On the night of 3rd July, Mohamed Morsi’s guards stepped aside and allowed army commandos to seize the Egyptian president. Over a month later, the country remains caught between two alternate realities—one, the world according to supporters of General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, the other, according to the pro-Morsi protesters camped out in sweltering tented cities in central Cairo.
In the tug-of-war for legitimacy, both sides have churned out a flurry of competing claims about the true “will of the Egyptian people.” Since the end of June, depending on who you ask, hundreds of thousands, or millions, or tens of millions, have taken to Egypt’s streets for Morsi, or against Morsi. The president’s removal was a military coup, or the next phase of the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak. It was anti-democratic, or it saved democracy from the stranglehold of power-crazed Islamists. The shooting of 74 Morsi supporters on 27th July was a state-sponsored massacre, or a fight between protesters and local residents, or a legitimate action against terrorists.
For ordinary Cairenes, these two worlds centre on pro-army Tahrir Square and pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiyya and Nahda—which, for now, are defying escalating threats from the authorities to forcibly clear the sites. Behind the sandbag barricades of the Nahda sit-in in west Cairo, men carrying repurposed weedkiller spray tanks are dousing fasting protesters with cool water. A group of women are sheltering from the sun under a banner that reads “Engineers against the coup.”
“We’ve been here for 33 days, and we’ll stay until Morsi returns,” says Nourhan Fekry, a veiled secondary school teacher.
“Are you confident that is going to happen?” I ask. She tells me that for her and the friends protesting with her, the struggle to restore Morsi is fuelled by faith.
“Nothing is impossible for God,” she says. “We’re ready to make any sacrifice. We won’t leave, even if the army attacks us—we’re ready to spill our blood and die here.”
Others have a different rationale. “I’m a computer engineer, I like to deal in facts,” says 30-year-old Mohamed Ibrahim, who is spending his annual leave from work in Saudi Arabia camping at Nahda. “The army controls 40 per cent of our economy,” he says—a claim thought to be roughly accurate but impossible to verify, as under a long-standing deal confirmed by Morsi the army’s financial affairs are shielded from civilian oversight. “It’s a state within a state, with no accountability. Morsi was helpless in the face of interests that are so entrenched.”
“What do you think will happen next?” I ask.
“The army say there will be more elections,” he says. “Why are they mocking us by asking us to vote? We voted five times since 2011, we had a democratically elected president who they deposed—why should we go through this charade again?”
Across the Nile, a huge pro-Morsi march is snaking towards the main sit-in at Raba’a al-Adawiyya, past the makeshift barricades where, a week earlier, 74 protesters were shot dead. Now the barriers are guarded by young men in a motley uniform of fluorescent jackets, stab vests and construction helmets. They are armed with heavy sticks. In the tented city that has sprung up behind them, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, Morsi’s last minister of culture, is sitting with a Brotherhood official and a pro-Morsi TV preacher.
“I don’t care if the army call us terrorists—they are the ones who have installed an illegitimate government,” says neatly coiffed Abdel-Aziz, whose tenure was marked by ongoing protests against his alleged “Brotherhoodization” of the ministry. “The coup has revealed the real faces of everyone we were dealing with —the army, the police, the ministry of justice, the interior ministry. Our mistake was not to clear state institutions of 100 per cent of former regime figures—these are the real enemies of the revolution.”
He is interrupted by crowds of Morsi supporters turning a famous taunt against the Muslim Brotherhood back on their enemies. “State security are sheep, the police are sheep, the army are sheep,” they chant. Abdel-Aziz smiles. “The army are desperately trying to recreate the Nasser era,” he says. “They actually wanted the coup to be 20 days later, on 23rd July, the anniversary of the Free Officers coup in 1952. But Abdel Fatah el-Sisi can never be Gamal Abdel Nasser.”
Travelling south to Tahrir Square is like stepping through a mirror. The official home of the 2011 revolution is now a shrine to the cult of the Egyptian military. In place of Rabaa and Nahda’s scruffy sandbags and piles of bricks, tanks festooned with wilting roses guard the entrances, and a huge portrait of Sisi in fatigues presides over the square. “The Muslim Brotherhood, America and Israel are united,” reads a huge banner. Underneath it, vendors are selling a cornucopia of Sisi posters: the general posing in his favourite aviator shades; floating among pink clouds with Nasser; as a grinning butcher in a bloody apron, slaughtering a sheep with Morsi’s head.
Ahmed el-Hosseini, a heavyset shopkeeper in his 40s, is drinking tea and laughing at the sheep poster. “There are four types of people supporting Morsi at Rabaa and Nahda,” he says. “One, poor people who have been bribed with food or money. Two, terrorists. Three, criminals. Four, the Brotherhood’s corrupt leadership, who want to seize political power.”
“Do you think any believe they are protecting democracy?” I ask.
“Impossible, it’s a simple question of numbers,” he replies. “In the second round of the 2012 presidential elections, Morsi won about 13 million votes. The [new anti-Morsi] Tamarod campaign against him got 22 million signatures. The people gave Morsi legitimacy and they took it from him.”
His friend Nabil Badr agrees. “Plus, during the revolution against Mubarak, the Brotherhood were up on the rooftops there sniping at us,” he adds. He gestures to the buildings around the square.
“Why would they be assisting Mubarak’s forces?” I ask.
“Don’t look for logic—they are involved in some very dark plots,” he replies. “You heard about the al-Qaeda jail breaks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya? The Muslim Brotherhood invited all those terrorists to come here and attack Egypt. The army is the only thing protecting us from them.”
“So you trust the army completely?” I ask.
“We love our army,” he replies, as a giant soundsystem starts to blare patriotic Nasser-era songs. “If they tell us to go to Rabaa and clear the protest there, we are ready to die in the attempt.”
With the military still hesitant to disperse the ex-president’s supporters by lethal force, the country remains divided. Tamarod representatives compare Morsi to Hitler, while a Brotherhood newspaper calls him “Egypt’s Mandela”. The middle ground is hard to find: attempts to launch “third square” protests against both Sisi and the Brotherhood have attracted only a few hundred people. But as ordinary people sweat out their differences on the street, the real decisions over Egypt’s future, like the long-planned 3rd July coup, are taking place behind closed doors.