Deadly Clashes Deepen Crisis in Egypt

In Cairo, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into Tahrir square and surrounded the presidential palace, to heed al-Sisi's call in a display of nationalism and army worship that has gripped much of the country. "I am here to mandate the army to confront terrorism," says Mohamed Rabia, a 26-year-old demonstrator in Tahrir. "The Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. The only solution is for the army to arrest their entire leadership and break up their sit-ins."

Meanwhile, the military made its presence felt, deploying soldiers and armor. Apache helicopters swooped low over the cheering crowds. Demonstrators posed for photographs next to smiling soldiers. Even police officers, long the arch enemy of protesters in Tahrir who launched the 2011 revolution on National Police Day to address police brutality, strolled amiably through the square. Al-Sisi's face was omnipresent on the streets. Vendors hawked posters, T-shirts and buttons bearing pictures of the army chief, sometimes depicted alongside former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"The army will never betray the country," says Adel Salah al-Din, a 42-year-old military supporter. "They never have, if they did we would be like Syria."

The pro-Morsi rally was only several miles was across town but the two scenes were worlds apart. The Muslim Brotherhood had dubbed it the "Friday to bring down the coup" and organized 34 marches in Cairo alone in defiance of al-Sisi's speech. The largest rally was at the Rabea al-Adeweya mosque where demonstrators waved pictures of Morsi and chanted against the military, whistling in derision at helicopters flying overhead. Three bearded men on a moped wound their way through the crowd. "Terrorists coming through, make way for the terrorists," the driver joked with a smile.

"Al-Sisi doesn't represent me. He is the leader of the army; I am a civilian. He should take off his uniform if he wants to play politics," says Ahmed Qassem, a 32-year-old dentist who makes the journey to Cairo every weekend from his hometown in the southern city of Minya to show his support for the ousted president. "If we are terrorists then all Egyptians are terrorists. We are not leaving until Morsi returns."

The prospect of Morsi being reinstated has grown increasingly far-fetched. The deposed president has been held incommunicado by the military since July 3. According to a report in the Associated Press, military intelligence agents have questioned him at least once a day, sometimes for up to five hours, focusing on the inner workings of his presidency and of the Brotherhood. On Friday, civilian prosecutors announced they had launched an investigation into Morsi on charges of murder and conspiring with the Palestinian group Hamas, marking the first formal legal measures leveled against him. Prosecutors ordered him detained for 15 days pending investigation and the interior ministry said he would be transferred to Torah Prison, where Mubarak is being held.

"We know it is very hard for the president to come back," says Yehiya Mohammed, a 28-year-old Morsi supporter from Zagazig, a city in the eastern Nile Delta. "But we have no other options. Our sit-in is the only way forward. We need patience."

The potential for further bloodshed remains high. The Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, has warned Morsi's supporters they will soon be dispersed from their largest sit-ins where thousands have lived for weeks. Ibrahim also said he was reinstating a state security agency that under the Mubarak regime was responsible for monitoring religious and political activities and were known for carrying out torture and forced disappearances. "The untechnical restructuring of the Interior Ministry after the revolution, and the abolition of certain departments, are the reasons for the extremist activities that we see now," Ibrahim said. Critics view the move as part of a broader effort by the old security apparatus to reconstitute itself and tighten its grip once again, this time with public support.

The deepening crisis has dismayed many of the revolutionaries who struggled to overcome successive authoritarian regimes: Mubarak's government, the direct rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and the Brotherhood, only to see the military and old security apparatus rise again, perhaps entrenching themselves even deeper into Egyptian life.

As hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Cairo on Friday in the competing rallies, there was another, much smaller protest on the opposite bank of the Nile at Sphinx square. Several dozen men and women gathered in the afternoon to voice their opposition to the both the military and the Brotherhood, billing their rally as the 'Third Square.' 

"I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know we can't return to the way the Brotherhood were ruling and we can't go back to military rule either," says Shaimaa Said, a 33-year-old Cairo resident. She holds up a poster with the faces of both Morsi and al-Sisi crossed out and the caption underneath them: "Down with religious fascism. Down with military fascism." 

Beside her stands 29-year-old Hanan Abdel Gazar. "We want to continue the January 25 revolution. First the Brotherhood stole it from us so we protested them on June 30. Now the army is stealing it."

Tags: cairo, egypt, hosni mubarak, mohammed morsi, muslim brotherhood

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

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