The view from the ground.

Cairo’s Charm Offensive

Why Egypt's islamists are kissing up to the army that's gunning them down.

Mosaab Elshamy / FP
Mosaab Elshamy / FP
Mosaab Elshamy / FP

CAIRO — Beneath a baking summer sun in Cairo's prim Heliopolis neighborhood, outside the heavily guarded compound of the Republican Guards, supporters of Egypt's recently ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsy squinted upward into the cloudless sky and beating rotor blades of a hovering army helicopter as if looking for a sign.

CAIRO — Beneath a baking summer sun in Cairo’s prim Heliopolis neighborhood, outside the heavily guarded compound of the Republican Guards, supporters of Egypt’s recently ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsy squinted upward into the cloudless sky and beating rotor blades of a hovering army helicopter as if looking for a sign.

Some laughed. "He’s trying to scare us," said a man, smiling.

Many cheered and flashed victory signs. "He’s filming! He’s filming!" one shouted, perhaps hoping that they would receive the same treatment the military gave to the president’s opponents four days earlier — filming their massive turnout and delivering the footage to a popular television channel for broadcast.

Through the wash of swirling dirt and dust, the military helicopter churned, inscrutable. What did it signify?

"Only God knows," one man said.

Two days after a popular military coup put a stunning end to Morsy’s presidency, supporters of the one-time engineering professor and Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik said they felt betrayed and disappointed that the "legitimate" leader of Egypt had been deposed by force. They proclaimed that they were resolved to a seemingly impossible task: restoring Morsy to the presidency.

To do so, their leaders — those yet to be arrested in a spreading crackdown — have once again entered into a dance with the very generals who brought them down. They’re praising the military as brothers even as rank-and-file supporters call for the execution of the defense minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who delivered Morsy’s coup de grace. For its part, the military is reaching right back out to the movement that it just threw out of power — even as the generals move to neuter the Brotherhood’s leadership.

There is little chance that the military, which has already initiated its "roadmap" for a transition, will make a bargain — a referendum on Morsy’s rule, for instance. But the Brotherhood’s leaders — who have drilled into their supporters that Morsy’s legitimacy is worth dying for — may see few options but to stand by their core principle: that Morsy was elected.

"Why am I here?" said Hassan Khaled, a 22-year-old commerce student at Cairo University. "Because Morsy is the elected president… We spent 30 years under the rule of President Hosni [Mubarak], who always took the elections by rigging. It’s our right to choose a president."

All but a few of the Brotherhood’s religious and political leaders, including Morsy, have been arrested or remain incommunicado, according to aides. Their television channel, Egypt 25, has been shut down, along with others sympathetic to more conservative Islamists. The movement’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, remains free, though various earlier reports of his arrest made it unclear whether that was by the military’s own design. Many fear that arresting the supreme guide, a blow the state has not inflicted on the Brotherhood for decades, would prompt widespread violence. Late on Friday night, the government continued to squeeze. Heavily armed police snatched Khairat al-Shater, Badie’s deputy and arguably the Brotherhood’s most powerful figure, along with his brother. They also arrested Hazem Abu Ismail, a wildly popular Salafi preacher who had come out in support of Morsy, to the cheers of watching neighbors.

The resulting flux has become combustible. Few believe that disciplined, lifelong Brotherhood cadres will go beyond Badie’s call for peaceful resistance. But Salafis and unaffiliated supporters may see violence as the only response, and the Brothers have shown they are willing to use firearms when conflict erupts. In the Sinai Peninsula, unidentified armed men have already begun attacking military and other security installations. Residents of Cairo’s Manial neighborhood said armed Morsy supporters attempting to reach Tahrir Square on Friday night killed at least half a dozen residents when they were resisted.

"The Brotherhood can only impose discipline on its own members," said Shadi Hamid, a scholar of the Brotherhood and Islamist politics based at the Brookings Doha Center.

On a day Morsy’s supporters dubbed the Friday of Rejection, protesters’ swelling presence on the streets already began to spark violence; first in Heliopolis, where Republican Guards opened fire on encroaching demonstrators, and later near Tahrir Square, where an ill-advised pro-Morsy march on its way to nearby state media headquarters passed close to anti-Morsy crowds still occupying the Square. An hours-long exchange of rocks, fireworks and gunfire ensued. The street battle, a taste of what could come if the crisis is not resolved, ended only with an organized retreat by Morsy’s backers and the tardy intervention of the army.

After the shooting outside the Guards’ sprawling club compound, hundreds of Morsy’s supporters surrounded the front gate. The demonstration settled into an open sit-in, blocking traffic along the main road to Cairo’s airport and extending a new artery of protest from the main encampment of Morsy’s partisans outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque a few thousand feet down a road that runs past the Defense Ministry.

Morsy’s street support on Friday did not come close to rivaling the millions that turned out across the nation on June 30 to demand his departure, but it revealed a base that was not yet pondering surrender. The military, which is likely keen to avoid provoking the Brothers any more than it already has, launched a jarring charm offensive in response.

Outside the Republican Guards compound, four small helicopters buzzed the protest trailing the flags of the branches of Egypt’s armed forces, a repeat of the show they put on for the Islamists’ opponents in Tahrir Square just days earlier. The crowd erupted with glee, screaming "God is great!". Half a dozen fighter jets streaked by, leaving trails of smoke in the colors of the Egyptian flag. Not long after, twice as many propeller planes performed maneuvers high above the crowd. On the asphalt near the barbed wire protecting the compound’s front gate, the blood of a protester shot through the head evaporated in the heat.

