At midday on Sunday the temperature hovered around 33 degrees in Tahrir Square. People crowded into the shade but didn’t give up their chanting and flag waving. In the late afternoon, as the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, flag wavers, drummers, horn honkers and angry chanters set out from across Cairo towards either Tahrir Square or the Presidential Palace, protesting against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s polarising style of governance, and their failure to revive the economy and restore security. The numbers were ‘unprecedented’, even for a country that has seen its share of ‘unprecedented’ protests over the past three years. Simultaneous demonstrations were held throughout the country, from the cities on the Suez Canal to the agricultural heartland of the Nile Delta to more conservative Upper Egypt. Some estimated the turnout in the millions.
The military made its presence felt throughout the day – and has done since – with black Apache helicopters. They have been buzzing low over Cairo constantly for three days. The first time I saw them over Tahrir Square the crowd of thousands erupted into cheering: ‘The army and the people are one hand!’ (a chant that first emerged during the 2011 uprising when, after the police forces fled, the army deployed to the streets) and “Long live Egypt!” When I asked people why they were ecstatic about the sight of an apache flying over a protest – rather than alarmed – I was told that the army is “our army” and will protect the Egyptians.
When Mohamed Ali Pasha established the modern Egyptian state in the 19th century, the creation of a European-style army was a central part of the nation-building project. His great-great-grandson was overthrown in 1952 by a group of young army officers. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all rose to power from within the military’s ranks. The 6 October Bridge, a causeway that spans much of Cairo and one of the biggest public works projects in recent memory, is named for the date that the army crossed the Suez Canal to fight the Israelis occupying the Sinai Peninsula in 1973.
The change of power in 2011 was a palace coup riding the wave of a genuine popular uprising. The generals, seeing that Mubarak’s days were numbered, forced him to leave office while preserving most of the state’s institutions. The military has huge economic interests, though no one knows how exactly how huge (estimates of up to 40 per cent of GDP are probably exaggerations). It has holdings in everything from real estate to poultry farming to machine part manufacturing. Retired military men have the pick of jobs in both the private and the public sector. The army has traditionally had far more control over foreign policy than the foreign ministry. When protesters say that the army ‘defends Egypt’, they are right. The army’s primary concern is its own well-being, and a stable Egypt is essential for its business interests.
A week before the protests began, as crisis loomed between President Morsi and his opponents (seemingly everyone in the country except a core contingent of Islamists), General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the commander of the armed forces, announced that the two sides had a week to reach an agreement. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition ignored the ultimatum. Crisis came, as scheduled, on 30 June. Yesterday al-Sisi released a statement calling on ‘political forces’ to meet the people’s demands within 48 hours. If they don’t, the army will fulfil its ‘historical duty toward our country and the great people of Egypt’. What this means remains to be seen, but a military coup in one form or another seems likely. The helicopters are still circling overhead.