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We Saw the Egyptian Military Stage a Coup in Cairo

As I write now, the center of Cairo is a sea of beeping vehicles and cheering crowds, with attack helicopters making laps of honor above us. An army-appointed judge is now the face of military rule, erasing the one-year blip of democratic government in...

Photo by Justin Wilkes

No one wants a war, they all said. But as soon as the sun set, with high velocity rounds cracking into the crowd around us, it looked very much like Cairo had got one. Demonstrators who had filled Nasr City in support of the embattled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi—now deposed and imprisoned in a plush officer’s club by his own Republican Guard—curled up behind car engine blocks in the dimly lit square, hiding from the snipers firing at us from the grim apartment blocks towering overhead. Only minutes earlier, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood had read out the statement from the military council that the whole of Egypt had been waiting for. From their podium, gaily lit with electric bulbs, they read out the stark words the president’s supporters had been dreading: the constitution had been suspended and the country’s year-long flirtation with representative democracy was over.


As soon as the words had been read out, grown men sank to their knees, crying, or waving cudgels in the air vowing revenge. Within minutes the first shots rang out, and the first wounded were dragged bleeding from the square.

A supporter of Morsi kisses a photograph of him at a sit-in outside Cairo University.

The strange thing was how festive the atmosphere had been just before, here in the Brotherhood’s heartland, a sort of male-skewed heavily bearded Islamist Glastonbury, the bizarro world to rebel Tahrir Square just a few miles away. Men—and some women, it must be said—danced and sang their songs beneath blaring loudspeakers in support of the president and Sharia law, and chanted their willingness to die for Islam. Hijabed children wandered around, gawping at the stalls of cheap Chinese toys and the corncob sellers clustered around their braziers. “We’re not terrorists,” one woman said, weeping in frustration as she spoke to us, “they say we are, those rebels, but we are not. Me, I am not Brotherhood; I am just an ordinary person, a Muslim. But we are here to support our democracy, nothing more.”

Morsi supporters wave the Qu'ran as they muster at the scene of deadly clashes.

Behind her, the Brotherhood’s muscle marched and jogged in phalanxes, armed with cudgels, hard hats and a willingness to die, towards the barricades where they stood face to face with the army for the first time in this political crisis. The sand-coloured APCs the army had brought right up to the barriers—the borders of the last outposts of Islamist rule in Cairo—had pulled back an hour or so earlier, when young protesters had climbed on top, waving their flags and pleading with the irritated-looking soldiers manning the machine guns not to crush their protest camp.


When the APCs had trundled back, the crowd erupted in cheers and cries of "Allahu akbar!" but their victory was short-lived. Soldiers, uniformed, some not, had filed onto the rooftops overlooking us, their rifle barrels silhouetted by the setting sun. “We thought the army were with us, maybe, until yesterday (when more than 20 protesters, mostly supporters of the president, were shot dead in clashes with unknown assailants). Even now, maybe‚—we hope – they are here to protect us from the rebels.” But the APCs were all facing one way – towards the government supporters. But at the rebel demonstration a few hundred metres down the road, it was a different picture.

At a protest outside the Republican Guard Club in Nasr City, an opponent of Morsi holds a sign calling for the military to intervene in Egypt's political turmoil.

Photo by Justin Wilkes

In a sea of Egyptian flags and pressed polo shirts, the supporters of the anti-government Tamarod movement marched and drove in laps in front of the officers' club where Morsi was now being held as a prisoner by his ostensible bodyguards. Soldiers in plain clothes cradling Kalashnikovs stood guard over the middle-class crowd. From beneath her designer sunglasses, exquisitely tinted highlights peeking from her pink hijab, a middle-aged woman held a sign up for our camera condemning Obama for "supporting terrorists": “They are not Egyptians, these Muslim Brotherhood. They bring them in here, you know, from Chechnya, Afghanistan.”


Both sides claim to represent the true, eternal Egypt. Behind the Brotherhood lines, everyone claimed they represented the pure piety of the fellahin and the urban poor: “We want democracy only—and Sharia law, of course. But no true Egyptian wants to see people drinking alcohol in the street or making false sex with each other.” On the other side of the barricades, the anti-Morsi movement said much the same about their ur-Egyptianness, only in better clothes and from more expensive cars.

Photo by Justin Wilkes

We left the Brotherhood when the crowd turned on us, accusing us of being “rebel spies” and threatening us with their cudgels. Rifle shots cracked worryingly close overhead as we sprinted to the safety of the main highway. In the apartment blocks overlooking us, whole families waved flags, ululating over the downfall of their elected president and the deaths of fellow Egyptians only metres away, and cheering on the companies of troops in armoured fighting vehicles cordoning off Nasr City from the rest of Cairo behind coils of barbed wire. Old women handed out cloying candies in celebration; fireworks and rifle fire popped all around us.

Photo by Justin Wilkes

As I write now, the center of Cairo is a sea of beeping vehicles and cheering crowds, with attack helicopters making laps of honor above us. An army-appointed judge is now the face of military rule, erasing the one-year blip of democratic government in the last 60 years of Egyptian history. Tomorrow, central Cairo will still be celebrating, while the Brotherhood will be lying low, licking their wounds and plotting a new way forward. Democracy didn’t work for them, or for Egypt: it seems the people didn’t want it. Tomorrow Egypt will wake to the tank-delivered stability it’s craved these past two years.


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More on Egypt's turbulent recent history:

WATCH – Egypt's Second Revolution

Hanging Out with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo

An Interview with an Egyptian Streetfighter

Hanging Out with an Egyptian Arms Dealer