Khaled, the student, stood across the road from the gate with a can of spraypaint. Behind him was a wall surrounding a club for military production officers — those who run the vast network of military businesses that manufacture and sell arms and civilian goods and ensure that the armed forces remain the country’s most powerful institution. On the wall, his opinion of the defense minister was scrawled in blue paint: "Sisi is a traitor. Sisi is an infiltrator."

Throughout the protest, Morsy’s supporters spoke of injustice — a belief that they had played the game by the rules only to be cheated out of power by corrupt and intransigent opponents. Elsewhere on the wall, someone had written in English: "Where is my vote?"

In June 2012, when Morsy defeated former Air Force general and one-time prime minister Ahmed Shafik in a runoff, he did so by the thinnest of margins, garnering just 51.7 percent of the vote. His victory came on the backs of an unlikely coalition of leftists, liberals and revolutionaries who held their noses and voted for the candidate of a secretive, deeply conservative religious movement rather than see the presidency go to Shafik, who to them personified the potential return of the Mubarak regime they had spilled blood to end. Morsy and his allies then rode roughshod over weak and floundering opposition parties, asserting their majority in nearly every conflict, waving off demands for compromise, and occasionally governing by fiat. One year later, most of those who had held their nose had abandoned Morsy.

Still, there were signs in Friday’s protests that the coup, though it arrived on an unprecedented wave of popular support, had inspired anger beyond the insular Brotherhood and Islamist social networks. Some who came to the Republican Guards compound said that they were not Brotherhood members or committed Morsy partisans but simply angry that their votes had been usurped. They complained that Morsy had been hamstrung by uncooperative opposition parties and subversive ministries that laid traps to make governing impossible. Some pointed with suspicion to the rolling blackouts, petrol shortages and panic over the availability of basic foodstuffs that had wracked the nation in the weeks leading up to June 30. They noted with dark irony that the crises had suddenly stopped since Morsy’s fall — though many economic problems were likely to continue under any new government.

"We went down for five elections: [including] the People’s Assembly, the Shoura Council, a referendum, presidential, and in the end, the military council…threw them in the trash," said Ahmed Hassan, the 35-year-old owner of an IT company.

Hassan claimed the June 30 protests had been fueled by an alliance of Christians, liberals and Mubarak regime sympathizers who could not abide the idea of an Islamist president. Others said they believed the demonstrators were mostly young people who had been brainwashed by an array of hostile television netwokrs. Some pointed out that almost none of the independent stations continued to cover protests in support of Morsy following the coup.

Hassan argued that one year had hardly been enough time for Morsy’s administration to correct Egypt’s path, after three decades under Mubarak. Whatever mistakes Morsy had made, his supporters argued, were the result of a conniving bureaucracy packed with Mubarak holdovers — hardly justification for the undemocratic removal of Egypt’s first elected president.

"Why do the liberals who talk about democracy not respond with democracy? They did it by force, why?" Hassan asked.

Yehia Mowiena, a 26-year-old software engineer who was serving in the military and unable to vote in the 2012 election, said he — like the other reluctant Morsy supporters — had urged his friends to vote in the Brotherhood to keep out Shafik.

Mowiena knew that a set of presidential decrees that Morsy issued in November to put himself and the constitutional assembly above judicial review was an enormous mistake. But he said it was necessary to protect against the predations of reactionary judges seeking to undo every step Morsy and the Brotherhood’s political party made.

Besides, Mowiena added, overthrowing an elected leader set a dangerous precedent for Egypt.

"We have corruption everywhere in Egypt. What if another Egyptian president wanted to fight this corruption, and the army and the police and the media ganged up against him? They can bring him down just like Mohamed Morsy," said Mowiena.

It remains unclear whether the Brotherhood has a strategy to end the crisis, but their response has been consistent: refuse. Beginning with the climactic hours of the coup, when Morsy continued to decline suggestions to resign or call early elections, they have rejected the legitimacy of the overthrow. Rather than admit defeat, explain that they wish to avoid further bloodshed, make gestures toward the will of the mass protests, and retrench for further elections, they have demanded that Morsy be reinstated as president. The state’s behavior has not helped convince them that it has any intention of playing fair.

On the ground, this has translated into a schizophrenic approach to the army by Morsy’s supporters. Vulgar jeers when military helicopters circle overhead have transformed into cheers and victory signs. Some protesters chant, "the army and the people are one hand." Others spray paint "the price of treason is blood" on the walls of the Defense Ministry. Some link hands to prevent angry members from approaching military checkpoints, while at other rallies in Cairo the two sides have come to blows. On Friday, a woman in a black niqab walking from the Republican Guards protest to the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in stopped to berate soldiers perched in a Defense Ministry guard tower. "We’re Muslims, not terrorists," she said bitterly, after bystanders encouraged her to move on.

The Brotherhood leadership may or may not privately believe that Egypt’s majority opinion now lies with those who took to the streets on June 30 to unseat Morsy, but they likely remain confident in their time-tested ability to bring out a loyal core of supporters. Their 85-year history is characterized by repression and surviving under threat. They may also hope that Morsy’s continued detention and the military’s ham-fisted crackdown on the pretext of preventing violence backfires, stirring up more anger among supporters and, possibly, even citizens sitting on the fence.

Most importantly, they know that the military prizes stability and calm and is anxious that the popular coup be accepted internationally. The threat of ongoing unrest and violence when supporters whom the Brotherhood cannot or will not control come to grips with their opponents could undermine the generals’ roadmap. Few will care who becomes prime minister if street battles rage in Cairo and the governorates for days or weeks.

"I think they’re back in their natural state of opposition," said Brookings’ Hamid. "They’ve always been more comfortable, in a sense, with their backs to the wall."

Evan Hill is a former Al Jazeera America staff writer, currently researching and writing on the Middle East.

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