When Egypt’s top general announced that the Army had overthrown the president late Wednesday night, the thousands of Mohamed Morsi supporters who had massed around the Rabaa el-Adaweya mosque in Cairo erupted into shock and hysteria.
“This is a coup! A military coup!” exclaimed one 42-year-old man, who until that very moment had been sure the generals would allow Morsi to stay, a look of horror washing over his face.
Some men screamed in rage. Others fired guns into the air. On the streets surrounding the demonstration, shopkeepers pulled down their metal grates. Crowds scrambled to leave the area as men with heavy sticks and metal rods rushed to reinforce makeshift checkpoints, expecting an attack.
Around the mosque, once the initial chaos died down, a voice on a loudspeaker urged resistance to those who remained: “We will not leave!” Many in the crowd replied enthusiastically. But others walked quietly in a daze or lay on their backs and started at the sky. Burly men with long beards cried.
Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president last June, had faced mounting opposition of late. As calls for his ouster gathered steam, his Islamist backers—from the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group from which he hails, to its extremist allies—routinely threatened violence, hoping to scare off the challenge. Images from Rabaa of Morsi’s supporters wielding their rods and drilling in martial arts peppered the media as the protests against him mounted in recent days.
With the coup enacted, though, the response even among the toughs, at Rabaa at least, seemed one of apprehension. Armed personnel carriers and troops with machine guns had already sealed the roads around the mosque, and the Islamist guards looked uneasy with their motorcycle helmets and makeshift shields. One man said that when the numbers at the demonstration dwindled, the authorities would “clean this up.”
The Army, meanwhile, was already cracking down. Television stations aligned with Morsi were taken off the air. Critics said these stations would incite Morsi’s supporters to violence—some had lately taken to publishing the home addresses of rival media personalities—but even Al Jazeera, whose main offense was heavy pro-brotherhood bias, saw its offices raided and staffers detained.
Reports then emerged that key brotherhood officials were under arrest—including the head of Morsi’s political party and the brotherhood’s deputy chief. Gehad el-Haddad, a brotherhood spokesman, tweeted that Morsi himself was under house arrest, as well as “most members of [his] presidential team.” Egypt’s state newspaper reported today that some 300 Muslim Brotherhood members were wanted for arrest.
On Thursday afternoon, according to the Associated Press, the brotherhood's top leader was arrested.
Heba Morayef, the Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the arrests harkened back to “[Hosni] Mubarak-era state security arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood. They come in white vans and take you away in the middle of the night.”
She warned that the station closures and arrests could signal a coming crackdown on the brotherhood, which was repressed for decades under the military-backed dictatorships that ran Egypt before the Arab Spring. “If they wanted to prosecute individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood in relation to specific incidents, they wouldn’t be going about it in this way,” she said. “I think it appears to indicate that there is a plan to try and limit the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in public life.”
“I’m hoping that this will be revised,” she adds, “because I can’t think of anything that would be more destabilizing.”
Ahmed Hawary, a spokesman for the new June 30 opposition front that backed the mass protests leading to Morsi’s ouster, defended the closures and detentions as “security precautions to prevent violence.”
Hawary said that Egypt’s coming transition would need to include “reconciliation” with the brotherhood. He also said he hoped any arrests would be based on due process and specific evidence. But, he added, “at the end, this is an organization that had promoted civil war and civil violence ... We need people to be questioned about their role in instigating civil war.”
On Wednesday night some senior brotherhood members were badly shaken. “We will face another 60 years of jail” and repression, one official said.
Asked if he planned to flee the country, he replied: “Let me think about it.”
“Things will be filthier than in the time of Mubarak,” said Mohamed Soudan, another brotherhood official.