At around 4 p.m. on Monday, a photo of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian Army, appeared on television sets around the country. Addressing Egypt’s embattled president, Mohamed Morsi, Sisi delivered an ultimatum: calm the crisis gripping Egypt within 48 hours or the Army will intervene. With protesters flooding the streets, the prospects of Morsi’s ouster seemed more likely by the minute as the clock began to tick.
Within the hour, TV screens focused on a different face. Mahmoud Badr, 28, was unknown even among Cairo activists as recently as this spring. But he has become the face of the anti-Morsi movement behind the protests now threatening to force him from power. Speaking at a press conference, Badr said protesters wouldn’t be satisfied until Morsi was gone. “He is against the revolution!” he said, clearly fired up.
He also praised the military, again and again. “We salute the Army! We salute them! They have shown that they are with the people.”
Slight and unassuming away from the cameras, Badr was dressed in a T shirt and jeans late Monday as he sat down with The Daily Beast outside the TV studio where he’d just made his last on-air appearance of the night. He was riding high on the moment. “I am so proud of the Egyptian people,” he said. “We are so close to doing it.”
Badr had been an activist since the days of Morsi’s authoritarian predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, but was never cast in a prominent role. Instead, he spent much of his time working in obscurity as a young journalist. But this spring, Badr said, he decided to throw himself into a new activist campaign, ultimately becoming its leading figure, at least publicly. Called Tamarod, or “Rebel,” the campaign professed a simple aim: knocking on doors and hitting the streets to collect signatures for a petition against Morsi. “My point of view was that we would not succeed unless we met the people face-to-face,” Badr said.
As the signature drive gained steam—with organizers claiming more millions by the week—it started to take on the feel of a powerful new movement. Revolutionary activist groups and opposition parties soon fell into line behind Tamarod’s calls for a protest on June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration as the country’s first democratically elected president.
As organizers laid out their demands—that Morsi step down or call early elections—some activists raised questions about how exactly they planned to achieve them. There was little chance that Morsi would leave office on his own, and he retained the loyal backing of millions of his Islamist supporters, including the formidable Muslim Brotherhood.
Many analysts—and even some of the protests’ backers—pointed out that military action seemed the only route to success. “The success of Tamarod depended on military intervention. It was only a question of how much that was their explicit intent,” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “There were no legal or constitutional methods to push Morsi out of power, assuming he didn’t resign. And he definitely wasn’t going to step down.”
In the lead up to the protests, one Tamarod organizer, Hazem el-Zohery, said in an interview that he would consider it a “success” if the Army intervened. He took pains to explain that this didn’t have to mean a return to military rule—he wanted the Army to remove Morsi and hand power to a transitional government, a demand many protesters have repeated in recent days.
Badr said he trusted the Army to help the protesters accomplish those goals. “We believed from the very beginning that the duty of the Army is to prevent civil war … and that at the end the Army will be with the people,” he said. “This is our Army.”
This embrace of the military has worried many activists, even as they support the push to oust Morsi, whom they accuse of embracing an authoritarian governing style and pushing the country toward religious rule, on top of rank mismanagement of the country’s affairs. They point out that Mubarak, a former military man, drew his strength from the backing of the military. And after his downfall, activists fought hard against the ruling generals, known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, or SCAF, who took his place. These critics doubt that, if it does intervene, the Army will simply return to the sidelines.
Mamdouh Hamza, a prominent engineer and activist in Cairo, said before Sunday’s protests that he would be deeply involved in the push against Morsi. But he also said that he had distanced himself from Tamarod’s leaders after learning that they were open to military intervention. “Do you want to be slaves for the rest of your lives?” he remembered asking. “I broke with them because of that. Anybody who wants freedom and wants to fight with other people’s weapons cannot get my respect.”
The Army, for its part, has seemed happy to play the role of protector for the demonstrations, with Sisi vowing ahead of the protests that the Army would prevent violence on the streets. Military helicopters dropped Egyptian flags on the anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo on Sunday, while ignoring his supporters elsewhere in the city. Sameh Seif Elyazal, an analyst and retired general, called this gesture “a small signal full of meaning” before Sisi delivered his remarks on Monday.
The general’s ultimatum to Morsi steered clear of the language of a military coup—he used words like “democracy” and “revolution,” stressing that any action would be in support of the will of the people, echoing the comments of Tamarod leaders as well as many of the protesters in the streets.
In private, some of the activists working alongside Tamarod have whispered about the military’s potential connection to their new movement. When Tamarod’s leaders held a meeting with a newly formed “June 30” opposition front to unveil their road map for Egypt’s future—which included a transitional government with security overseen by a council made up largely of military men—it was “extremely controversial” among many youth activists, one of the meeting’s participants said. “This paper is coming right out of the intelligence office,” he remembered thinking.
But the activist stayed on with the movement. While he remained uncomfortable with Tamarod and the idea of military intervention, he said, Morsi still needed to go. “I think everybody in this game is forced to play their role because of the choices of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
Badr, on Monday night, downplayed concerns over the role of the military. “We were against some policies of the SCAF [before], of course, but we believe in the Army,” he said.
And he denied that Tamarod had any contact with the Army, stressing again the success of its grassroots approach. “I am telling you very clearly: I only met the Egyptian people,” he said.
With reporting from Maged Atef.