CAIRO, Egypt — On the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, rival protest rallies packed the streets as Egypt careened into yet another fateful intersection on a revolutionary road that stretches out into an uncertain future.
Amid the searing heat of midday, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian Islamists and supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first-ever freely elected president who was forced out of power last week and arrested by the Egyptian military, packed noon prayers at mosques in the city and across the country, gathering in squares to call for Morsi’s release and return to power.
As the sun began to go down, tens of thousands of supporters of the military’s decision to get behind massive street protests that called for Morsi’s removal from office gathered in Tahrir Square, where the revolution began in 2011. To Morsi’s opponents, he had squandered his presidency, abused his powers and needed to step down.
For those gathered in Tahrir Square, the sunset was a celebration of the traditional breaking of the Ramadan ritual of fasting and a chance to reclaim the democratic hopes that came out of the popular uprising that toppled the 30-year autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak in February of 2011.
For those gathered on the other side of town at the Raba’a Mosque, it was a defiant show of strength by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, that they would not easily relinquish the electoral win that brought their leader, Morsi, to power and that won the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups a clear majority in the newly elected parliament.
At the Raba’a Mosque, the crowd was filled with banners and posters that condemned the Egyptian military’s actions, which supporters depicted as clearly a military coup even if their opponents and the United States government have refrained from calling it one. If the US did call it a coup, that would trigger a policy requirement to cut off US aid to Egypt.
“We Reject Your Military Coup,” read one enormous banner at the center of the crowd amid a sea of placards which blamed the Obama administration for allowing the Egyptian military to orchestrate the coup that ousted Morsi, who remained under detention in an unknown location.
Another smaller sign read simply, “Where’s My Vote?”
At prayers inside the mosque, which were carried out on a system of loudspeakers that stretched across 20 square blocks in Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo, the Islamic cleric Gamal Abdel Sattar led the prayers.
And during a thunderous sermon as his voice cracked with emotion, Sattar echoed one of the memorable phrases of the earliest days of Tahrir Square, saying, “Hold your head up high, you’re an Egyptian. Hold your head up high, your president is Morsi!”
“We are the righteous ones. In the name of Allah, we are the ones who will be victorious!” he shouted.
And then he led the crowd in a call-and-response chant, saying, “Freedom, where are you?”
And the crowd responded, shouting, “The military stands between us!”
Ahmed Araf, spokesman for Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, said that more than 200 members of the party and the Muslim Brotherhood were still being illegally detained on trumped-up charges. The mosque had become a kind of fortress with supporters camped out in tents and standing in vigil to protect the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom face arrest warrants from the military.
“We have a righteous case. We have accomplished many things since the January 25 revolution, “ he said, referring to the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising that began in Egypt on January 25, 2011 and 18 days later toppled Mubarak.
“And now we are fighting to preserve those gains and to stop a return to the days before 2011, to the 1960s and the brutal suppression by the Egyptian military. We will not go back there. Morsi was democratically elected. Morsi is the president. How can the US say it supports democracy and then support the military in arresting him and taking over the government? All of America’s hypocrisy is exposed now,” he said, framed by a larger posted that depicted a military boot stepping on a ballot box.
As the sun dropped behind the skyline of Cairo, Tahrir Square, the center of the revolution, started to fill with people and a large crowd that reached what some estimated at about 100,000. It was not as big as the Muslim Brotherhood rallies perhaps, but it was equally spirited.
And here there was strong support for the ousting of Morsi who has been vilified for grabbing power, forcing a vote on a flawed constitution, allowing the economy to go into a free fall and failing to build an inclusive constituency in government. Here the crowd insisted that the actions of the military were not a coup, but a welcomed show of force to get behind street demonstrations that brought an estimated 20 million people to the streets on June 30.
On July 3, Morsi was arrested and on July 4, the military put in place a transition government.
At this spirited rally, another Islamic cleric spoke. This time it was Imam Mohammed Abdullah Nasr, a religious scholar who said he had been removed by the Muslim Brotherhood from the prestigious institution of Islamic theology called Al Azhar because he disagreed with what he called the “militant” theology of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, a puritanical stream of Islam that also has a strong political party in Egypt.
From the stage looking out at the crowd, he shouted into a microphone which blared out across a forest of loudspeakers around the square, saying, “No more Muslim Brotherhood! No more Salafists! This is the people’s revolution. This is a civil state! We call for a popular trial of Morsi and the criminals who stole our revolution.”
As he spoke, the crowd cheered loudly, and then he led them in a chant of the word, “Punishment! Punishment!”
It was a day in which the two sides raged over the future of Egypt. They were squaring off for what most observers fear is descending into a street fight over who has the legitimacy to run the country. Many here fear that it could erupt into a direct conflict if the security forces do not keep control.
On Thursday, the increase in military presence could be felt on the streets. At one corner, next to the Unknown Soldier Memorial near where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants in a different era of violence, there were 25 armored personnel carriers idling with heavy-caliber machine guns pointed out toward the streets.
The two sides may be bitterly divided, but they seem to agree on at least one thing. That is, both sides believe the United States is at fault for the mess in which Egypt finds itself.
On one side, there are placards and harsh words for the Obama administration who some see as supporting Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. On the other side is the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters blaming Washington for supporting what they see as a military coup to topple the first ever freely elected president in Egypt’s thousands of years of history.