It was Hazem el-Zohery’s job to keep track of the numbers for the signature campaign that led the calls for Sunday’s landmark protests in Egypt. But even he was surprised by their size. “I never imagined,” he said.
Visibly exhausted, Zohery was standing on a street corner near Cairo’s presidential palace as demonstrators drifted home late Sunday night. Millions of people had turned out across the country to call on their Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, to step down. In Cairo, they’d filled Tahrir Square and surrounded the palace, as news reports suggested the protests were even larger than those Egypt had witnessed in the Arab Spring. Now Zohery and the other organizers were left with the question of what comes next.
Zohery said the protests wouldn’t stop until Morsi was gone—and that the coming days would see their campaign move toward “escalation.” Hardcore supporters from outside Cairo would be brought in to support a sit-in around the palace as the crowd ebbed and flowed with the work week under way. A campaign of civil disobedience, meanwhile, was being planned for other parts of the city. “These numbers change everything completely,” he said.
He also said there were rumblings that Egypt’s powerful army might force Morsi’s ouster in favor of a transition to fresh elections—something he described as supporting the will of the people, and not a military coup.
Speculation about potential military action was already growing. “Everyone is almost sure,” said one veteran activist, Nadine Wahab, as she made her way home from the palace demonstration. On Twitter, commentators seized on a term gaining currency among some in the opposition: “forced resignation.”
One senior official with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backs Morsi, said on Sunday night that the group was picking up “mixed reports of movements in the armed forces. But we can’t put our hands on something solid.”
In the days leading to Sunday’s demonstrations, Brotherhood officials and members of Morsi’s government dismissed speculation on the potential for military action, insisting that the army was firmly on Morsi’s side. But speaking from a counter-rally of Morsi supporters on Sunday, Gehad el-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, warned against the generals pushing Morsi aside. “If the military steps in and attempts any type of coup, the people will stand against it,” he said. “This is an elected president. They know the determination is much stronger than any they’ve faced before.”
The army ran Egypt between the 2011 downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak and Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first democratically elected president a year ago. During that time, it faced widespread opposition and allegations of abuse, as well as mass protests that activists called the second wave of their revolution. Many analysts believe that the military is reluctant to enter politics again, and point out that it retains considerable autonomy under the new constitution that Morsi and his allies pushed through last year.
But the mass rallies and Egypt’s continued unrest, some say, may push the army to act. Sameh Seif Elyazal, an analyst and retired general in Cairo, said military leadership sent “a very strong signal” when helicopters dropped Egyptian flags over the protests outside the palace on Sunday. “They did that only for the opposition, and not for the demonstrations supporting Morsi,” he said.
“The army will not interfere unless the situation is escalated,” Elyazal added. “[It] is watching very closely … It depends on the continuation of the demonstrations.”
Seeing the new Constitution installed set Morsi on a collision course with his opponents—he temporarily granted himself extra-judicial powers in order to push the Islamist-penned document through its drafting assembly late last year, setting off mass rallies outside the palace as protesters accused him of authoritarianism and pushing the country toward religious rule. Morsi’s supporters later attacked an encampment of activists outside the palace, setting off a night of deadly street clashes. In the months since, both sides have become increasingly entrenched, with Morsi’s refusal to compromise fueling charges that he governs only for the benefit of his Islamist base.
Fears of renewed political violence hung heavy over Sunday’s protest—some in the opposition even armed themselves in anticipation of coming under attack. Small-scale violence flared, with several dead in clashes around the country. A deadly standoff also broke out when a mob attacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo offices as people standing guard inside fired onto the crowd, reportedly leading to at least two deaths. By Monday morning, the offices had been ransacked.
But the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and around the palace were peaceful, their sheer size seeming to rule out, for the moment at least, the potential for violence. Crowds in both places swelled throughout the day as marches from around the city swelled their ranks, slowing traffic along the way. On one bridge leading to the palace, cars honked in support of a procession of demonstrators taking up half the road while residents waved flags from balconies and rooftops nearby. Demonstrators chanted to slogans once famously directed at Mubarak: “The people want the fall of the regime” and, simply, “Leave!”
Other chants supported the military—“The people and the army are one hand”—and called on the generals to intervene.
Morsi remained conspicuously silent throughout the day. When a spokesman finally held a televised press conference late in the night, he seemed shaken. “Suggest a solution, and we’re willing to consider it,” he said.
A rally of Morsi’s supporters, meanwhile, continued outside a mosque near the palace. In an interview, Waleed el-Haddad, senior official with Morsi’s political party, said the pro-government protesters were defending the office of the presidency and Egypt’s democracy, not Morsi himself. “We are not defending him as a person,” he said.
Though many Morsi supporters vowed to “defend” the presidential palace if called on, Haddad stressed that the Islamists’ protest would remain peaceful. Many demonstrators there, however, did themselves no favors in the eyes of their critics. Some stood in formation with shields and homemade body armor, as well as weapons like metal rods and even nunchuks. At one point, a Brotherhood official tweeted ominously that the crowd at the mosque was rushing out to the palace, only to later say it had been a “false alarm.”
Broad swaths of Egyptians filled out the ranks of the anti-Morsi protests. Many had likewise swelled the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak—such as Amina el-Sagan, who was attending with her daughters and 4-year-old grandson. “He must leave!” she shouted.
Still others had demonstrated on behalf of Mubarak. Pola Adel Raof, 21, said he was part of counter-protests during the Egyptian revolution that called for Mubarak to be allowed to finish out his term before handing power to a newly elected successor. That might have prevented Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from coming to power, he said, dismissing them as “terrorists” bent on destroying the country. “This will be the end of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” he said.
In a rare sight, some police officers also joined Sunday’s demonstrations. An army officer in uniform could be seen walking home from the palace protests with his wife and daughter, who was holding an Egyptian flag. When asked for an interview, he smiled and replied, “No, no, no.”
Some protesters, while dead-set against Morsi, were growing uncomfortable with the pro-military overtones. Wahab, the veteran Cairo activist, described being overcome with a happy and “familiar sense of exhaustion” as she settled down at her tent outside the palace after arriving from a march. Then an army helicopter passed low overhead, and the crowd around her erupted in cheers. “This is not what I came here for,” she said. “We just got rid of the military. But I think the fear [among many protesters] of the Brotherhood is greater than the fear of the military.”