Cairo - An American citizen and at least three other people died Friday in demonstrations in Egypt that ushered in what was expected to be days of civil conflict over the rule of President Mohammed Morsi.
At least another 65 people were injured, most of them by birdshot in Alexandria, in turmoil that included crowds burning photographs of the U.S. ambassador and calling for the return of military rule. In perhaps the biggest irony of all, protesters brandished images of disgraced former President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the very place where protesters gathered nearly two and a half years ago to demand Mubarak’s ouster.
Across the country, crowds set fire to at least four offices belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. At times, local news stations showed as many as nine screens of protests, both in support of and opposition to Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected leader, whose first anniversary in office is to be marked by still more demonstrations this weekend.
By midnight, with no sign of a letup in the chaos, the U.S. Embassy announced that embassy personnel and their dependents could voluntarily leave the country.
Police officials in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, confirmed that an American had been killed in a melee with protesters, but the identification they provided was incomplete and local news reports gave various versions of the victim’s name.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged about 2:30 a.m. Saturday Cairo time that an American had died.
“We can confirm that a U.S. citizen was killed in Alexandria, Egypt,” Ventrell said. “We are providing appropriate consular assistance from our embassy in Cairo and our Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. We do not have further information to provide at this time."
Gen. Amin Ezz al Din, the head of security in Alexandria, told McClatchy that the American, who he described as a 21-year-old male, was fatally stabbed around 3:30 p.m. as he was filming clashes “with a small camera: between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters. Din said the American was swept up in the fight and stabbed in the chest “with some sort of machete.” Protesters dragged the victim to an ambulance, Din said, where paramedics declared him dead.
“Those who killed him and others are suspected thugs,” Din told McClatchy.
U.S. officials at first would not confirm the death. Reached by phone, Marc J. Sievers, the deputy chief of mission in Cairo, said questions about a possible dead American at 10 p.m. were “really inappropriate.”
“We have a press office for that,” he said, before hanging up.
About an hour later, the embassy tweeted: “We are seeking to confirm report of American death in Alexandria. Thank you for concern.”
The events underscored how nuanced the political situation in Egypt has become, one year after Morsi took office.
The burning of photos of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson underscored the rising criticism that the United States faces here.
Morsi’s government has accused the United States of meddling, prosecuting 16 Americans earlier this year for working for pro-democracy organizations in the country. Now anti-Morsi forces claim Patterson has sided with the Morsi government, citing comments she made that called on Morsi opponents to seek a political solution to the country’s conflicts, rather than mount more street protests.
“Some say that street action will produce better results than elections,” she said. “To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical.”
Perhaps the most incredible sight, however, was the appearance in Tahrir Square of protesters carrying photos of Mubarak, nearly two and a half years after Tahrir was the rallying place for protesters demanding Mubarak’s ouster.
With such uncertainty about what should replace Morsi, opponents who had once opposed both military rule and Mubarak appeared to be mired in the contradiction of change, no matter the cost. At the Ministry of Defense, for example, they burned a large handmade Israeli flag and called for Egypt’s army to take control again, even as the armed forces have enjoyed good relations with Israel.
The protesters said only the military could bring stability and fulfill the dreams of the 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster. Forgotten, apparently, was that during the year a military council governed before Morsi came to power in a democratic election, there were press restrictions, demands for elections and charges of military brutality.
On Friday, protesters carried military officers on their shoulders and resurrected the chants of the 2011 uprising. “The people and the army are one hand,” they screamed over and over again.
“The army is stronger than the Brotherhood,” said factory worker Asharf Berri, 40, referring to the once secretive Muslim Brotherhood, the formerly outlawed organization through which Morsi rose to prominence. “And if the army doesn’t take over, Morsi won’t leave.”
“We need the military to rule for a year and half or so until we can have elections,” Berri said.
What if Morsi wins again?
“Impossible!” shouted Faraj el Alfy, 65, of Cairo.
Who could replace Morsi? Neither Berri nor Alfy could say. “The new always has something good to offer,” Alfy explained.
Tawfik Okasha, an Egyptian TV commentator who is often compared to Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, has been a vocal supporter of a military takeover. Outside the Ministry of Defense, protesters chanted his praises and said he was under attack by the Morsi government. Some even suggested Okasha could lead the nation.
Still, not everyone was a Morsi detractors.
At a pro-Morsi rally in the Cairo district of Nasr City, the strength of the Brotherhood’s grassroots organization was clear.
Women donned crisp white sunhats that featured a depiction of Morsi. The men, even as they said they did not want a fight, were prepared for battle, unwrapping newly purchased wrestling headgear and elbow and knee pads. Many carried clubs – chair legs, tree branches, two-by-fours – in case of clashes. A large banner depicting the deaths of four purported supporters in the past few days hung over the stage where, one after another, religious leaders spoke on behalf of Morsi.
“Islam, Islam, we will defend you with our souls and blood,” was among the chants.
But the most common was the one word that summed up their message: “Legitimacy.”
For them, Morsi is duly elected and must be given the time to resolve Egypt’s many problems. They reject the idea of a military takeover, or of forcing Morsi from power.
“We had elections. If you don’t like Morsi, vote in three years,” said Ibrahim el Shikh, 33, a computer science engineer who was among the thousands at the rally. Morsi’s opponents “have personal interests,” he said. “They want the chair,” a reference to power.
And has Morsi been a good president so far?
“I will give you my opinion of him after four years,” he said.