The caravan is half a kilometer long: beige colored trucks with soldiers crowded onto their flat beds; armored vehicles, their hatches open with machine gunners standing at their weapons; vans modified to serve as rolling prisons. Hundreds of soldiers, maybe thousands, rolled through Cairo at 7:30 p.m.
The infantry unit was driving down Makram Ebeid, a street in the Cairo quarter of Nasr City which leads directly to the Raba'a al-Adaweya Mosque. There, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers of Mohammed Morsi, who was still Egypt's president at the time, had gathered. Soldiers who had already taken up positions not far from the Islamist meeting point urged those who were trying to leave the sealed-off area to hurry. "The tanks are already waiting in the side streets. Go faster!" they yelled.
It was the moment that many had been expecting for two days, ever since the military had given Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to change course. The deadline had been issued in response to growing mass protests against the Islamist president. And on Wednesday night, the military moved in to depose Morsi, setting up a temporary civilian government and promising that new elections would be held soon. The chief justice of the country's highest court is to be sworn in as interim president on Thursday.
On Wednesday morning, however, it looked as though a clash was imminent. The two enemy political camps had assembled in Cairo, separated by about one kilometer (about two thirds of a mile). On Tahrir Square in the heart of the metropolis, a huge group of people was in a celebratory mood, anticipating a victory over the hated President Morsi. With the military's ultimatum soon to expire, the opposition knew that victory would be theirs.
Those gathered in Nasr City, though, were not yet prepared to accept the approaching defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just minutes before the ultimatum was to expire on Wednesday afternoon, hundreds collected in front of the Raba'a al-Adaweya Mosque, preparing to go to battle for their president. Armed with clubs, they listened to their final instructions with stony-faced seriousness. The word "shahid," or martyr, was on everyone's lips.
Experience in Resisting State Power
They did their best to exude a kind of forced optimism -- in full knowledge that the day could end in disaster. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a group to be underestimated. Forbidden under the rule of Hosni Mubarak and before, the Islamists spent years in the underground, many of them locked away in prisons and tortured. They have 85 years experience in resisting state power.
The generals, though, first let the deadline pass without a whisper. After an hour or two, the gathered Islamists also seemed to relax slightly, setting aside their clubs and drinking tea in the shade. The owner of a flower shop took out his old television and set it up on the sidewalk.
The mood was tense, but not as aggressive as hours earlier. Regardless, an argument over the remote control began to escalate. Why watch the Muslim Brotherhood channel, Egypt 25, a man railed. "We're just going to see ourselves." The channel indeed was broadcasting live footage of the demonstration -- the Islamists are mercilessly self-centered to the bitter end.
Only those with smartphones knew what was actually going on: Morsi and other leaders of the Brotherhood had been placed under house arrest, and the army was pouring out of their barracks into the streets. Journalists tweeted pictures showing how soldiers had occupied the Nile bridge. "Throw the phone away," whispered a man fearing the reactions of bystanders.
Suddenly, the army helicopter began circling again and news quickly circulated that the military had joined Morsi's opponents. Immediately, concern spread. What would happen to them? Many began speaking of possible show trials.
Driving the Muslim Brotherhood back underground, however, seems unlikely now that the Islamists have had a taste of power. Indeed, elsewhere in the country, clashes between the Islamists and the army erupted immediately. At least 14 people were killed, according to a Reuters report on Thursday morning.
Support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the country likewise remains substantial. And two hours after Morsi's supporters lost their leader, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took to the airwaves to announce how the military planned to proceed.
He said that Morsi had been deposed and placed in military custody, the constitution had been suspended, and the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court will lead the country until further notice. In addition, 38 senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been rounded up. The court, Sissi said, is currently working on a new electoral law to prepare for upcoming elections. Sissi did not give a detailed time frame.
What the defense minister did not say is that, with the coup, he had ended an experiment on which more than half of all Egyptians had rested their hopes less than a year ago. And he had no answer to the question that is drowned out by the deafening jubilation in Tahrir Square: Has there ever been a military coup with a happy ending?
Immediately after the broadcast of Sissi's speech, Egypt's Islamist television channels were shut off. Egypt 25 remains a black screen. It is a very bad start for what Sissi called an initiative of "national reconciliation."