Ever since the huge June 30 protests, Egypt has been running on its own time zone. The new military-led government has issued a series of 48-hour warnings aimed at moving things along, speeding up the takeover. The first was for President Morsi and the political establishment to sort out their differences or else the army would step in. That happened. Each time, the authorities have more or less delivered right on time.
On Wednesday, Egypt’s cabinet authorised the interior ministry to break up sit-ins supporting the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi. That has now morphed into yet another 48-hour ultimatum – issued on Friday – for Morsi supporters to stand down, leave their sit-ins or else the police will move in.
Security forces had earlier given police orders to put to an end the al-Nahda and Raba’a al-Adawiyya protests, calling them “a threat to national security” and a source of “citizens’ terrorism”, reported Associated Press.
An interior ministry statement on Saturday, broadcast on state television, issued fresh warnings, suggesting that the Egyptian authorities are still checking their watches.
“Your continued sit-ins have no legal or political use. You have a safe exit, you will be politically integrated,” journalist Tom Finn quoted the interior ministry via Twitter. The statement said Morsi supporters had been “brainwashed” and were being used as “bargaining chips”.
There is little doubt that this confrontation will end in violence, much like last week’s clashes on Nasr Road which saw over 100 people killed as armed police and civilian gangs attacked Morsi supporters. Perhaps as a result, the authorities have toned down their language in public.
After the initial ultimatum, state TV reported that police weren’t planning to break up protests, just surround them. “We did not set a time frame but having taken the decision it obviously means it’s not open-ended,” Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said on Saturday, not unthreateningly. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, meanwhile, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that plans were down to their “second phase”, surrounding the sit-ins. The implication was that this isn’t the last act in the saga.
Nevertheless, supporters of the ousted president have vowed to continue protests, ignoring whatever time frame is set for them by the authorities. “We are expecting [the police] to hit us at any moment and we are not moving,” spokesman for the al-Nahda camp, Hossam Al Sharqawi, said in the early hours of Friday morning. “We are defending our rights, which nobody can take away from us, not even by killing us.” The protesters are ready to stay in the streets for years, not days, he added. “The streets are all we have now.”
The demands have not changed – Morsi must be reinstated, most of his supporters will tell you – but the alternative is more complex. Protesters are willing to die for their cause, they say. And if they don’t die, they’ll just continue demonstrating until their demands are met. “Many people here consider themselves martyrs,” an English teacher, who did not want to be named, admitted.
Is this admirable? It might be, depending on where you sit on the Egypt coup/not-coup debate. But this immoveable desire to resist, Morsi or nothing, could be driven by a sense that the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins is one and the same as the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force in Egypt for the foreseeable future. The streets are all they have now, after all.
“If Morsi is not back by the end of this month [Ramadan], there will be a big shift,” Al Sharqawi warned, suggesting that the end of the holy month could mark an escalation in pro-Morsi protests.
Cairo is already seeing the first signs. On Friday night, pro-Morsi marchers set up a surprise camp outside Media Production City on the outskirts of Cairo, an old stomping ground for Islamist demonstrations against a media establishment they say has always been existentially biased against Morsi and the Brotherhood. Police used tear gas and birdshot to disperse the crowds and 25 people were injured, according to health ministry figures.
Another tent city set up hastily not far from Cairo International Airport was disbanded because protesters didn’t think it was secure enough. Clearly, whatever plucky statements are coming out of the Raba’a al-Adawiyya media centre, the pro-Morsi camp is on the defensive. It’s where it seems to operate best, on the back foot.
If the police succeed in securing both pro-Morsi sites – and there’s no reason why they won’t – Raba’a al-Adawiyya and al-Nahda will be facing a real-life siege, a street-level rendering of the Brotherhood’s mentality that drove their failures in power and now drives their successes out of it.
At that point, the Muslim Brotherhood has a choice to make. Find its place in the new Egypt, for better or worse, or leave itself open to a bloody, vainglorious downfall. It’s almost time for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.