The unity that defined Tahrir Square is gone. Supporters and opponents of ousted President Morsi clashed there today, leaving one dead and destroying any illusions of a quick fix to Egypt's crisis.
It was a euphoric time that felt like it was being viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia even as it happened. Protesters talked about at last seeing "the real Egypt" that had been hidden by decades of military-backed dictatorship and brutal and unaccountable police behavior. They insisted that all were "Egyptians" first – categories like Christian or Muslim or leftist or liberal or rich or poor didn't really matter. And they predicted that a new Egypt would be forged easily once President Hosni Mubarak was gone and the military was out of politics.
The optimism ignored the important and clear stratification in Egyptian society at the time, particularly between Islamists like the Muslim Brothers of Mohamed Morsi and various secular-leaning groups. But in the nearly 30 months since, that division has been wrenched into the open. The vast, polarized protests against the Muslim Brotherhood – which convinced the military to depose Mr. Morsi on July 3 – showed that. And it couldn't be any clearer now, with pro-Morsi protesters and anti-Morsi protesters clashing at the entrance to Tahrir Square today.
The video below appears to show an exchange of amateurish gunfire between from the perspective of pro-Morsi protesters at Tahrir Square (Witnesses there said gunfire was returned from the anti-Morsi side, which holds Tahrir).
The location, just across from the Arab League and halfway between the end of Qasar al-Nil bridge and the entrance to the square, was one I passed daily during the 2011 uprising against Mr. Mubarak, where generally jubilant crowds of men, women, and kids passed through the ad-hoc security that political factions, working together, had set up to secure the square. Look at it today.
Reports in Cairo say at least one of the anti-Morsi protesters was killed in clashes around the area today. Tahrir is no longer a place where all of Egypt symbolically comes together, it seems, but a place where Egyptians go to contest power. Mubarak was ousted by the masses at Tahrir. Morsi was ousted by greater masses at Tahrir (this second enabled in part by the far more permissive environment for political organization since Mubarak's fall). So, the thinking goes, greater masses at Tahrir still will return Morsi and the Brothers to power.
That's not going to happen, of course. But street power has become the currency of politics in Egypt – or at least one of them. With democratically elected upper and lower houses of parliament and the elected presidency now dissolved, the ballot box no longer holds holds the same power. The Muslim Brothers remain Egypt's largest grassroots political movement. And they appear, with senior leaders like Morsi still in military detention, to be growing dangerously desperate.
For instance Essam al-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and vice president of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), lashed out at the United States today, calling for supporters to lay siege to the US embassy in Cairo. He claimed that the US backed the coup that ousted Morsi.
But if the Brothers think turning up the temperature like this is going to lead to greater US government support – rather than Obama administration officials worrying about language that veers dangerously close to threats of violence against diplomats – the movement will be sadly surprised. Although Egypt's security services suspiciously failed to protect the usually heavily guarded embassy from protesters who scaled it walls and burned a US flag inside on September 11 2012, when Morsi was in charge, security will probably be up to snuff again now that the military is formally in the driver's seat.