Originally published in The Independent, 28 July 2013
Supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi vowed to continue defying government threats to clear them from their sprawling tent encampment in eastern Cairo – despite the massacre of scores of protesters by security forces over the weekend.
Inside a mosque at the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo sit-in, a young student showed The Independent a bullet which until the early hours of Sunday morning had been lodged millimetres from his brain.
Abdul Rahman Mohamed, a 19-year-old from Alexandria, had been protesting alongside Mr Morsi’s supporters when they were caught up in Saturday’s bloodbath.
At least 72 civilians are known to have been gunned down by the security services. Doctors said the true figure was significantly higher.
Mr Mohamed, who narrowly avoided losing his sight, was one of the lucky ones – the bullet coming to a rest between his right eye socket and the bridge of his nose.
But if others think he was fortunate, he himself would beg to differ. “This was not luck,” he said, as a nearby friend clutched an X-ray of his skull. “This was from God.”
He said not even a bullet to the head could persuade him to leave the streets. “If they think that this will stop me, then they are dreaming.”
His words came as Egypt’s Prime Minister was granted the authority to give the military extensive powers of arrest, fuelling the concerns of those who are predicting an imminent anti-Islamist crackdown.
For the past month – since the beginning of the popular revolt which led to Morsi’s removal by the army – supporters of the Mr Morsi have been stubbornly defying the government from their tent city in Rabaa al-Adawiya, a neighbourhood of eastern Cairo.
Sprawled along a mile-long criss-cross of wide open avenues – with the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and nearby speakers’ stage at its centre – the month-long protest has become a thorn in the sides of those who had hoped for a smooth post-insurrection transition.
In spite of Saturday’s killings – and in the face of veiled threats from General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s top commander, to use a popular mandate to crack down on “terrorism” – protesters who spoke to The Independent yesterday appeared defiant.
“We have two choices,” said Ayman Youssef, a physics teacher, as he sheltered from the midday sun beneath the canvas of his tent. “Victory or death. There are no other options.”
Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who feel grievously betrayed by the manner of Morsi’s ousting, continue to spurn the transitional process. An interim President has been selected, the constitution is being rewritten – and yet one of the nation’s key political powers sits sniping from the sidelines, angry and embittered.
“Al-Sisi belongs in a gang,” said Dr Wafaa Hefny, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing who works in the sit-in’s media centre. “They are stealing Egypt and selling it to the Israelis and Americans.”
In the epic Egyptian wrestle over concepts of democratic legitimacy, the powers behind this month’s revolt have cast their campaign as the very essence of democratic empowerment against a would-be theocratic dictatorship.
The Brotherhood, meanwhile, points its tormentors to last year’s election result – that is all the legitimacy they need, members argue.
In the growing climate of anti-Brotherhood hysteria, such finer points of debate have become sullied by vitriol and groundless anti-terrorism smears.
All the while, the encampment at Rabaa al-Adawiya has become a very public symbol of Islamist recalcitrance.
Enormous banners featuring beaming photos of Mr Morsi greet visitors at the main entrances – yet great piles of sandbags stretched across the highway betray an inner sense of siege.
About half a mile west from the main sit-in, at the spot where scores of protesters were gunned down on Saturday, Mohamed Anwar Khalaq stood behind the barricade of brick paving stones which marks the outer limits of the ongoing protest.
The 45-year-old told The Independent his brother had been killed during the July 8 massacre, when more than 50 supporters of Mr Morsi were gunned down by the military outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard.
“They fire their guns because they are paid to do so, but we are here for the sake of our religion,” he said. “I hope for the same fate as my brother.”