On the Ground: The calm before the storm

The Egyptian military prepares to clear pro-Morsi camps in Cairo.

Pro Morsi supporters at Rabaa Adawiya Square 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Pro Morsi supporters at Rabaa Adawiya Square 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
CAIRO – “The people demand the fall of the regime,” the young men shouted as they marched around the square. “Leave, Sisi, leave,” a few spectators chanted approvingly, referring to Gen. Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian armed forces, as they blasted away with their vuvuzelas.
This isn’t Tahrir Square though. This is Ennahda, the pro-Morsi sit-in protest that has occupied the intersection between Cairo University and Giza Zoo for over a month.
At first glance all looks peaceful. Toddlers happily tear around the playpen, teenagers argue over whose turn is next at the table-tennis table, a pizza delivery bike picks its way through the camp inhabitants sleeping away the long, blazingly hot afternoon hours.
But question any of the few thousand “residents” and the deep undercurrent of anger and resentment soon boils to the surface.
“We got rid of one undemocratic government two years ago, now we have to get rid of another,” said Abdullah Mohammed, a student, who sleeps in a hastily erected tent with much of his extended family in the shadow of the university’s Great Hall, where US President Barack Obama delivered his address to the Arab world four years ago.
The Muslim Brotherhood insists that both Ennahda and the larger encampment at Rabaa, on the other side of the city, are open to Islamists and non-Islamists alike, and certainly many men there are beardless and dressed in Western clothing (though in several visits this reporter didn’t see any unveiled women).
But the presence of Sheikh Muhammad Abdel-Maksoud at the camp on Thursday hardly tallied with the Brotherhood’s calls for moderation and inclusiveness. He is blamed for inciting the killing of five Shi’ites on the outskirts of Cairo in June, and this time gave another fiery speech in which he urged the assembled crowd to continue its campaign until Morsi is restored.
Similarly, the official newsletter – distributed to each tent by camp “postmen” – speaks darkly of having “a duty to our 500 martyrs. We must fulfill their dreams,” it read.
The military has made clear that it sees these camps as threats to Egypt’s stability, and state sources have said several times that the army and interim government won’t tolerate this challenge to their authority for much longer.
Outside the encampment there’s little sense yet of what’s likely to happen. The sandbags around the armored personnel carriers that surround the area are that little bit higher, the barbed wire a little more plentiful, and the soldiers that little bit edgier, but for the moment, at least, people can still enter and leave the square as they please.
To see the walls, however, is to understand the magnitude of the task at hand. Clearly anticipating an assault, camp organizers have added a thick breeze-block barrier behind the piles of debris at the entrances and have massed small mountains of stones to throw at regular intervals. Brotherhood officials are said to have accumulated large caches of weapons as well.
Late Sunday afternoon, news filtered through that an Interior Ministry official had hinted that security forces would begin clearing the protest camps in the early hours.
The crowd that had gathered to watch an Ennahda team play Rabaa in a hotly-contested five-a-side soccer match roared its dissent.
They won’t go quietly.
When asked what he would do if the army or police came, Said, a scrawny 16-year-old manning an ice-cream cart, wiped his brow and grimaced.
“We’ll fight. Maybe we’ll die.”