When Yehia el-Gammal heard the rumors, he gathered up his medical supplies and set out for Egypt’s presidential palace. The Muslim Brotherhood was rumored to be calling on its people to mass at the palace gates, and Egypt’s opposition activists expected trouble.
For the past two weeks, crowds have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the 2011 revolution, to protest a power grab by President Mohamed Morsi, who heads the Brotherhood’s political ticket. While Morsi has promised to hold talks with the opposition to defuse the situation, each side appears to have hardened against the other. Over the past few days, violence has broken out between rival supporters. On Wednesday, as a small core of activists camped out in front the presidential palace, disciplined Brotherhood vigilantes instituted a bloody crackdown, tearing up tents and beating bystanders. A pitched battle between the two sides ensued, leaving at least six dead and hundreds injured.
Now, on Friday night after prayers—traditionally a time of mass protests in Egypt, and one that proved critical during the revolution—activists and regular Egyptians had turned out at the presidential palace to register their discontent. A festival-like atmosphere reigned: families toted around small children, while vendors hawked popcorn and pranksters set off dazzling fireworks. People waved flags and chanted anti-Brotherhood slogans.
Many of the protesters said that, while they had voted for Morsi or the Brotherhood during last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, they no longer trusted the party. “We used to be together during the revolution, but we’re not anymore,” said Sami Maleck, a 33-year-old technician in Cairo who was standing atop a makeshift barricade outside the presidential palace. “The old regime used to treat the Muslim Brotherhood in a very bad way,” he added, but the Brotherhood was now the one abusing the power of its position.
“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to make rules only for itself.”
“I’m afraid there will be blood,” said another demonstrator on the barricade.
Other activists said that the Brotherhood—like the army generals and former dictator Hosni Mubarak before them—appeared only to be interested in power, and that they cared little for the ordinary people of Egypt. “The Muslim Brotherhood was pretending they were with the people during the revolution, just to get their power,” said 33-year-old Moatasem Othmam, a gym worker in Heliopolis, where the palace is located. “They only want to rule, that’s it.”
As Morsi has refused to rescind his November decree, which effectively eliminated any outside checks on the president’s power, Egyptians have started to talk about the Brotherhood in the way they once talked about Mubarak or, after his ouster, the Army and its generals who ruled the country until the elections and who tried to institute a series of mandates to solidify their dominance. As if to prove the point, at the anti-Morsi demonstrations outside the presidential palace, 21-year-old Nada Hamma—a student at Cairo University—stood next to a friend who waved a flag with a picture of a young martyr, killed by the army last year. The military, she said, “are the ones who helped [the Brotherhood] rule us.”
As Friday’s protest swelled outside the palace, word on the street trickled in that the Brotherhood was planning to round up its members and descend on the scene. The crowd remained calm, but nerves were clearly frayed. As the evening wore on, the barbed wire that kept the protestors from reaching the palace was removed and the protesters were allowed to swarm up to the palace gates.
“If they don’t want Mohamed Morsi, they should wait four years and elect another president. That’s democracy.”
Gammal, the Cairo activist who brought medical supplies to the palace in anticipation of bloodshed, sounded wary. “I think this is some sort of trap—they are trapping people inside,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”
Families started to drift away from the area. One man, leaving with his wife and daughters, explained, “everybody’s worried because the Muslim Brotherhood is on their way. So we’re bringing the women and children out.” Not far away, a bespectacled 12-year-old boy named Seif trailed after his parents. “I think the women and kids should go,” he said in a somber assessment of the situation on the ground. “But some people should stay so they don’t take the whole area back.”
On the periphery of the crowd, black-clad policemen were silently leaving the scene. Some people tried to beg the authorities not to leave: “The Muslim Brotherhood is coming, please protect us!”
Ten minutes away, in front of the grand Rabaa el-Adawya mosque, members and supporters of the Brotherhood had gathered in a show of support for Morsi. Men chanted slogans on bullhorns and waved Egyptian flags, while passing cars honked in support. Motaez Reda, a 35-year-old Cairo lawyer participating in the proceedings, said he was there “just to make sure the people at the palace know they’re not the only people in the country…and to show the people the truth.”
Many in the crowd said that no violence would happen and that the media and the political opposition were trying to whip up a politically-motivated state of fear. Khaled Emam, a 30-year-old university professor who was not part of the Brotherhood but supported Morsi, said that the crowd had come together “to show the whole world that we are demonstrating peacefully.”
“If they don’t want Mohamed Morsi,” he added, “they should wait four years and elect another president. That’s democracy.”
Emam and his friends said they didn’t think they were supposed to be heading to the palace, but added that they might be spurred into action if the activists attacked the presidential palace.
The father of a family attending the rally also speculated that no one would march to the palace, adding that everything Morsi has done has been “for the right of the revolution.” Still, he added, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have a force. Right now, they are kind. The other face will be very, very bad.”
But Dr. Ahmed Aref, a spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said that rumors of Brotherhood violence have been mistaken. Speaking about the crackdown on Wednesday—in which a handful of Brotherhood supporters died—Aref said that the so-called activists camped out in front of the palace had been common criminals and that the Brotherhood had stepped in to clear them out so that the Army didn’t have to, which could have set off a political firestorm. Brotherhood members “sacrificed their lives in order to keep the army and the police from being in that bad situation,” he said.
Aref, who insisted that no march on the palace would take place, said, “We have a serious problem with the press because they’re not telling the truth. The opponents—we believe they are scared of the election…these types of people don’t know anything about democracy.”
“They want people to be scared of the Muslim Brotherhood to make the president leave,” he said. “And that’s cheap politics.”