Celebration and Confusion in the Cairo Streets

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

CAIRO, EGYPT—People started filing into Tahrir Square in the early afternoon on July 4, the first full day after President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the Egyptian military. Though it was a tumultuous day—which saw new interim President Adli Mansour sworn in, the arrests of many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and the mass migration of Cairo’s residents to the square which became synonymous with the Arab Spring’s ebullient upheaval—Cairo was calmer than many expected. Once again, most Egyptians were celebrating as one disliked leader exited the stage, while their country’s future remained deeply uncertain.

Morsi and other top Muslim Brotherhood officials repeatedly called for peaceful resistance. Muslim Brotherhood members gathered on Thursday afternoon on Nahdet Masr, the boulevard leading to Cairo University, answering Morsi’s cri de coeur. Close to 70 protesters marched to an abutting road to demonstrate near traffic. A stiff military cordon met them as soldiers—more than 90 in total, deployed in military jeeps and armored personnel carriers—prevented them from reaching the road. Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters camped out between the various military cordons that surrounded their University of Cairo encampment.

Al Gamaa Square, on the edge of the boulevard, was crowded with the protesters, many holding pictures of Morsi tightly to their chests, chanting variations on “Morsi will never go.” Bemused spectators gathered across the street, mostly just gawking, but occasionally rousing themselves to chant “Morsi is already gone.” Machmoud, who works at a grocery shop near the square, declared himself “100 percent happy” that Morsi was deposed, and told me, “This whole conflict is in their imagination. Morsi is over.”

When I first tried to cross the cordon in the afternoon with my translator, the leading officer refused to let us through to speak with them, assessing the situation as too dangerous. Tensions near Al Gamaa ran high, partly due to the Israeli embassy’s location across the street from the protests. A swarm of black-clad police officers gathered to protect it. During the afternoon the police closed off the Al Gamaa bridge linking Giza and Cairo. When a man on a scooter attempted to drive through, the police kicked at him until he fell off his vehicle and swatted at him with batons. As more Muslim Brotherhood protesters slipped past the cordon into the group gathering, we finally received permission to join them. Until as recently as two days ago journalists could have a tough time getting the Muslim Brotherhood rank and file to talk to them, and were often referred to the Muslim Brotherhood press office. Now the discipline had broken down. It was easy to find people interested in chatting.

Mohammed Fatih, a young man who works in a restaurant, clutched a giant photo of Morsi. He told me, resignedly, that it was unfair the military had been given 40 years to rule and the Muslim Brotherhood was given only one year in office. His friend, Yasin, chimed in that the protests and media takeover was created by media lies and manipulation, and noted that Channel 25, the Muslim Brotherhood’s primary station, has been shut off by the military.

The many members of the Brotherhood I met were quite angry, and all felt that they had won the election and that their man deserved to serve his full term. When I asked whether they would consider resorting to violence to restore their organization’s power, referencing Muslim Brotherhood actions throughout the ‘90s, not a single member endorsed violence. That could be, of course, because they were speaking to a foreign journalist. But because service in the military is mandatory for Egyptians, the institution commands deep respect even from many who strongly reject its decision to cut short Morsi’s tenure. Fatih, who had earlier gotten into a verbal altercation with a police officer and had to be pulled away by his friends, told me, “There will be no serious violence among our people. The army is our country, and they are strong.”

Mohammed Gemal, a professor at Cairo University Faculty of Agriculture, worried that a powerful precedent had been established in Egypt’s new democracy. He said (speaking in English), “This is an illegal way to change democracy. The military changed it by force. That is not the true way, and next time people will again win their democracy by force.” Moments after he spoke, at 6:15 p.m., nine military jets swept across the Nile, radiating red and black smoke. The crowds across the street let out a whoop but Dr. Gemal looked down and said, “This is aggression.” Gemal, like one other person I spoke with at the Muslim Brotherhood protest, denied affiliation with the Brotherhood. He simply said that he supported standing by the results of the election. Nearby counterprotesters laughed when I mentioned this, and said that the Muslim Brotherhood protesters only took that stand because Morsi’s rule was so hard to defend.

The hurdles Egypt’s economy still faces are immense. The country has a huge young population, and it needs to create 700,000 new jobs a year to prevent an increase in unemployment. Even under stable circumstances where tourism is back to normal, six-figure job growth will be hard to produce. There will be millions of unemployed youth for years. It is easy to envision a future where rallies led by frustrated youth lead to predictable cycles of military intervention.

The problem is compounded because Egyptians are celebrating the end of the Morsi regime, not the establishment of anything better. When I traveled back to Tahrir Square in the evening, it was filled with celebrating families. When I asked people why they were so happy, the answers were mostly identical to that of Tamer Tullat, a student at Cairo University: “Now that Morsi is gone, Egypt is reborn,” he said. But when I asked more specific questions like “What policies would you like to see implemented?” or even “Who do you hope will be president in the next election?” none of the more than 20 people I interviewed had a clear answer. They spoke about bringing prosperity, restoring Egypt to its true potential, and generating more jobs.

When I asked the revelers why they were frustrated with Morsi, every single one said that he promised to decrease prices and increase employment and that he succeeded at neither. Going forward, no matter who runs Egypt, the question will be whether any government—any president—can deliver on what the people want the most. If the movement against Morsi was primarily over pocketbook concerns, what happens when the Egyptian economy continues to sputter along?

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