Originally published in The Evening Standard, 2 July 2013
It was a cynical and extravagant manoeuvre — and one which met with rapturous applause from the masses who saw it unfold.
Shortly after announcing what was effectively a threat to mount a military coup, Egypt’s generals dispatched five helicopters to the skies above Tahrir Square.
Tethered to each chopper’s undercarriage were a series of giant national and military flags. As the pilots glided in formation over central Cairo, the message to Egypt’s embattled Muslim Brotherhood appeared clear: the army would back the opposition in any confrontation with the Islamists.
The result is that today, president Mohammed Morsi, the man who was democratically elected only one year ago, woke up staring down a gun barrel being pointed by his own generals. Faced with nationwide protests which are threatening to plunge Egypt into the most serious bout of turmoil since the 2011 revolt, his top brass have handed him an ultimatum — reach an accommodation with the liberal and secular opposition, or we will step in and fix the mess for you.
But the president’s opponents seem in no mood for compromise. They have committed themselves to an anti-government insurrection which has uncanny echoes of that which toppled Mr Morsi’s predecessor two and a half years ago.
Over the past two days towns and cities across the country have been brought to a standstill as millions of Egyptians — driven by falling living standards and a series of highly divisive political decisions from the president — have taken to the streets.
So far most of the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, but since Sunday at least 16 people have died during clashes. In Cairo, scores of women have been sexually assaulted in gang attacks.
In perhaps the starkest illustration of the dangers facing Egypt, the Brotherhood’s own headquarters came under a sustained attack in the early hours of yesterday. Several people were killed as assailants in the streets around the six-storey building hurled petrol bombs and exchanged gunfire with those holed up inside.
When the Brotherhood’s supporters were forced to flee, looters broke in and began ransacking the premises.
By midday there was virtually nothing of any value left in the still-smouldering building: and this in the national headquarters of the elected president’s political group.
There were no police and no troops. A Brotherhood official told the Evening Standard that they were called several times, but nobody showed up.
Early this morning Cairo was ecstatically abuzz with hooting car horns and exploding fireworks like at no other time since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Opposition protesters, some of whom once called for the downfall of the military regime which followed the ousting of Mr Mubarak, are now eagerly hoping that the very same military will deliver them from Mohammed Morsi.
This morning Egypt’s president issued a statement which appeared to rebuff the warning issued by his generals. For the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which has waited nearly a century to get its hands on power but now feels grievously betrayed, it seems beyond belief that they will back down without a fight.