Cairo’s Forever War

The day after a massacre, Egypt's Islamists settle in for a long fight.


CAIRO — As Egypt enters a tense, hot Ramadan, supporters of overthrown President Mohamed Morsy have settled in for a long fight.

By the tens of thousands, if not more, they packed the square and streets around Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque on Tuesday night, the eve of the holy month, praying, celebrating, and listening to a recording of the man they still consider their country’s leader. They vowed not to leave until he is reinstated.

"We’re not just the Muslim Brotherhood, all the Egyptians are here in the streets with us," said Tantawi Mohamed, a general surgeon who arrived at the sit-in on Saturday from his home governorate of Minya, some four hours to the south. "I work in a private hospital. My people, my wife, I left them all in Minya and came here and I’ll stand here until Doctor Morsy returns to us."

The Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in has waxed and waned since it began more than a week ago in response to the millions of protesters who turned out to demand Morsy leave. But on Tuesday — even after a bloody army rampage left at least 51 of Morsy’s supporters dead the previous morning — the demonstration grew huge and festive, taking on the atmosphere of an Islamist Tahrir Square.

Amateur guards in hard hats apologized for pat-downs at the chest-high, ad-hoc brick barricades blocking the road toward the mosque. Behind them, a swarm of vendors sold popcorn, pears, koshari, vegetables, and juice, in addition to Egyptian flags, religious trinkets, black banners bearing the Islamic testament of faith, and a seemingly endless number of Morsy posters.

A crowd surrounded a group of men who danced in a circle, singing "Egypt is Islamic, Egypt is Islamic."

When lines of Morsy’s supporters bowed in prayer, they packed the roads that branched away from the mosque for more than a hundred yards in several directions. Thin lines of protesters squeezed among their ranks to get in and out, many of them families with women and children. It was a crowd notably more conservative than the counterpart that ousted their president, but not without diversity in both class and dress.

"There must be 100,000 people here," said a young man attempting to enter, his hands on the back of the man in front of him.

"No man, there’s two or three million," said an older man confidently, on his way out.

Many of those at the sit-in seemed to be in a constant state of worship. During a pause in one of the main prayers, they listened as a familiar voice, hard to hear at first, came over the battered loudspeakers hanging from intermittent lamp posts. Men called for silence.

It was the voice of Morsy from a year ago, delivering a speech marking the beginning of Ramadan, when he was president.

"He’s still president," said Tarek Osman, a 43-year-old textile engineer standing beneath a tent next to a flat-bed truck loaded with tomatoes and cucumbers.

He said that he had once trusted Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who had been elevated by Morsy shortly after he took office — and helped orchestrate the popular coup that ended his presidency. Sisi had once been perceived as close to Morsy, the two less than friendly but far more at ease than one might expect of a general and a long-repressed Muslim Brother. Sisi’s personal religious devotion reportedly contributed to this perception.

But to the tens of thousands packing the Rabaa el-Adaweya sit-in, which wraps around a large defense ministry compound, Sisi is now the enemy, a traitor. "The price of treason is blood," according to graffiti that has been scrawled beneath military guard towers across the walls of the compound. Then came the soldiers and riot police, who killed 51 Morsy supporters and wounded at least 300 more in a Monday pre-dawn attack on an extension of the sit-in at the Republican Guards Club.

"Sisi killed the people praying beside the Republican Guards but he left protesters in front of the federal palace [on June 30]," Osman said, pointing to the massive anti-Morsy demonstrations that eventually led Sisi to step in, detain Morsy, and end his government. "Why this imbalance?"

Osman echoed a belief held by many of Morsy’s supporters that those who opposed them did so not out of legitimate desire to change a failing government, but because they had been manipulated or fired by vengeance.

"Sisi told us that when the people made a revolution on the 30th of June, he obeyed the revolution. But that’s not a revolution, because everyone in Tahrir or the federal palace was firstly sons of army members, and Christians, and the followers of Mubarak, the thieves, the thugs," he said. "That’s not our people, authentic people in Egypt. The authentic people are here."

Those inside the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in — who have been energized by Brotherhood leaders to remain, peacefully, until Morsy returns — hold Osman’s view. Outside, many citizens, political elites, and privately owned media have already begun to move on. They’re characterizing Morsy’s supporters as "extremists," or even "terrorists." The two worldviews seem cleanly separated, the lack of overlap a dismal sign for reconciliation, even as the military-backed interim government begins to appoint ministers and lay a roadmap for elections which it says the Brotherhood can join.

Outside a fast-food restaurant, a group of protesters watched their own sit-in play out on a television screen. One man in glasses and a pressed white dress shirt stepped away to speak quietly.

A resident of the neighborhood, he didn’t want to give his name. He said that the protesters who had been encamped outside the Republican Guards Club instigated the military’s lethal response. Perhaps two dozen men on motorbikes and firing birdshot charged a guarded barricade in an attempt to breach the club.

He dismissed the argument, put forth by Morsy’s supporters, that the popular but ultimately military-backed coup against an elected president had been a devastating crime against "legitimacy."

"Couldn’t you say Mubarak had legitimacy," he asked. "If 30 million people come down to the streets, what does that mean … If they want to elect one of their men again, OK, they can do it in two months or six months."

But compromise is not on the agenda of the Rabaa el-Adaweya protesters, nor of the Brotherhood’s leaders — at least not publicly.

As a long march of Morsy supporters symbolically carrying their own funeral shrouds and bearing mock coffins symbolizing the 51 people who died on Monday morning entered the sit-in, five men held up a banner with images of two dead protesters and the words: "Our peacefulness met with bullets."

Aisha Ibrahim, a bespectacled housewife wearing a niqab and a green headband reading "yes to legitimacy," watched the coffins come in.

"It was dirty work. The army had to shoot us while we were praying," she said, her voice hoarse. "I’m not afraid of anyone, our lord is here."

Ibrahim complained that private media channels — which now display banners reading "against terrorism" and "the people’s word against extremism" — were lying about the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in. Video provided by the military and aired by some in the wake of the Republican Guards shooting showed, among images of Morsy supporters firing homemade handguns, bottles of whiskey supposedly recovered from their tents.

"All those corrupt channels, like CBC, I don’t want to say names, they said we had weapons and bottles of wine…. On the contrary, when you go into the middle of the people, it’s a place of good manners, a place of respectability, a place of morals," she said.

Negotiating with the military after the "massacre" was impossible, she said.

"After what happened? Never, never. What should happen is that Doctor Morsy returns," Ibrahim said. "They tell you that we’re the minority. Do you see all that? That’s a minority. When you leave and go write, tell them we’re not a minority."

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