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Once-despised Egyptian military finds favor after short-lived democracy

Soha Sayed was once an iconic face in a nation weary of an Egyptian government dominated by the military.

Her husband, an accidental revolutionary, was fatally shot during the country’s 2011 uprising that pressed for democracy.

Widowed, she called for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s conviction for her husband’s death.

“Nothing,” she insisted, “could happen here without Mubarak knowing.”

When Mubarak was convicted last year, a photo of Sayed, joyfully crying behind sunglasses while carrying a poster of her late husband, traveled the world.

No more. The woman who once said Egyptians demanded change, who lost her husband to old norms and who supported Mohammed Morsi’s rise as Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, on Monday welcomed his ouster by the same military implicated in her husband’s killing.

Gen. Abdel-Fateh el-Sissi, the defense minster and de facto Egyptian leader, is “the nation’s savior,” she said.

She sees the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency, as terrorists. And revolutionaries who once urged people to rise up against the government, she said, have done nothing to improve the lives or economic standing of everyday Egyptians.

The 2011 revolution for democracy, at least as typified by people like Sayed, appeared dead Monday.

Egyptians largely welcomed news of Mubarak’s potential release and of Morsi’s detention stretching out for at least 15 more days. There appeared only growing support for the military takeover – even amid the killing of more than 1,000 Morsi supporters since Wednesday, including 36 detained Islamists killed Monday while in police custody.

Early Tuesday, police detained the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to security officials and state television cited by the Associated Press. Mohammed Badie was captured in an apartment in Nasr City in eastern Cairo, AP reported.

“Wasn’t Mubarak released through the law and didn’t we call for Egypt to become a state of laws?” asked Sayed, 43. “The revolution failed because it didn’t have a strong leader, a lion who doesn’t fear or care for anyone, someone like el-Sissi.”

The unelected military and the civilian government it put in place enjoy broad public support to eliminate the threat of what many Egyptians perceive from Mubarak’s followers. There are no more mass demonstrations against the military or calls for democratic reforms.

Instead, many Egyptians are seeking stability in any form.

News stations on Monday replayed gruesome photos of 25 police officers whose burned bodies were attributed to a rocket-propelled grenade presumably fired by Islamist Morsi supporters. The deaths of the officers fueled public anger and launched calls for retribution against the killers.

Newscasters read the officers’ names, preceding each with the word “sha-heed,” or martyr, as their flag-draped coffins arrived in Cairo. It was the deadliest day for the police most Egyptians could remember.

Meanwhile at Cairo’s overwhelmed Zeinhoum morgue, 638 bodies arrived one day. Then 173 the next day. Then 79 the day after that. And 70 more on Monday. All since the start of the clashes Wednesday, when security forces violently cleared out six-week-long sit-ins by Morsi supporters.

In all, nearly 1,100 people have died since June 26, largely Morsi supporters, according to an Agence France-Presse count. Of those, 54 were members of government security forces.

With no room inside, four refrigerator trucks now sit outside the morgue.

A barefoot man crawled inside one truck, holding a picture over each of the burned remains in search of a loved one. At the main building, every time someone opened the truck doors, the stench of death sent people scurrying.

“Sissi is a killer,” someone painted on the front desk of the morgue. Every few minutes, one man after the next would come rushing out, the sound of vomit hitting the ground at what he had seen inside.

The exact circumstances that killed the 36 detained men early Monday remained unclear. The government claimed they suffocated from tear gas. But a morgue official told McClatchy the dead showed signs of torture.

A man who only wanted to be identified as Abu Youssef, a pseudonym for “father of Youssef,” said he had cleaned five of the bodies from those 36 killed and there were no signs of suffocation.

“The head and neck are totally black and there are other signs of torture. The mouth is bleeding so much. The whole body has red and blue parts,” the 51-year-old said. “They all have the same signs of torture.”

For the second day, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to rally mass protests, despite its calls for demonstrations every day until Friday. With the group’s leaders arrested or in hiding, the organization may be becoming fractured.

The most prominent name calling for revolutionary change, Nobel laureate and one-time vice president Mohammed ElBaradei, has fled to Vienna. Activists who remain here turned off their phones Monday and refused to speak publicly about recent events.

That, in turn, left the public discussion to people like Sayed.

“We don’t deny that during Mubarak’s rule there was injustice and corruption,” Sayed said.

But where, she wonders, are those who called for change during the heady, early days of the Arab Spring push for democracy?

Where she once screamed at passing police officers for killing her husband, Sayed now believes the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been battling in the streets with the government for power, may have had a role in her husband’s death.

“I don’t know what happened to him anymore,” she said.

On Monday, the Cairo Criminal Court absolved Mubarak, 85, of charges that he abused public funds. That could allow his release this week, his lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, told reporters. Reuters reported that Mubarak could be held for another two weeks.

In fact, whether he would be released remained unclear. He faces charges in several other cases.

Still, it was notable that the possibility that the deposed and once-reviled leader might go free didn’t produce public outrage.

Prosecutors also extended their detention of Morsi for another 15 days, as they build new cases of inciting violence against him.

“(Mubarak) can’t be in the same jail as Morsi,” said an Egyptian fruit vendor in the Zamalek section of Cairo. “We can’t have two presidents in jail.”

That was typical of the many ways Egyptians justified Mubarak’s potential release and Morsi’s ongoing detention.

The government has repeatedly called Muslim Brotherhood members terrorists and condemned both the international community and foreign journalists for suggesting it was mistreating its foes. Their forces, government officials have said, have exercised great “self-restraint.”

“The symbolism of Mubarak’s release at the same time that many of the features that defined his regime are emerging is hard to miss,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. “But even without his release, we were still seeing the consolidation of a profoundly undemocratic order underwritten by a profoundly undemocratic ideology.”

Sayed’s husband, Osama, 44, was never politically active, but the swelling crowds compelled him to leave home on Jan. 28, 2011, and head toward nearby Giza Square. It was one of many protest sites where people called for Mubarak’s ouster and police reforms. He last called home at 5:30 p.m. According to hospital records, he arrived at 6 p.m. By 11 p.m., his body was in the morgue.

Where Sayed once had one enemy, the Mubarak state, she now has two more. She believes the Muslim Brotherhood destroyed the nation during Morsi’s rule, and that it threatens more harm now as it seeks to reinstate him.

And she blames the revolutionaries for dashing her hopes of change. Her only source of comfort is the military.

“What Sissi is doing today is conquering terrorism. That will put us back on the right route of the revolution,” Sayed said. If any revolutionary leader “was strong or managed to lead the revolution, Mubarak would have been put under revolutionary trials and convicted by now.”

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.