As Protests Roil Egypt, Some In Opposition Bring Arms To ‘Defend Themselves’

Both sides say they will not initiate violence — but are prepared to respond in kind if the other side does. Mike Gilgio reports from Cairo.

Hassan Ammar/AP

CAIRO—When Mohamed, an organizer with a prominent Egyptian opposition group, decided that his colleagues needed more guns, he knew where to turn. He collected donations from wealthy local supporters totaling 11,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $1,500. Then he went shopping on the booming black market, buying four handguns, two rifles that shoot rubber pellets, and 300 bullets. The new weapons brought the total close to 10 for a group of around 50 people that Mohamed oversees in his Cairo district.

Mohamed is a well-to-do young father and professional, a devout Muslim and a respected activist. He spoke on the condition that his last name not be published and his organization not be named. He bought the weapons late last year, with the intention of using them to defend anti-government protesters from the supporters of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, amid escalating tensions between the two sides. They’ve never been used. But with millions of people expected to take the streets around Egypt demanding Morsi’s ouster on Sunday—and fears of political violence running on high—Mohamed says that will change.

He expects the demonstrations to come under attack, the guns to be fired and people on both sides to be killed. “No doubt my friends will defend themselves,” Mohamed says. “We know that some people will die. But it is a price.”

Morsi’s backers have long vowed to defend him if his presidency comes under threat. They did so in December, descending on a group of activists camped outside the presidential palace and sparking a night of deadly clashes. Now, on the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s landmark inauguration as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the protests present his greatest challenge yet in office. Organizers say they won’t back down until Morsi leaves office or calls early elections. Some even say they want Egypt’s powerful military to remove Morsi and oversee a transition plan.

While the protests are aligned on ideological and sectarian fault lines, they also reflect the nation’s continuing economic difficulties, as the currency and stock market have slumped, while the deficit and unemployment and poverty rates have moved up. Massive queues for gas and blackouts across an increasingly overstrained and unreliable power grid have added to the sense of breakdown.

Both the government and the protesters claim they won’t initiate violence. But each also threatens to respond to force with force of its own, making the situation ripe for provocation.

Recent days have seen violence break out around the country, leading to hundreds of injuries and several deaths, including a young American teacher who was stabbed in the chest while photographing clashes in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. But Sunday’s focus is Cairo, where thousands had already massed in Tahrir Square by early afternoon. Protesters have also descended on the presidential palace, and Morsi’s backers are gathered in a square less than two miles away, making no secret that they’re keeping a careful eye on the situation there.

On the eve of the protests, one opposition activist, who asked not to be named, described detailed plans to defend the protesters at the palace. He said he was coordinating three groups of men armed with everything from rocks to guns, and a photo on his cell phone showed the handgun he planned to carry himself. “If [the other side] only clashes with rocks, then we will use rocks to defend the protesters,” he said. “We won’t use the guns unless they use them.”

Another man, a lawyer who hails from a powerful tribe in Upper Egypt, said he and others had stashed guns and supplies such as homemade body armor near the presidential palace. He said he hoped the demonstrations would remain peaceful, and that he planned to attend them unarmed, to avoid encouraging violence. But, he added, “if anything happens, the weapons will be close to our hands.”

A number of groups had taken similar measures, he said, “and this is very dangerous. There is no central management for the people carrying the weapons. So if the violence starts, nobody will be able to control it.”

Heightening fears of potential violence, police reports in Egypt claimed multiple seizures of weapons around the country, including firearms and explosives, according to the Associated Press.

Egypt’s military, which ruled the country during the tumultuous period between former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster and Morsi’s election, has called for restraint on both sides. It also reinforced its positions around Egypt’s cities in anticipation of unrest. In a rare statement last weekend, the Army’s chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, vowed to protect people—he didn’t specify from which side—from intimidation or attack. “It is not honorable that we remain silent in the face of the terrorizing and scaring of our Egyptian compatriots,” he said. “There is more honor in death than watching a single Egyptian harmed while its Army is standing idly by.”

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Sameh Saif Elyazal, an analyst and retired general known to be close to the military, says the generals are paying close attention to the potential for violence. “They are concerned about illegal arms. You know quite well that both sides—but mainly the Islamic wing—are carrying a lot of arms,” he says. “They [military leaders] are trying to stop it.”

Elyazal takes a dark view of comments from officials in the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist group that backs Morsi—and other Islamist leaders that their supporters will protect the presidential palace themselves if authorities fail to do so. “There’s only one explanation for that,” he says. “It’s a confession from the Muslim Brotherhood that they have their own militias.”

Many analysts say that the military is wary of intervening in the current crisis, but may be forced into action if violence spirals. Morsi’s backers believe this to be the goal of some segments of the opposition. In an address to the nation on Wednesday, Morsi said Mubarak loyalists were engaged in a conspiracy against his government.

Mohamed, the opposition organizer, says he suspects that supporters of the old regime will indeed try to incite violence during the protests, in hopes of pushing the military to act. “When the old regime attacks the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood attacks us,” he says, laughing darkly. He adds that he opposes military rule just as much as Morsi’s—but sees the current protests as a chance to “end the Brotherhood, maybe forever.”

“We have two enemies,” he says. “Let’s finish one at least, and then we’ll be face-to-face with the Army.”

Eric Trager, an Egypt specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says December’s clashes at the presidential palace marked a “breaking point” for Egypt. Morsi rode to a close election victory last year with the help of liberal and secular voters who viewed his opponent as a vestige of the old regime. But that support quickly waned amid accusations that Morsi was governing only for his Islamist base and bringing the country toward religious rule. When Morsi briefly granted himself extra-judicial powers in order to push through a new Islamist-penned constitution, protesters massed outside the palace calling for his downfall.

The ensuing clashes, Trager says, saw both sides entrenched in mutual suspicion. “This story was basically written [that day],” he says.

On Friday night, two officials from Morsi’s Freedom & Justice Party sat for coffee in a Cairo hotel. They couldn’t keep their eyes off the television screen hanging overhead. On it, a newscast showed images from ongoing clashes in Alexandria, in which the Muslim Brotherhood offices had been torched. “It’s really bad news,” said one of the officials, Mohamed Soudan, who hails from Alexandria.

Soudan worried that the authorities might not defend the palace from protesters seeking to occupy it. In that case, he said, the Morsi supporters waiting in the square nearby would be ready to act. Morsi’s ouster, he added, would likely result in a return to the repression Islamists faced under Mubarak. “They will put me in jail and put the Muslim Brotherhood in jail like before,” he said. “Do you think that we are going to watch that peacefully, and staying at home very calm? Do you think we are just going to let that happen?”

Maged Atef contributed to this report.