CAIRO – Instead of rushing for the exits, Islamist supporters of Egypt's ousted president are replacing tents with wooden huts in their sprawling Cairo encampment. Barbershops have sprung up and many tents now have satellite dishes.
There's little sign of alarm over the potential for violence if security forces move to clear this ground zero of resistance to the coup six weeks ago. On Tuesday, solar power panels were added to the encampment's several generators in case authorities cut off power.
The post-coup government has repeatedly warned that the sit-ins outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque and a smaller one on the other side of the city cannot stay. They portray them as a threat to national security and launch pads for terrorism. The protesters say their vigils are peaceful and will end only when Mohammed Morsi is reinstated as president.
As the faceoff has dragged on, participants in the larger of the two vigils have had time to weave a narrative about their cause immersed in religious fervor, revolutionary rhetoric and martyrdom. Thrown into the mix is the evolution of the protest camp into a sort of autonomous entity with its own institutions and social order.
Many protesters frame the standoff as pitting Islam's true followers against enemies of the faith or between revolutionaries and forces of darkness determined to rob Egyptians of their freedom.
"We are here standing up to a world of infidels that refuses to follow Islam," shouted a speaker on the sit-in's main stage one recent evening.
"Victory may come late because society is not equipped to accommodate righteousness, goodness and justice represented by the nation of the faithful," declares a sign outside a tent that housed a group of men discussing Shariah Islamic laws.
"The people here are on the right side of history," said
Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. "We are not going to let go of the revolution. We are here for as long as it is needed. It is all up to the will of the people."
But other facts about this crisis go unaddressed.
Little is said about the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30 to call on Morsi to step down, and even less about the former president's widely perceived failure to effectively tackle any of Egypt's many problems, from a woeful economy and high unemployment to the shortages of staple goods and power cuts.
Also, in portraying the encampment as representing all Egyptians, the protesters say little about the Muslim Brotherhood being the vigil's chief organizer, and, judging by the proliferation of men in beards and women in Islamic dress, almost all the protesters are Islamists.
The sit-ins began as a show of support for Morsi against mass protests demanding that he step down. After military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ousted him on July 3 after just one year in office, the protesters' chief demand became the reinstatement of Egypt's first freely elected president, with 52 percent of the vote.
El-Sissi is demonized in virtually every corner of the vigil's site, branded a traitor and a murderer. A woman in the camp is hawking colorful paper serpents that zigzag when pulled from their string. "El-Sissi for two pounds! El-Sissi for two pounds!" she yells.
"They stole the president I voted for and only when he is back will I leave and go home," said Tawfeeq el-Ourabi, a 72-year-old retired army officer from the Nile Delta who is participating in the vigil.
A father of four and a veteran of Egypt's 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, el-Ourabi said he did not doubt el-Sissi's patriotism but is convinced that Morsi would have delivered had he been allowed to complete his four-year term. Like many in the vigil, el-Ourabi said he was not a Brotherhood member.
Some 10,000 people at the main encampment are permanent protesters, but the number swells to as many as 40,000 in the evening. Many of the protesters are poor Egyptians from rural regions. Large tents bear signs identifying the province its occupants come from. El-Haddad acknowledges that many of the protesters are not from Cairo or the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Egypt's two largest cities, but from regions that Morsi was determined to focus on, reversing decades of neglect.
The Brotherhood, he says, is in charge of security, logistics, the field hospital and cleaning at the vigil site, but leaves it up to the protesters to choose where they live and what they do.
"We don't really care where the people in the sit-in come from. People are here because they are against military dictatorship and the coup. You cannot defeat a population. The military might wipe all of us out, but people will continue to flock to the streets."
The Muslim Brotherhood is by far Egypt's largest political group. Decades spent underground to escape government crackdowns have enabled it to hone organizational skills that, among other things, ensured its domination of elections held since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The Brotherhood's highly organized footprint can be found across the sprawling encampment — burly men in hardhats, body armor and wielding truncheons guard all entry points, checking IDs and frisking. There's a well-supplied field hospital, a clinic and a laboratory. Members of the Islamist-dominated legislature dissolved by the coup meet regularly in a hall with speaker Ahmed Fahmi chairing the proceedings.
On Tuesday, members of the chamber's media and culture committee read a list of names of senior TV and newspaper figures they said were guilty of distorting facts and breaching the code of journalistic ethics.
There is also the "panorama of the martyrs," a tent where personal belongings of some of the 250 Morsi supporters killed in clashes with security forces are on display, with wallets, lighters, cellphones, ID cards and wristwatches in a revolving glass case. On the tent's sides are dozens of photographs of the bloodied dead and injured.
A nearby tent calls itself the "Center for Documenting the Martyrs of the Squares" and a photography studio that lures customers with a sign saying: "Have your photograph taken in the square and instantly receive it."
On the main stage, where authorities say speeches often incite violence, marriage rites — a power reserved exclusively for the state — are performed by a Brotherhood member to thunderous applause.
"You are now married in the era of Mohammed Morsi, President of the Republic," declares the official, Safwat Hegazy, who is wanted by authorities to answer allegations of inciting violence. "May God bless you," he tells the casually dressed groom and the bride clad in a niqab, the black robe covering everything but the eyes.
Parts of the sit-in grounds are set aside for women, an arrangement in line with Islam's teachings on segregation by gender. The summer heat is punishing, and dozens stand patiently in line for ice. Vendors offer cucumbers, tea, coffee electric fans, fruits and perfumes.
On the official "Rabaah tour," a whirlwind walk around the sit-in site, the volunteer guide offers a pro-Morsi version of political events.
"You talk to anyone here and he will tell you that he is ready to die for his cause," says 19-year-old Khaled Gad.