Hundreds of thousands rally for Morsi in latest battle of street protests

07/12/2013 7:08 PM

08/17/2013 5:42 PM

Supporters of Mohammed Morsi rallied on behalf of the ousted president Friday in their biggest demonstrations since he was removed from office, part of a strategy to get him reinstated by using the same means that forced his removal: mass protests.

“Ir-hal!!” they chanted _ leave, in Arabic – the same word Morsi’s opponents had yelled in urging the president to resign just days ago. This time, the chant was directed at Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the minister of defense and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who’d announced Morsi’s ouster on July 3.

Indeed, the pro-Morsi campaign looks much like the one his opponents had mounted. Just as Morsi’s opponents refused to work with his government, the Muslim Brotherhood, through which Morsi rose to prominence, has rejected entreaties from the new prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, to join his Cabinet. Morsi’s opponents now are accusing the militarily installed transitional president, Adly Mansour, of grabbing power with a highly unpopular declaration that gives him near dictatorial powers. It was the same charge leveled against Morsi last fall.

“We are using the same weapon they are using against us, but the difference between them and us is that we are using it in a peaceful manner. We did not believe in democracy in the first place but we agreed to play democracy as they did and we won,” said Naguib el Shanenwy, a 30-year-old imam who marched in support of Morsi.

The likelihood that Egypt’s political battles would continue to be played out in competing street demonstrations, perhaps for months, filled analysts with despair.

“I’m pessimistic,” said Frederic Wehry, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “This is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said, predicting that the Brotherhood “is not going to go quietly."

Wehry also predicted that young secular revolutionaries who formed the Tamarod, or Rebel, movement to demand Morsi’s resignation and who’ve backed the military overthrow of a democratically elected leader would likely rue the decision. The Tamarod movement “made a Faustian bargain” with the military “that they’ll come to regret,” Wehry said.

The United States joined Germany on Friday in calling for the military to release Morsi, who hasn’t been seen since a middle-of-the-night speech hours before his overthrow was announced. The military has said only that Morsi is being held for his own safety. Pro-Morsi demonstrators believe he’s under arrest at the headquarters of the Republican Guard, whose troops ordinarily protect the president.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States agrees with the German Foreign Ministry that there must be an “end to all restrictive measures considering Morsi.”

The battle over what constitutes legitimacy and democratic process – the ballot box, as the Brotherhood says in arguing that Morsi should serve out the remaining three years of his term, or the street, as Morsi’s opponents say, in arguing that massive anti-Morsi demonstrations validated the military putsch that toppled him – shows no signs of easing. That leaves little room for discussions over how to fix the country’s seemingly intractable economic, social and security problems.

And there are worries the conflict could explode into violence again as it did on Monday, when the country’s elite Republican Guard opened fire on Morsi partisans, killing more than 50. The situation is volatile, with hundreds of Brotherhood officials, including its supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, under arrest, and the possibility that Morsi, too, will face charges.

With $12 billion in promised aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait over the past week, the new government has financial space to muddle through the months ahead without tackling the problems that contributed to Morsi’s undoing.

Morsi supporters have vowed to stay in the streets for months, if necessary, to see him reinstated.

On Friday, the Brotherhood bused in tens of thousands of people from around the country. The show of force may have totaled as many as a million participants, though it was still much smaller than the anti-Morsi outpouring of as many as 14 million that crowded the streets in the days ahead of his ouster.

The goal of the pro-Morsi demonstrators was Rabaa, the Cairo district that has become the gathering place for Brotherhood supporters. But the military blocked the roads leading there, so protesters, most of whom are observing the fast required of Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, had to walk in the heat for at least 30 minutes – without water _ before arriving.

On loudspeakers, near military tanks, some troops played a recital of the Quran in the background in an effort to mollify Morsi’s Islamist supporters.

As sunset approached, when protesters could break their Ramadan fast and eat and drink again, the exhaustion caused by hours of heat and dehydration was evident. Slippers dragged along by shuffling feet became the dominant sound as the crowds sought out the dates, bread, chicken, rice, sandwiches, juice and water whose odors had hovered around them.

“It is not logical to meet the demands of a protest that lasted only two days while we had been here for many days and no one looked at our demands,” said Assma al Samak, 22, one of the protesters.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman in Cairo contributed to this report.

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