CAIRO, Egypt — As the sun rose over Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque early Friday morning, the thousands of residents of the pro-Morsy tent city there prepared for their most direct confrontation yet with Egypt's military rulers. As mothers combed the hair of their young daughters and men read the morning newspaper, teenage boys lined up in military-like formation, chanting in unison that they would defy army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the new political order.
In Sisi's televised address on Wednesday, July 24, following another deadly bombing that targeted police, the general who orchestrated the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy urged the Egyptian masses to "prove their will" and give security forces a "mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism." His remarks -- and the subsequent popular mobilization by both pro- and anti-Morsy groups -- have led to fears that Egypt is on the cusp of further bloodshed.
But many Egyptians at Rabaa said they are unfairly being labeled as terrorists, just because they oppose Sisi and his government takeover. "Sisi says he is against terrorism," said Khaled, a middle-aged man who traveled to Cairo from Upper Egypt to join the Islamist protest. "But are we all terrorists? He's the minister of defense, but he's not defending us. He wants to murder us."
Mae, a young woman from Cairo, said Sisi's speech proved he had no intention of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to have a place in the new Egypt -- instead, he was trying to "terrify the people."
Just over six miles away from the Islamist camp, Tahrir Square swelled with Sisi supporters in a protest that was a mirror image to the one at Rabaa al-Adaweya. While a line of tanks topped with smiling soldiers greeted protesters at Tahrir's main entrance, the military was absent from the vicinity of Rabaa al-Adaweya during the day. Protesters said the numbers today in Tahrir and outside the presidential palace represented a mandate to tackle violence they say has been incited repeatedly by the Muslim Brotherhood. Signs dotted the mass demonstration reading: "We authorize you Sisi to confront terrorists."
Just who are these "terrorists" that Sisi said he needed a popular mandate to confront, anyway? Protesters in Tahrir said they were mainly the Egyptians camped out at Rabaa Mosque and in Sinai, where jihadists have unleashed a constant stream of terror attacks on security forces following Morsy's arrest. Several Tahrir protesters even compared the Muslim Brotherhood's actions to the 9/11 attacks, a sentiment that is building traction. "To America & the west," Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians Party, wrote on Twitter today. "Egypt is fighting an ideology that put you thru a nightmare in 9/11."
Many Egyptians in Tahrir, who say they have repeatedly been betrayed by their government, view Sisi and the army as the answer to Egypt's political strife. "I came here today to support Sisi," said one protester, who gave his name as Mohammed. "To tell the world that the Egyptian army is everything. It's power."
Here, General Sisi has assumed a god-like, celebrity status. Vendors sell t-shirts, kites, and masks plastered with his face. Meanwhile, the military has channeled nationalistic zeal for its own political ends: Army helicopters circled Tahrir all day, buzzing as close as 50 feet above protesters' heads, and dropping Egyptian flags on the cheering crowd. Their sheer force of the rotors kicked up swirling clouds of dust, completely coating everyone below. But even in the baking sun, complete strangers wiped off the grime from each other's faces and smiled, chanting Sisi's name.