It was a depressing grim day in Egypt on Wednesday. The country was back to witnessing bloody clashes on a scale not seen since last year’s uprisings that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
State television and other media outlets report the death of five protesters and hundreds wounded after battles with Muslim Brotherhood militiamen in the streets of the capital.
Supporters of Mubarak’s successor Mohamed Morsi’s, who had staged a demonstration outside the presidential palace in Cairo, clashed with protesters who accuse the Islamist leader of a power grab. Morsi shielded himself from judicial prosecution in a constitutional decree late last month.
The decision has sharply polarized Egyptian society. It started with marches in Tahrir Square but after Morsi turned a blind eye on his opposition, in a form of escalation, they moved to the front of the presidential palace on Tuesday.
At dawn before the announced demonstration, police fenced off streets in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis with barbed wire. State security conscripts were lined across the streets leading to the palace to protect it.
In the late afternoon, the marches, with football supporters taking up the frontline, arrived quite peacefully in Heliopolis. Before nightfall, scuffles began between protesters on the frontline and conscripts who threw teargas into the crowd. Later it became clear that this unrest started when Morsi left the palace from a backdoor, ignoring the demonstration. Once he’d left, the security forces made way for the protesters to approach the building.
Various opposition movements participated in the protest, from liberals to revolutionary socialists to football ultras. The Muslim Brotherhood has always been recognized for its power of mobilization but they are no longer the sole players in this arena.
As the people approached the palace, graffiti artists took the liberty of leaving Morsi a few comments such as “Egypt is too big for your Brotherhood,” “Leave, you donkey” and “Morsi is convicted of killing the revolutionaries, he will end up like Mubarak.” An interesting poster held by a protester read “Obama, your bitch is our dictator.”
A small group of protesters remained at the palace but movement in the streets was back to normal the next day. The barbed wire was pushed to the sidewalks, traffic resumed. Then around 4 PM, Muslim Brotherhood militias stormed the area, carrying saws, swords and live ammunition. Children from the sporting club opposite the palace ran in despair amid the militia members. Cars started to rush in the opposite direction; shops shut down. It took the men less than an hour to destroy tents, break journalists’ cameras and turn the streets into a warzone. President Morsi was simultaneously holding a press conference inside.
While they were destroying the protesters’ camp, the militiamen shouted “God is great, Morsi is out leader.” Even when they were stepping out of their buses that were parked in side streets, they announced, “We will perform jihad in the name of Allah.”
Twitter and Facebook pages started listing times and locations from which protesters could meet to march into the palace area and warned against walking alone. Bloody clashes took place; the side streets turned into traps for those who had come to protest against the president. Sounds of ammunition daunted the neighborhood. When hospitals refused to take in the injured, churches in the neighborhood opened their doors and were turned into field hospitals.
At night, former Arab League chairman Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Hamdeen Sabahi, the liberal candidate who finished third in the first round of this year’s presidential election, issued a joint statement in which they condemned the attacks on the peaceful protests. They warned Morsi against moving ahead with a scheduled referendum on the country’s new constitution which was prepared almost exclusively by Islamists.
On Thursday, Facebook filled with pictures of missing people. Some posted videos of women being kidnapped from side streets. Morsi didn’t publicly respond to the unrest. Rather, tanks were moved into the streets to protect the presidential palace early in the day.