Cairo – The fireworks celebrating Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s removal by the military are visible a few kilometres away, where thousands of his supporters are holding a sit-in, a protest they plan to continue until Morsi is reinstated.
Hours after his removal, the mood at the rally, outside a mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood, was sombre and confused.
Supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood wondered how the man who last year became Egypt’s first democratically-elected president could be ousted so ignominiously.
Fear hovered over the rally, too, with many Brotherhood members wondering if Morsi’s removal would portend a wider crackdown on the once-banned group.
The army has encircled the site of the protest, blocking main roads with barbed wire and armoured vehicles; helicopters buzz overhead, often to jeers and curses from below. One man spat at a helicopter, dismissing its pilots as traitors.
Rumours were rife in the early hours of Thursday morning that the army would soon raid the camp and detain the protesters. One man brought up the memory of 1954, when then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser crushed the Brotherhood, jailing thousands of its members.
“What the army did, they have unleashed hell on Egypt,” said Mahdi Asfar, an elderly religious scholar at the sit-in. “The Islamists will not be able to stand back, because we are not going back to jail.”
Many of these protesters have been on the streets since Friday, when a coalition of pro-Morsi political groups organised a rally under the banner “legitimacy is a red line.” The mood on Friday was defiant, with large crowds convinced that Morsi could survive nationwide anti-government protests that were scheduled for Sunday.
As the week wore on, and the scope of the protests became clear, the mood grew increasingly tense. Security checks increased; protesters warned of impending raids by “thugs.”
Even on Wednesday, just hours before the army’s deadline for Morsi to resolve the political crisis, there was still a sense of determination in the camp.
Leading members of the Brotherhood and their allies held a fiery press conference in which they demanded that the military back down. “We are the constitution, we are freedom, we are legitimacy, we are the revolution,” said Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
Determination had morphed into exhaustion by early Thursday morning.
Those who were still awake seemed taken aback by the day’s events, and blamed the overthrow on members of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
“The problems that people could see, like the fuel crisis, stopped a day or two ago. The stock market rose on the 30th of June by 5 percent. How is everything solved moments before he leaves? I believe it is due to Mubarak and the deep state,” said Sharif Ahmed, a businessman.
One speaker railed against a group of prominent political figures, dubbing them thugs. Most of his targets were predictable – Hamdeen Sabbahi, for example, an opposition leader who recently has tried to align himself with the army.
He also singled out Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand mufti of Al-Azhar University, the highest seat of Sunni learning in Egypt. Tayeb threw his support behind the coup, sitting in the audience while Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster and then adding brief remarks of his own.
With most of the media’s attention on the jubilant scenes in Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, many people at the sit-in said they felt ignored.
Their isolation was compounded by the shutdown of the Brotherhood’s television channel, Misr 25, and several other religious channels; Brotherhood officials said journalists working for their channel were arrested. “They don’t want people to see what is happening here,” Ahmed said.
Morsi himself is under house arrest, according to top Brotherhood officials, and has no access to the media; he resorted to YouTube to release a brief message after his ouster was announced.
More than a dozen other members of the movement have been arrested as well, according to security officials, a speedy move that to many here highlighted the government’s longstanding hostility towards the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements.
“Morsi’s people have been arrested already. The top people of Mubarak, they’re still out there, more than a year later,” said Ismail Abdel Aziz, a doctor. “The security forces have been sleeping for all this time. And now suddenly they wake up?”