CAIRO (AP) — The burly, bearded men in hard hats hunker down with long sticks behind waist-high, makeshift brick walls surrounding a mosque that has become the heart of a Muslim Brotherhood encampment.
Egypt’s Islamists are trying to recreate the atmosphere of Tahrir Square from 2½ years ago in the hope that their deposed president will be returned to power.
But where those 2011 protests against Hosni Mubarak took place in the center of the city and involved a broad cross-section of Egyptians, the gathering that swells to tens of thousands every night outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque is restricted largely to the Brotherhood faithful — displaying a strong feeling of isolation from the rest of society.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood say it is just a matter of holding their ground for the sake of their democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.
The Monday morning killing of dozens of their supporters just 500 meters (yards) away has raised the stakes for their embattled enclave. The demonstrators say the armed forces opened fire during dawn prayers without provocation, but the military says it came under heavy assault by gunmen and snipers who killed a soldier and two policemen.
“Demonstration, demonstration, demonstration — the people will demonstrate until the president is released and comes back to us. Then we will all talk together and set an agenda,” said Hamza Zouba, a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm whose domination in the last year provoked million-strong anti-government protests June 30 that led to the military overthrow of Morsi.
Zouba said the military hadn’t realized the breadth of Morsi’s popularity, and he spoke of demonstrations across the country Monday for his release — a claim that appeared to be an exaggeration.
“We are waiting for the decay of the coalition against us,” Zouba said, explaining how the killing of Brotherhood members had provoked condemnations across the political spectrum, including the pullout of a religious conservative party from the military-backed coalition.
His optimism was shared by many in the tent city that contains just a few thousand in the mornings but swells every evening to tens of thousands who cheer the speakers on a floodlit stage.
“Most of us were in Tahrir until Hosni Mubarak left, so we have that experience and we know how to outlast a despotic regime,” said Ibrahim Abdessattar, a medical doctor, as he relaxed in the shade of his tent under the still-fierce late afternoon sun.
With him were colleagues, neighbors, friends and even a patient who all came from the Giza neighborhood on the other side of the city to show their support for the deposed president.
“I will stay here until Morsi returns,” said Ihab Karamallah, another doctor who goes to his clinic in the morning before returning to the sit-in. “I’ll bring my wife and children here if I have to.”
Every morning, volunteers move through the camp, where tents are pitched along the sidewalks and grassy median of the crossroads, picking up trash and cleaning the streets. Men line up at public tap to wash, and children run through the streets chased by their mothers.
The crowds come from all social classes with men both clean-shaven and with full beards, although women without the conservative headscarves or face-covering veils are not to be found, and there is a female-only section in front of the stage.
As the crowds thicken and heat increases, men move through the throngs with water-misters in an only mildly effective effort to cool everyone down.
A whole sub economy of vendors has sprung up, selling Egyptian flags, orange juice, Egyptian fast food and, ominously, stout walking sticks and studded clubs.
Hastily built brick walls seal off each end of the main streets leading to the crossroads in front of the mosque, lined by serious young men in hard hats, with makeshift shields near at hand. Behind them are small piles of broken paving stones, ready for any assault.
After the deadly clash with the military, however, it’s hard not to feel like the Brotherhood is still preparing for the last war. It’s no longer 2011, when the army was largely on the sidelines and the major aggressors were gangs of government-hired thugs backed by the occasional cavalry charge.
The military has released footage of what it says is from Monday morning, showing Brotherhood supporters firing guns and hurling firebombs, but none of those weapons were in evidence in the encampment.
The speakers on the podium also have a slightly desperate edge as they echo the frustrations of the Brotherhood supporters that more people don’t see the injustice of Morsi’s overthrow.
“Where are the international human rights groups?” called one female speaker in a headscarf.
“Army, we are your brothers. We are all Muslims!” said another speaker, his voice cracking with emotion. “Don’t shoot at us. We are Muslims!”
Taking a page from the Tahrir days, one speaker chanted the names of the protesters’ opponents as the crowd responded with, “Batil!”— Arabic for “rejected.”
Yet the list of those rejected became so long that it became a testament to the forces arrayed against the demonstrators: the head of the army, the new interim president, the Coptic Christian pope, the head of the main Islamic institution of learning, and the youth movement known as Tamarud that gathered millions of signatures for Morsi’s recall.
Mohammed Gouda, a heavily bearded English teacher, admitted that Morsi did make some mistakes in his first year, but still maintained it was no reason to depose.
“Is it right to judge a president of a country after just a year? How much did Obama achieve in his first year?” he asked, expressing hope that the deaths in the morning would lead to a groundswell of support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I hope after this slaughter, people will come to save their brothers,” he said.