Egypt on Thursday had a new president, its former president sat in military custody, the top official of the Muslim Brotherhood was under arrest, and at least four television stations had been shut down – all seemingly undemocratic steps barely a year after the nation’s first free and fair presidential elections.
But none of that deterred the feeling of jubilation that remained on the streets in Egypt’s capital, one day after the top military commander ousted Mohammed Morsi from the presidency, suspended a controversial constitution that had been approved in a referendum and called for new presidential elections.
For many here, the dramatic shift in Egypt’s leadership was a culmination of a maelstrom that took months to develop as an increasingly disgruntled public, the nation’s military and Morsi’s incompetent leadership collided. Even as they quietly mulled whether Morsi might have been right that remnants of the government of Hosni Mubarak were constantly undermining him, many here embraced the result.
A popular "referendum on the streets" had nullified the elections that led to Morsi’s increasingly unpopular and divisive tenure, they said. The military, the last remaining revered national institution, simply carried out the will of the majority, they said. Morsi, they said, had never had control of the government, the final evidence coming when police officers and soldiers turned against him.
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“It was a coup, but it was necessary,” said Marwa Abdel Majeed, a businesswoman who felt the military intervention was the only means to spare Egypt from Morsi’s incompetency and divisiveness.
“We were not ready for democracy,” she said, asserting that Egypt’s largely illiterate population was unaware of what elections could bring.
Jihan Sherif, Abdel Majeed’s friend, even rejected calling what happened here a military coup, despite the military’s arrest of Morsi and declaration that he was no longer president. She said the military had no choice because the people alone could not possibly have challenged the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s backers, which had become the best-organized grassroots movement in Egypt during its 84 years, most of them as an underground organization.
“Of course it’s not a coup. The people were in the streets pushing for some institution to take their side because if they attack the Brotherhood it would be a civil war,” said Sherif, 34, who lives in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamelek. “It was the best case scenario.”
She, too, said Morsi’s rule was the result of ignorance among the people who voted for him.
“The illiterate are much more in numbers than the educated,” she said. “There was no one to represent the educated masses.”
With Morsi’s ouster, the nation now was in the hands of two relatively unknown leaders. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the defense minister and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has been at the post for less than a year, appointed by Morsi last August.
Adly Mansour, 67, took the oath of office Thursday as acting president, just three days after being named the head of the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, a post he’ll retain while president.
Military officials arrested the Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Mohamed Badie, whisking him from his home in the western coastal town of Marsa Matrouh and bringing him to Cairo, where he was charged with inciting violence.
But, other than the ongoing celebrations, the streets remained quiet for the first time since June 28, when pro- and anti-Morsi rallies defined the national landscape, drawing an estimated 14 million Egyptians – overwhelmingly opposed to Morsi – to the streets. That’s one out of every six Egyptians. For comparison, Morsi received 13.2 million votes in last year’s presidential runoff; his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, received nearly 12.35 million.
As Mansour read the presidential oath, there was a lull in a nation politically exhausted, first, from days of tension as they awaited word from the military on what would happen, then from hours of partying that began Wednesday night and lasted until dawn.
But the divisions that have roiled Egypt for months are expected to return Friday, the start of Egypt’s weekend and the day when demonstrations are common.
The Brotherhood called its members to defend Morsi’s legitimate right to complete his four-year term in what it called “Friday of rejection.” In a posting to his Twitter feed Thursday, Morsi’s son, Omar Morsi, @Omar_Mursy, was threatening. “I demand the millions of supporters of the president to not respond to the military and kill the military,” he tweeted.
Tamarod, or rebel in Arabic, a relatively new group that claimed to have millions of signatures on a petition calling for Morsi to resign, also called for mass demonstrations tomorrow, in defense of the military action.
Among some, there was quiet whispering about how long the military had been considering such an action, and what role that might have played in the shortages that had plagued Egyptians in the final weeks of the Morsi administration.
Many marveled that electricity, which used to cut off daily in even the most posh neighborhoods, now was flowing uninterrupted.
The snakes of people trying to buy gasoline, which had defined the city landscape just last week, quickly disappeared.
The stock market shot up 7 percent Thursday after Morsi’s ouster, the greatest gain in more than a year.
Police, who had largely disappeared, were back patrolling the streets.
Some members of Mubarak’s administration were back as well, particularly the Mubarak-appointed chief prosecutor, who’d been ousted by Morsi and replaced. Mansour himself had first been appointed to the country's supreme court in 1992 under Mubarak.
A caption in the state newspaper identifying some of the 14 people who sat on the stage as el-Sissi announced that the Morsi era was over showed how broad opposition to his rule had become.
There, of course, was Mohamed el-Baradei, the Nobel Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who now serves as the leader of the National Salvation Front, the largest opposition group. But also present were representatives of the conservative Salafist Nour Party and of Tamarod. Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar University, the seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, was in attendance.
Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope, Tawadros II, sat on the front row, decked out in an ornate black cope, his head topped with the traditional, round ballin. Behind him sat the only woman in the group, Sikena Fouad, a prominent writer.
El-Sissi explained that the military had urged Morsi to embrace national reconciliation since November, around the time Morsi issued a controversial decree giving himself judicial power and calling for a committee made up largely of his backers to craft a new constitution, which they hastily passed a month later. El-Sissi said Morsi refused, even as demonstrations against him grew larger and more frequent.
As the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration approached, and the streets buzzed with plans of mass protests, El-Sissi said he met with Morsi again. That meeting, El-Sissi said, came on June 22, about the same time a court found that Brotherhood members had conspired with Hamas, Hezbollah and militants and stormed a prison in final days of 2011 uprising to free 34 Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi. The ruling left Morsi’s legal standing unclear but could now become the basis for his arrest.
Throughout, Morsi defiantly maintained he was president, endorsed by the presidential election last year in which he won 52 percent of the vote. Morsi repeatedly argued that he was being set up by former remnants of the Mubarak regime and the western world to fail and that he needed more time. He consistently rejected reaching out to the opposition, calling them disparate and fractured and an illegitimate source of power. He, not they, were elected to office.
The safest place in Cairo for members of the Brotherhood seemed to be Rabaa, on the edge of the city, where supporters have been gathered since last Friday. Military tanks and soldiers in bullet-proof vests continued to block the roads leading to the area, but they stayed away from the demonstration, even as they moved in on Brotherhood leaders elsewhere. It was clear that Brotherhood supporters could only dragged from Rabaa at great risk of bloodshed.
Meanwhile, military aircraft flew over the iconic Tahrir Square, where anti-Morsi demonstrators remained. Five planes streamed contrails of red, white and black, designed to resemble the Egyptian flag.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.