Those aren't fireworks. That's an AK-47. Probably more than one.
So swam the thoughts in my head as I sat relaxing in my Cairo apartment the night of July 5.
The shots were close-by too, and for 10 minutes there was what sounded to be a sustained exchange of bullets. I couldn't see the trigger pullers, and for all I know the firing was celebratory. But still, this was as clear an indicator as any that the mood in Cairo had changed two nights after a popular military coup had ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power. Reports of armed clashes, gunfire, and casualties were coming from all over the country as arrests of Brotherhood members continued, but tonight was the first time any had been near me.
Up to this point in the day I had just been sipping beers, trying to unpack and watching events unfold on Al-Jazeera. Just before 9 pm, coverage indicated Brotherhood demonstrations were converging on Tahrir Square to challenge the previous anti-Brotherhood demonstrations and ongoing celebrations from the nights before. On the way, the Brotherhood had met opposition and things got messy. From the overhead shots outside the square it was hard to tell which side was which but someone had started throwing Molotov cocktails and all signs pointed to trouble. Security forces were en route, but they hadn't arrived yet.
This was all on TV though, and as such, distant to a degree. The gunfire however was probably within a five-block radius of my location. I realized I needed to get out there. Grabbing my camera and notebook, I made a frantic search for my keys before realizing they were probably in the middle of a cold-wash laundry cycle in my jean pocket. Thankfully my roommate threw me a spare and I was out the door. The slow elevator ride to the ground floor provided me just enough time to think about whether or not this was a stupid idea. The angel on my shoulder said yes, in fact it was. The devil on the other hand told me I had covered gang shootings in my native Oregon and that this was a grisly kind of exciting that shouldn't be missed. He won.
Stepping onto the street, nothing actually seemed that out of place. Some shops had shuttered early but people were still out on the streets drinking and conversing in the cafes. Whatever the source of the gunfire, it was gone and save for the roar of passing motorbikes and helicopters things were quiet. I decided to head to Tahrir Square.
A man stopped me on the way and asked to bum a lighter. He warned the road ahead was blocked but this wasn't entirely correct. Police and military had in fact cordoned off the area with concertina wire and dozens of armored vehicles but some foot traffic was being allowed through. More people were definitely leaving the square than entering though. At the same time two nights before the exact opposite had been true. Upon reaching the first checkpoint I waited in a short line to be patted down by soldiers looking for weapons. Further down the road I waited again for another inspection. The soldiers were actually relatively friendly given the circumstances and police with riot gear and shields sat off to the side smoking, waiting for something to happen. At this point Tahrir seemed a shadow of its former self from July 3 when it was packed with revelers. Thousands were still there, but with fewer flags and little to no chanting amongst the mostly male crowd; the masses seemed to be just milling about. In the half hour it took me to arrive, it appeared as if the military had headed off the major Brotherhood confrontation and that people were just going home.
For the last 48 hours people had been asking when the Brotherhood would finally react to their president's ouster. It looked as though they finally had and that this wasn't going to be the last of these confrontations. It remains to be seen however if they can mount effective counter demonstrations against a well-armed military in a city that if graffiti and street signs are an indication, absolutely despises them. Ramadan begins next week too, and its mandated Islamic fasting can sap the will of any movement, pro- or anti-Morsi. Still, the military and a nominally new civilian government under Adly Mansour remain in power.
Prior to the gunfire incident, I spent the night of July 4 at a going away party for one of my roommates. The celebration eventually turned into a group going away party for American expats on government or academic programs that were ordering them to leave the country. The city as a whole was still in a joyous mood, but what's happening now as shown in Tahrir last night is decidedly quieter as things move into the unknown. Amidst the party's rounds of beer pong and hash it became apparent some of the expats were concerned. Others were only having trouble deciding if they should treat their fully funded evacuations as holidays to Paris or Rome. In about a week most will be told whether their organizations have decided if it's safe to return or if instead they'll be sent home.
Back in Jordan, a group of American friends and I contended we actually introduced the Hashemite Kingdom to beer pong, as we found no historical evidence of the sport prior to our arrival. July 4 taught me that Egyptians not only know the game but are actually quite good at it. In this scene not surprisingly it was a pretty secular crowd and they were all overwhelmingly happy with Morsi's departure. They felt like it was their country again and now they could contend with the process of really building a new government, the former having lost all legitimacy in their eyes. They also insisted that foreigners here were incorrectly calling what just happened a coup and that it in fact was the army executing the people's will. Use of the "C-word" has become really controversial and divisive in the past few days. A coup however is certainly what Morsi supporters call it and on paper at least a military just overthrew an elected government -- a really unpopular one -- but still an elected one. Angry emails and messages I've received since my last entry however underlie the "don't call it a coup" sentiment. To anti-Morsi Egyptians this wasn't a coup but the removal of a government that once elected felt it had a spiritual mandate to force through its own religious agenda. An agenda it enacted without consulting or including other political parties or societal elements. In effect it had become the government of the Brotherhood and not the government of Egypt. No one stood with it or for it when the military decided to act on the demands of millions of anti-Brotherhood demonstrators.
But July 5 was the night for the Brotherhood to show the country they still had teeth. If rhetoric is an indication it may have been just the beginning, Ramadan or not. The Brotherhood has essentially been told by the Egyptian military that when they play by the rules, engage in the political process, and win fair elections, they'll still be swept from power at the generals' behest. That leaves the group with its back to the wall and nothing to lose from engaging in violence. I don't think those will be the last gunshots I hear in Cairo.