To bar entrance to the stretch of Nasr Road where several thousand diehard Muslim Brothers have established a makeshift protest camp, the Egyptian army parked a line of armored vehicles, evenly spaced and impossible to miss — standing as they are between the grave of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the reviewing stand where the Egyptian president was assassinated by Islamist extremists.
A couple of long blocks further on, bearded men stand behind homemade shields at a checkpoint of their own. The street beyond is crowded with a fraction of the millions who lifted the Brotherhood to power in every election since the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Some sit dejected on curbs. A few arrange piles of broken concrete – first gathered as weapons – into swooping Arabic letters that might be read from the air: “Legitimacy is the source,” reads one. Most, however, stand quietly in small groups, keen to articulate both their acute sense of betrayal and a determination that has been a hallmark of the Brotherhood since it was founded 80 years ago, though now expressed in more apocalyptic terms.
“The veil of democracy has been removed,” says Ali Holayel, 37, of Suez City. “We adopted peacefulness. We adopted democracy. They have used democracy against us.
“The end of it,” he says, “will be our souls, our deaths. The whole Islamic movement will join.”
The Brothers are scrambling for footing in a world suddenly turned upside down. Until Wednesday afternoon, they held the presidency, the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, and the prospect of months before being called to account by voters in the next election. Then President Mohamed Morsi was taken into custody by the army, arrest warrants were issued for 300 others and the armored personnel carriers moved into place.
“How is the democracy game played?” asks Sayeed Mohammad, a towel around his neck to cut the heat from Thursday’s afternoon sun. “Majority and minority, right? Fifty-percent plus one, majority rules. We’re not cutting anyone out of the process. We’re just asking people to respect the rules of the game.”
In the Egypt beyond the armored cordon, the forces behind the coup were hard at work marketing the new regime. It was not a soft sell. Twice on Thursday, and again on Friday morning, fighter jets put on an air show over downtown Cairo, trailing decorative smoke in the colors of the national flag, then arcing across the pale blue sky to form a massive valentine.
On television, the government run Nile News channel aired patriotic songs over a montage that featured an aerial image of a massive gathering of people – presumably taken on June 30, when millions of Egyptians turned out to protest Morsi’s rule – followed by an aerial image of a massive gathering of tanks. All stations sympathetic to the Brotherhood were taken off the air.
“The thing that upsets me right now is they’re making us feel like we don’t really belong to the country,” says Hassan Ahmed, 47, and leaning on a car listening to speakers outside the Rabaa al-Adawia mosque, ground zero for the encampment. “I don’t really care about political Islam. I’m not here about political Islam. I’m here as a regular person who voted. If it was [Mohammad] El-Baradei who was president and he was removed by force, I would be here all the same,” Ahmed says, naming the liberal Nobel Laureate who heads a secular liberal party.
Ahmed, an engineer, said he voted for Morsi but is not himself a member of the Brotherhood. “I elected Morsi because he had an institution that would work with him, spread out all over Egypt and they knew the problems of the population.” He said he found himself weeping after the coup, and made his way to the encampment, one of two in Cairo. “I came here only a few hours ago, but I came here to die,” he says, and chuckles.
No confrontation appeared imminent at the time, but on Friday afternoon Brotherhood supporters marched from a mass rally at the Nasr Road encampment to the army installation where Morsi is thought to be held. Gunshots were heard, and journalists saw at least one body. Reuters reported three killed. A military spokesman insisted soldiers fired only blanks. Before the march, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said in a Tweet that the struggle against the coup would take place only through “peaceful means,” through a National Coalition. “Any violence is rejected.”
It seems too early to tell which way things would go. In Egypt’s largely lawless Sinai peninsula, where groups affiliated with al Qaeda have taken root, attacks on the military put the region under an official state of emergency. But there were also signs that other Islamist groups were continuing to invest in politics, evidently happy to capitalize on the Brotherhood’s woes: The Salafist Nour party was represented on the podium Wednesday where Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced Morsi’s removal. And the Islamic Group, which throughout the 1990s carried out terror attacks aimed at bringing down the Egyptian state, called for “a comprehensive reconciliation.” Why? “To open a bright future for our dear Egypt.”
The little-known jurist who was appointed interim president, Adli Mansour, professed that the Brotherhood would be welcome to participate in the elections he vowed were forthcoming. But it was unclear whether the Brotherhood could be lured back into the process. Their urban encampments amounted to an expression of the politics of protest that have held sway in Egypt – the one straddling Nasr Road in many ways a mini-Tahrir, with its makeshift tents and tea vendors and nonstop speeches.
At one point Thursday, there was even a phalanx of clerics from Al-Azhar University, their distinctive red and white hats bobbing in formation as they arrived from a side street, chanting “Illegitimate.” The University’s chief cleric supported the coup, but the school’s faculty includes a good number of Brotherhood supporters.
“The democratic system develops with time,” says Mohammed Ahmed Mahmoud, a pharmacist in the Giza section of Cairo, moving out from under the shade of a tarpaulin to chat. His words were directed at the injustice of a coup that, on Friday, prompted the African Union to bar Egypt from membership. But the observations might, in one possible future, also prove useful in a remedial course for the Brotherhood, should such a course be undertaken.
“There could be mistakes at the beginning,” he says. “You have to stay with it. It didn’t appear in Europe overnight. It took a long time. I consider the Muslim Brotherhood to present the moderate way.”