ahram. One of the victims was reportedly a 14-year-old boy, who was stabbed in the stomach. The death toll in Egypt since early June has far surpassed 100.
That fact has left pretty much everyone worried about the direction Egypt is heading.
"Violence begets violence, and should there be a violent crackdown on Islamists, they are unlikely to just sit back and take it, at least not in the long-term," said International Crisis Group Egypt analyst Yasser El-Shimy in an interview.
While many of the Islamist protesters at Rabaa Mosque are peaceful, there are those, like Khaled from Upper Egypt, who are ready to fight and die to maintain their political prominence in a bitterly divided Egypt.
"For 30 years we were slaves under Mubarak," said Khaled. "We have no fear. We will die, no problem. It will be better than to live as slaves."