Originally published on Al Jazeera English, 5 July 2013
Cairo, Egypt – “May peace and God’s mercy be upon you,” the worshippers said as they looked to the right, and then to the left, before rising to their feet and starting their protest.
“Down, down with the military government,” they roared as they spilled into the streets from mosques across Cairo, calling for the return of Mohamed Morsi to Egypt’s presidency.
They had been saying all week that they were willing to defend Morsi’s presidency with their blood, and today they did.
At least three people were killed when protesters confronted soldiers at a presidential guard barracks in the country’s capital.
Friday was not unlike the beginning of demonstrations on January 28, 2011, when worshippers finished the Friday prayer and joined together in their thousands to march and conquer Tahrir Square – where they stayed until Hosni Mubarak was forced from office.
But today their mission was different. Instead of removing someone from power, they wanted to return someone to it.
“We’re worried about our President Mohamed Morsi,” said Nadia Mustafa, after finishing prayers at al-Istiqama mosque in Giza. She, like many other Morsi supporters, denounced the “military coup” that ousted him on Wednesday, and said she would only accept his return to office.
Abdel Moneim Sharif, another protester, shared that sentiment: “We’re not going to [stop protesting] until Morsi is restored to president and democracy is restored to Egypt.”
But millions of Egyptians opposed to Morsi say his ousting was an act of democracy – as it was the military acting on the will of the people. Their nationwide protests, which began on Sunday to mark one year since Morsi took office, left the army with little choice but to intervene.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Salmana Abdel Shafi, as he walked through Tahrir on the morning after Morsi’s ousting. “Stability has been restored, and now we can get back to work and life.”
‘Guardian of legitimacy’
On Wednesday night, Morsi’s handpicked leader of the army, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, read a statement in a televised address:
“As the armed forces cannot just turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the movement and call of the Egyptian people, they have invoked their patriotic, and not political, role.”
Morsi “had failed to meet demands of the people”, and was therefore no longer president of the Arab world’s most populous nation”, said Sisi.
But it is that definition of “the people” over which both sides continue to disagree.
Morsi’s supporters echo their leader’s defiant eve-of-ousting speech, in which he referred to himself as the “guardian of legitimacy”, since he had won the country’s first free presidential elections in June 2012.
But opposition figures have said the numbers of protesters in the street is proof that Morsi had lost that legitimacy during his brief one year stint in office.
Gehad Haddad, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood that first put Morsi forth as its candidate, told Al Jazeera he was unsure if it was a majority of the country that opposed Morsi or not.
However, he said many of the country’s problems since Morsi took office were the fault of opposition politicians who refused to take part in the political process.
“You don’t denounce a president midterm because you don’t like what he’s doing,” Haddad said of the opposition.
“You have to man up to your responsibility to build new parties and show up for policy discussions instead of whining about it on TV.
“And they have the audacity to stand next to a military general as he’s doing his coup and say: ‘I’m backing the voice of the people.’
“I don’t think it was a majority represented in the street. I think it was a group of different segments that managed to agree on not wanting the president – rather than on wanting anything else.
“Imagine how they will split once they have the responsibility of [governing] and choices to make.”
Since Morsi’s ousting, the military has cracked down on his supporters, arresting hundreds, including some in the group’s top leadership. Morsi himself is detained, yet no-one outside the military seems to know where.
While many of Morsi’s supporters have spoken repeatedly about “the blood” they’re willing to put on the line to defend him, most Morsi supporters and military authorities alike have said that violence was something they would rather avoid.
On the road leading to Rabaa al-Adawiya, the military that has been present since Sisi’s announcement on Wednesday, pulled off to a side street to avoid standing in the way of the angry masses.
As protesters on Friday passed military and police installations around the city, some chanted slogans against them, and others threw projectiles, but the majority here shouted down acts of violence, while others formed human chains to prevent the sides from clashing.
It wasn’t until a breakaway march left Rabaa al-Adawiya and headed just a few kilometres away, to an outpost of the presidential guard, when the violence erupted.
Witnesses told Al Jazeera that one man had approached the building’s barbed wire fencing, holding a poster of Mohamed Morsi, when he was shot in the head by a soldier on the other side of the fence. He died moments later.
“He’s not even a Brotherhood member,” one man in tears shouted. “I know him, he’s only a good Muslim and they killed him.”
The army continued firing tear gas and birdshot, as military helicopter gunships circled above.
Other men approached the fence, one man carrying a flower, but it was clear they wouldn’t be able to challenge the well-trained officers on the other side.
Around Cairo, the Brotherhood’s critics have said the group remains well armed and could wage attacks against the state. They pointed to the border with Libya in the west, and to the Gaza Strip in the east as possible sources of more weaponry.
“Those Brotherhood members, they’re all armed,” one man in a cafe told others, as a pro-Morsi march passed nearby.
But many Morsi supporters told Al Jazeera they were firmly opposed to the idea of taking up weapons as a means to win back their power.
‘Back to the grassroots’
Outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the main site of ongoing pro-Morsi protests, men can be seem performing military-like drills, wearing construction hats and padded vests.
Haddad, the Brotherhood spokesperson, laughed when asked if they were meant to be threatening, and dismissed the notion that it was a sign of the group becoming militarised.
“It’s not even going to do anything against bullets, but at least it might deter thugs,” Haddad said.
The Muslim Brotherhood will only use peaceful means to challenge the military, he added.
“We’re going back to the grassroots and the source of real power – the people themselves,” Haddad said. “We’ll see where that takes us.”
But in Tahrir Square and elsewhere across the country, the anti-Morsi crowd has moved on.
They’re not concerned with a return of the Brotherhood. They know that the army, which produced more than six decades of Egypt’s leaders – each of whom waged their own crackdown on the group – is behind them.
Almost all of the journalists covering Friday’s pro-Morsi protests were reporting for foreign media.
One of the army’s first moves after taking power was to close Brotherhood-media outlets and other TV channels that were said to be pro-Morsi in their coverage.
So unless they followed the international press, social media, or attended the events themselves, most Egyptians will have little idea of the protests that took place today.
And with the military keeping tight control, it’s hard to see how the Brotherhood will be able to climb its way back into power any time soon.