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In Cairo, shooting, anger, and bracing for more confrontation

Sherif Azer, one of the original Tahrir Square activists who helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011, is matter-of-fact, as if what is happening today in Cairo was somehow inevitable.

“We’re just waiting until enough people are here," he says. "Then we will attack. It has to be this way.”

Mr. Azer is among several hundred people gathered a block away from the presidential palace. Hours earlier,Muslim Brotherhood supporters, armed with clubs, attacked a sit-in outside the palace that started the day before at the end of a huge protest march against President Mohamed Morsi, himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Muslim Brotherhood have been incredibly stupid,” says Azer. “Nobody was fighting them, nobody was questioning their legitimacy.”

Then, on Nov. 22, President Morsi issued a decree, sidelining the judicial system, and rushed through a controversial draft constitution, tapping the majority of Islamists in the constituent assembly.

“And suddenly everything has changed. They [Islamists] are not looking for dialogue anymore. It is an open confrontation now,” says Azer.

A half hour later, with enough anti-Morsi protesters having arrived, the street battle begins.

Pavement is broken up into makeshift missiles, Molotov cocktails are thrown, and fireworks are fired horizontally at the other side. At one point, a protester runs through the anti-Morsi crowd shooting in the air with a handgun. The pro-Morsi crowd appears to be firing teargas canisters, something usually reserved for the police forces.

An ugly turn

There is nothing uplifting about the mood here tonight, which seems eons away from the jubilant crowds in Tahrir on Feb. 11, 2011, the night Mubarak stepped down. Just before the fighting started, the crowd beat up a salafi passerby (a conservative Muslim), despite his protestations that he was “not with the Brotherhood.” A minivan stuck in traffic was attacked on the suspicion that it was carrying Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

If any comparisons are made with the uprising that brought down Mubarak last year, it is with the infamous “Camel Day,” when Mubarak supporters and police attacked the peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square.

It is mostly left unsaid that, on that day, many of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters now on the other side were fighting hand in hand with other protesters against a common enemy.

The view from two young protesters

Two young protesters sitting on the trunk of a car look defeated as they struggle to explain how they feel about what is happening today.

“We don’t want you to frame this as Egyptians fighting Egyptians,” one of them says. “We are all Egyptians here.”

And yet that is exactly what is happening: it is not Egyptians fighting a security apparatus, but one group of Egyptians with different ideas about the future facing off against another. It could be argued, however, that one side has just been deputized by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Essam al-Arian, the vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), declared earlier on Wednesday that “if state agencies are weak and still damaged by the wounds of the past, the people can impose its will and protect legitimacy. Members of the FJP will be in the front lines, God willing.”

Last night, on Al Jazeera, Mr. Arian referred to the clashes at the presidential palace as “the last battle of the revolution against the counterrevolution.”

The anti-Morsi take

But the anti-Morsi side begs to disagree. Safaa Elaisy Haggag, a film editor and critic, is shouting at her worried daughter over her mobile phone. “No I am not leaving. Stop calling me,” she shouts.

Ms. Haggag says she was at a film festival downtown when she heard about the attack on the palace sit-in. “I left immediately. I couldn’t stay away while they are beating up our kids.”

She got off the bus thinking that she was on the anti-Morsi side, but ended up by mistake among the pro-Morsi side instead.

“They kicked me out, but not before checking my ID and taking my picture. The Muslim Brotherhood are a state within the state now, with their own security apparatus and everything.”

Haggag, who is unveiled, remembers how the Muslim Brotherhood loved to put her in pictures with veiled women during the 18-day uprising in Tahrir Square. “They thought I was a Christian; they wanted to show unity. They never imagined that there are Muslim women that look like me!”

Pointing fingers

As reports start to come in about the first casualties in the clashes around the presidential palace, it is difficult to see how this could end well.

Both sides are laying the blame for the violence at the other’s feet. The narrative from the Muslim Brotherhood is that Morsi is a democratically elected president, and that the opposition is trying to impose its will through street violence. One Morsi adviser, Gehad al-Haddad, has suggested that the opposition is inciting people “to scale the palace walls and remove the president by force.”

But according to Egyptian state media, three other Morsi advisers handed in their resignation following Wednesday’s events. Several other Morsi advisers had already quit over the president’s decree.

On Tuesday, Egypt’s prosecutor-general, Talaat Ibrahim, a Morsi appointee, opened an investigation into allegations that opposition politicians Amr Moussa and Mohammed ElBaradei are part of “a Zionist plan to disrupt the internal situation, spread chaos and overthrow the regime.” Prison time for opposition leaders may be the next step in the unfolding drama.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood seems secure in its conviction that the majority of Egyptians are behind the president, and that they want stability above everything else. It not unlike the logic that proved ultimately unsuccessful for Hosni Mubarak.

But as 24-year-old Mahmoud Hashem observed outside the presidential palace on Tuesday night, the Mulsim Brotherhood might just get away with it.

“It will be like the parliamentary elections all over again. While we are fighting in the streets, the Muslim Brotherhood will be canvassing the neighborhoods, convincing people to vote yes in the referendum on the constitution.”

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