CAIRO — Egypt’s deep divisions and its perilous future were fully exposed Friday, with bloody clashes between security forces and supporters of Mohammed Morsi in a furious backlash after the democratically elected president was forced from office two days earlier in a coup d’etat.
During an evening of high drama and violence, Muslim Brotherhood protesters enraged at having suddenly been deprived of power they had won at the ballot box tried to break into the headquarters of the Republican Guard and free Morsi, who was moved there Thursday. But soldiers defended the building by shooting at the crowd.
Troops, backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters, also repelled an attempt by protesters to storm across the Nile on the October the 6th bridge leading to Tahrir Square, where thousands of liberals, secularists and Christians continued Friday to celebrate the end of Islamist rule, and fought off a small group of protesters who tried to enter the state television building.
“God, make Morsi victorious and bring him back to the palace,” the Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, said in his first public appearance since the coup.
Appealing directly to soldiers, Badie urged them to “return to the people of Egypt. Your bullets are not to be fired on your own sons and your own people.”
A reliable body count from the chaos will probably not be available for days, but the health ministry reported late Friday that at least 17 protesters were killed in Cairo and more than 200 were injured, including three who died when shot at by army troops defending the defence ministry. Similar mayhem was reported in other towns and cities across the country.
As has happened so often since Cairo was seized by the Arab Spring’s revolutionary spirit nearly 30 months ago, the mood became more volatile after Friday’s prayers, as the Brotherhood made good on a call for “a day of rage” to demand Morsi’s release and his return to power.
Both the democratically elected former president’s backers and the troops who removed him from office established a dangerous tone well before nightfall. Hundreds of the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered near a mosque in the suburb of Nasr City carried clubs and metal rods and wore helmets and homemade body armour for the riots they were expecting.
The army responded with an unusual projection of military might in an urban area. As well as putting fighter jets in the skies over the capital, it deployed U.S.-made Apache assault helicopters equipped with Gatling guns and rockets to keep a close watch on tens of thousands of demonstrators outside the mosque. The crowd jeered and waved their shoes every time one of the gunships or other army helicopters made low passes.
“I don’t think they’d use the Apaches against us, because if they did, we are packed so close together that it would kill thousands,” said a defiant Mohammed Darwish, who works for an African embassy. “But they should not be here at all. The army is supposed to protect all the people. Politics should not be their field.”
“We don’t want to fight, just give us Morsi,” said butcher Mohammed Fawzy, who learned his street English in the United States. “The army has made a big mistake because we elected not once but twice. Now they shoot at us but we are not afraid because we have the Holy Qur’an.”
To try to prevent the crowd from marching on the city centre, dozens of armoured personnel carriers established a cordon on key roads in and near Nasr City. But hundreds of Islamists attending other protests across the capital successfully reached Tahrir Square, where at least one person was killed during several hours of sporadic skirmishes with civilian opponents of the ousted fundamentalist regime.
For hours after dusk, heavy exchanges of machine-gun fire could be heard from time to time across much of central Cairo. But a more frequent sound was the wail of ambulances racing to and from the tumult.
The outcome of any fighting will never be in doubt. The Egyptian armed forces have billions of dollars in relatively new hardware supplied by Washington. A few of the more radical members of the Brotherhood may have handguns or automatic weapons.
The military also once again controls all the levers of power, as it did for 60 years until air force general Hosni Mubarak was toppled. It has shut down all the Islamist televisions stations and arrested many journalists who worked there as well as dozens of key Brotherhood leaders.
But the Brotherhood’s ability to make trouble cannot be underestimated. The movement has 750,000 card-carrying members. Millions of others, drawn mostly from Cairo’s wretched slums and from equally impoverished rural areas, are fanatically devoted to the cause.
“We all know how strong the military is but our president was never even given a chance so we refuse this decision,” said human resources specialist Shaymaa Yehia Ahmed, who was one of a large number of women who stood and sat for hours in the intense desert heat at the Muslim Brotherhood rally in Nasr City.
Next to Ahmed, gynecologist Nehad Sarwad, who was covered head to foot in black, with only her eyes and hands exposed, said all that she and those with her wanted was “to have the democracy that you have in the United States and Britain. Why is it that we have a special democracy where our votes don’t matter?”
Pointing up at a helicopter clattering overhead, orthodontist Eman Al-Sayad said, “They may be looking at us now but God is above and watches over all of us.”