Egypt’s seismic shock ripples through timeworn streets of Alexandria
Celebrations of a fragile anti-Morsi alliance give way to questions about what comes next, while Islamist rage simmers
The convoy of army lorries carrying tanks rumbled slowly through the ramshackle heart of Alexandria, where a clutter of tired, low-set buildings, soaring new hotels and relics of ancient Egypt face the Mediterranean Sea, and stopped on the foreshore outside Alexandria Library.
The library, a reconstruction of the building that was once renowned as a world centre of learning, and now the city’s main tourist attraction, has also become an operations hub for the revitalised Egyptian state security service, which has played an ever more visible role since the ousting last week of the country’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
When plainclothes security men detained the Guardian outside the library, they were quick to explain that they were acting on orders from Cairo, and that foreigners were now seen as suspicious. “These aren’t normal times,” a young security officer explained. “There are spies all around,” said another.
Less than a week after Morsi was deposed, the mood in Egypt has shifted from certainty to circumspection. As the Muslim Brotherhood movement holds its ground in parts of Cairo and tries to regroup beyond the capital, the celebrations of anti-Morsi protesters have given way to searching questions about what comes next.
Two miles from the library, protagonists from both sides of a now deeply divided society have fought a series of street battles in the Sidi Gaber neighbourhood, where Egypt’s only tram runs alongside the national railway line to the capital. About 30 people have died here since Wednesday.
A man with a megaphone bellowed to a gathering throng on a volatile street. “The army, the police and the people are one hand,” he shouted, as supporters waved posters of Egypt’s military leader, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. “Don’t let the outsiders seize this revolution.”
As his hoarse voice grew louder, the mood of the crowd switched rapidly between defiance, anger and benevolence. “You are an American,” one lady screamed, her voice trembling with rage. Other women worked hard to calm her down.
Nearby, the tanks and armoured personnel carriers that had been lowered from the backs of the lorries took up positions at all entry points to the neighbourhood. Soldiers stood in front of them. Groups of men stood incongruously nearby. The latter were the secret police, regarded as villains of the first revolution but now seen as standard-bearers of the second.
This new alliance of the old guard from the Hosni Mubarak era and the revolutionary secularists and liberals – who were on opposing sides in street battles in January 2011 – is uncomfortable. During the tense 17 months of military rule between the demise of Mubarak and elected civilian rule, the two groups continued to fight each other. Only in the removal of Morsi have they struck a fragile consensus.
“The [Muslim] Brotherhood wants Egypt to become like Syria, or Iraq,” one security man said. The tension was palpable. “We don’t want you to stand here, we want you to leave,” said another, addressing the Guardian. “Isn’t this your car?” demanded another.
Every afternoon since Morsi was toppled, crowds have gathered in Sidi Gaber. A foreboding mood was fast settling in and both camps confirmed that their people would soon be hitting the streets. “We can control our people 100%,” said the Brotherhood’s international policy adviser, Mohammed Soudan. “But there are 39 other groups [outside] the Freedom and Justice party, and all of them are trying to find their own ways out of this serious crisis.”
Many of these Islamist groups suffered under Mubarak, and are keen to escape the same fate this time. “Many of their people were detained and tortured under the Mubarak regime; they will never accept to go back to the old ways of a police state. The counter-revolution has succeeded. It is very, very dangerous,” said Soudan.
The tanks and armoured personnel carriers were now almost all in place. Some were waiting in a military base near the library in case trouble flared later in the evening. The plainclothes men had taken up their positions on the Corniche and were frisking men who were walking to the rally holding banners displaying Sisi’s face, or Egyptian flags.
Khaled al-Qabi, an organiser of the Tamarod movement, which is credited with the anti-Morsi momentum in April, said uncomfortable alliances would be dealt with later. “For now, all the people are working together for a common goal,” he said. “In time, those old-guard forces will be held to account. We will purify the interior ministry and the other corrupt elements of state.
“Our demands have not changed since the 25 January revolution against Mubarak. The 30 June revolution expanded on the goals of the first. We want a secular civilian democracy and people now understand that their rights can’t be taken away from them.”
For now, though, supporters of the opposition in Alexandria seem reluctant to look past Sisi as a man who can hold the country together. Jostling over leadership positions in the new interim presidency of Adly Mansour is not resonating on a street that has yet to come to terms with the seismic events that have taken Egypt to the edge of uncertainty.
This timeworn city of dynasties, traders and civilisations has seen it all before. The coming months here will go a long way towards determining how Egypt ushers in a new age.