Egypt’s government won’t find it easy to clear pro-Morsi encampment


McClatchy Foreign Staff

The site of a sit-in staged by supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has become a city of its own within the nation’s capital, a development that surely will complicate any effort by the militarily installed government to uproot it without the agreement of the Muslim Brotherhood members who’ve built it.

Tents line every road leading to the mosque in Rabaa, the epicenter of the pro-Morsi demonstration. Many of the tents have been numbered and bear signs detailing the governorates from which their occupants have come. Many residents have been there since June 28, when the sit-in began.

There are kitchens, bathrooms, field hospitals and even media centers over the several blocks the sit-in now occupies. Some tents have cupboards and TVs.

The demonstrators have vowed to stay until the imprisoned Morsi is reinstated, a pledge that seems to invite more bloodshed. More than 200 Morsi partisans have died in confrontations with the military since he was deposed July 3. and the military is insisting that the sit-in end. But the vastness of the demonstration’s infrastructure and its settled nature seem to make uprooting it nearly impossible without the agreement of the Muslim Brotherhood – or a massive show of force.

International mediators, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, have tried to end the impasse. In calls to Egypt, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has urged the Egyptian government to employ restraint in dealing with the thousands of protesters. For now, the government seems to be waiting, but it warned Sunday that while it welcomes negotiations, “time is limited” for Morsi supporters in Rabaa and at a similar sit-in in Nahda, near Cairo University.

Morsi supporters cannot envision a way their makeshift city can be cleared that doesn’t end violently.

“It will be a massacre and it will be the worst one ever,” said Roqaia Gala, 15, standing behind hills of sandbags and brick walls while checking the bags and IDs of the thousands of protesters who arrive at the site daily. “And then victory will come. Don’t ask me how, but I truly believe that it will.”

Others say the threats of violence works to their advantage.

“It just increases the numbers,” said Reda Mahmoud, 26, while consoling her weeping 2-year old daughter. “We came here with our children, and we are not afraid of bullets.”

A government and social order has settled in. Every sit-in resident has a role. There are security guards, wearing motorcycle helmets and holding sticks and shields. They’re deployed at every entrance to the sit-in area, and they’re prepared to hide behind the long brick walls protesters have built in case of attack. Big bags filled with sand fill gaps in the wall.

Morsi supporters, holding brooms and wearing vests in neon colors that read, “Responsible for cleaning and beautification,” can be found every few blocks, pushing trash and garbage into piles. Every few yards around the tents, steel pillars have been sunk into the ground with ropes strung between them to keep pedestrians from disturbing the protesters asleep on rugs inside. Slippers and shoes are spilled outside the tents.

Many of the thousands who live there go to work during the day and return at night. During the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, some protesters return just before the night sets in to enjoy a feast provided by the Muslim Brotherhood.

On a recent night men, women and children shoved for places at a 10-foot-long wooden table where they could eat for free. Small steel plates were filled with beans or “mesh,” a traditional Egyptian pink feta cheese. After each meal, the table is peppered with crumbs of bread.

Street vendors have taken advantage of the encampment to make a living out of people’s needs, selling clothes, luggage, food and even toys.

One clothing vendor helped customers find proper-fitting pants and T-shirts while wearing a green Brotherhood headband that read, “There is no God but Allah.”

“Down, down with military rule,” the vendor chants along with the crowds, stopping to look at a McClatchy reporter and ask suspiciously: “Are you with us or a visitor?”

In a city where power can be sporadic, the lights are always on in Rabaa.

There appears to be little fear, even though government security forces have taken a heavy toll on Morsi demonstrators in confrontations. The first, July 8, left 55 dead, most of them Morsi partisans. The second, which may have killed as many as 90, only made people more insistent that they’ll stay.

“We saw bullets flying in front of us but we still can’t leave. There is now blood between us,” said Roqaia, the 15-year-old.

Many protesters say that to leave now would be to concede defeat. With animosity against the Brotherhood so high in the nation, they don’t trust the government to treat them fairly. And as the government has rounded up and pressed criminal charges against scores of Brotherhood leaders, those who remain are hiding in the sit-in.

One of the complaints the government has made about the sit-in is that it’s made traveling in the already congested city difficult. It’s made it hard to reach the airport – the sit-in straddles the airport road – and travel in the area requires a circuitous route. Drivers often must chant support for Morsi or protesters won’t let their cars pass. Nearby businesses have shuttered.

For now, the security forces are keeping their distance. Army tanks can be seen parked along the roads leading to the protest, but they’re outside. Some say that moving in to clear the site will be a signal to other, less moderate Islamists.

“A lot of Islamists don’t believe in the democratic means of change,” said Mustafa Mahmoud, a 30-year-old sales manger who’s among the protesters camped out at Rabaa. “There is another Islamic current that still hasn’t participated in the sit-in. They only believe in force to bring about change. Even if they (the government) finish killing all of those in Rabaa it won’t end, because those Islamists haven’t appeared yet.”

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @nancyayoussef, @aminaismail

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