Egypt is facing a showdown in the streets as President Mohamed Morsi's supporters and opponents alike demonstrate their strength while the country waits to see how a standoff between the military and Mr. Morsi will be resolved.
Anti-Morsi protesters moved toward a presidential palace today as the deadline they had set for him to resign passed. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that nominated Morsi as a presidential candidate, called on members and supporters around Egypt to publicly support the president, with large groups gathering in cities around Egypt as well as in Cairo.
The dueling displays of hundreds of thousands of people illustrate the polarization in Egypt and the instability that is likely to persist when the military's 48-hour deadline for Morsi to contain growing unrest runs out tomorrow.
Morsi's office issued a statement in the early morning hours that rejected military intervention but did not make clear how the president would proceed. The carefully worded statement said a democratic state in Egypt was the greatest accomplishment of the 2011 uprising, and Egypt “will not allow itself to be taken backward.” It also said Morsi was not consulted before the military issued its ultimatum, and that he is still reviewing it. Some parts of the military's statement could cause “disturbances in the complicated national scene,” it said.
Yet even as his supporters rally, the president is growing more isolated politically. At least six of his ministers have resigned, and The Associated Press reported that two of his spokesmen resigned today. A court also ruled today that Morsi's controversial appointment of a public prosecutor in November was illegal, dealing the embattled president another blow.
Is it a coup?
The military's ultimatum yesterday, giving the president and political leaders 48 hours to "meet the demands of the people," came after millions of Egyptians poured into the streets Sunday in a resounding rejection of Morsi's one-year rule. They say Morsi has failed and lost his legitimacy, and demand early presidential elections.
But Morsi's supporters see the efforts to remove him as a military coup, and some are vowing to defend the president's position with their lives.
“We won't allow the military to return to power once again. We won't give up our freedom and our country,” says Ahmed Rachad outside the mosque in Cairo where Morsi's supporters have gathered since Friday. Rows of men in helmets, sticks, and shields to defend against possible attack jogged past him in unison, chanting religious slogans under the hot sun. “All of us in the square are ready to give our lives for that. We won't let it happen. We will stay here until they kill us – even if they drive tanks over our dead bodies.”
Many of the Morsi supporters insist that the military will not force Morsi from office, and that they would not let it happen even if the military tried. Many explain that they are not there just to support Morsi, but to protect the principles of democracy in Egypt.
“If Morsi goes, what then? They'll bring another one. After two or three months, thousands of people will [protest] to bring him down, and it will go like this for 20 years,” says Mustafa Zakaria, an English teacher and Brotherhood member at the protest. “The country will be in a great mess for many years. The people of Egypt will not allow this mess to exist here.”
When a military helicopter flew over the square, the crowd raised their hands, chanting “Morsi! Morsi!”
“We want to stay on a democratic course, otherwise there will not be a president who will stay longer than a year,” says Mustafa Moawad, a doctor from the Nile Delta city of Mansoura.
Vows of peaceful protest – and vows of violence
Many protesters say they will stay until Morsi's position is secure, and that they will fight a coup with peaceful protests. Abdo Mustafa Bardawil, a leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in the Delta city of Damietta, calls the Army's statement yesterday a coup attempt.
“We are committed to all the peaceful means of protest to protect legitimacy and the people's will.” That Morsi won the presidency by a razor-thin margin and millions are now unhappy with him does not mean he should not be allowed to complete his four-year term, he says. “Democracy is democracy – it doesn't matter if an election was won by half a percent or 1 percent.”
But many Morsi supporters spoke of defending their president's electoral legitimacy with their lives. Amr Bassoiuny, a young civil engineer, said, “I would rather die than return to the previous regime.”
Another protester, Mohamed Sabry, says a military coup attempt will be met by an “Islamic revolution” that would include violence against those who oppose democracy. If his leaders tell him to fight, he said, he will fight.
And on his official Facebook page, Brotherhood leader Mohamed El Beltagy today said that “seeking martyrdom to prevent this coup is what we can offer to the martyrs of the previous revolution.”
Muslim Brotherhood leaders are calling protests today “to show that the street is divided, and to put pressure on the Army and to strengthen the position of Morsi in relation to the Army,” says Khalil al-Anani, an expert on the group at Durham University in Britain. He's in Cairo and in contact with Brotherhood leadership, though he says the fact that most of them have switched off their mobile phones shows the pressure they are currently under.
If Morsi steps down, it would likely cause discord within the organization and its leaders, as well as a possible division between the leaders and youths, he says. “So for the Brotherhood, maintaining Morsi in power is a survival issue. They took power after 60 years and they will not leave it just like this. It's a matter of life and death for them.”
One of the organizers of the Tamarod, or “Rebel,” campaign that called Sunday's protests against Morsi says the prospect of backlash by Morsi's supporters is no reason to ignore the demands of millions of Egyptians who want him to leave. “If the Muslim Brotherhood continue in power," he says, "this will cause more political instability."