The protests which began on June 30 ― and by July 3 had led to the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi ― were reportedly the largest in Egyptian history.
With claims that between 10 and 20 million people took part, they were larger than the protests which led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.
There are obvious similarities between the downfall of the two presidents. In both cases it was the military who, despite having previously been a pillar of the regime, executed the overthrow because protests were becoming too big and staunch to be easily repressed.
Likewise, when it became clear they were unable to stop the protests growing, both presidents were abandoned by their main external backer, the United States.
However, there are also obvious differences. Mubarak was an entrenched dictator who, for three decades, had headed a totalitarian regime. Under Mubarak, Egypt was considered a bedrock of stability by the US.
Morsi, on the other hand, became Egypt’s first elected president just a year ago and his government was continually challenged both by popular protest and elements within the state loyal to the old regime.
Furthermore, while there were no popular mobilisations in support of Mubarak, since Morsi’s overthrow tens of thousands of people have been in the streets demanding Morsi’s reinstatement ― despite violent repression by the military.
The death toll has continued to rise as the military attacks pro-Morsi protests, unknown gunmen attack anti-Morsi protesters and pro- and anti-Morsi protesters fight on the streets.
At the core of the pro-Morsi protests are Islamists: supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as well as Salafist groups such as al-Nour and al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya.
Anti-Morsi mobilisations continue to be considerably larger, bringing together a broad cross-section of Egyptian society ― mostly people without political affiliations but including political currents as diverse as pro-Western liberals, anti-Western liberals, hangovers from the Mubarak regime and the small Marxist forces.
The driving force behind the anti-Morsi protests was Tamarod (Rebellion), an unstructured grassroots campaign around a petition calling for Morsi to leave and new elections held. The petition was launched in April and by June 30 had obtained 22 million hard copy signatures.
In the Western media, there has been some debate about whether the overthrow of Morsi was a democratic revolution or a military coup. Western governments have not been entirely unanimous in their response.
For the Western rulers, this issue is mainly technical. Under US law military aid must, at least temporarily, cease to any army that has carried out a coup. The annual US$1.3 billion direct aid to the armed forces is the main leverage the US has in Egypt, so US President Barack Obama is unlikely to call what happened a coup.
To the extent it is held by anyone, governmental power is now held by the repressive US-funded military that the Mubarak dictatorship was built around.
However, Morsi was brought down by a genuinely popular mass uprising. The size of the petition and the protests suggests that some people who voted for Morsi in June last year were calling for his overthrow one year on.
However, most of the forces involved, including Tamerod, have expressed opposition to military rule. The army is claiming that it wants early elections and has installed Supreme Constitutional Court head Adly Mansour as interim ruler to give its administration a civilian face.
But the roundups of Muslim Brotherhood members, closure of pro-Morsi media outlets and shooting of unarmed demonstrators suggest it has other intentions.
The overthrow of Morsi was the latest event in a democratic revolution that began in January 2011 but is a long way from over. The revolution was not only a response to the Mubarak regime’s violent repression of Egyptians, but its subservience to Western power.
One aspect of this is economic. Since Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat introduced the “open door” policy in the early 1970s, the Egyptian economy and living standards have been devastated by successive waves of International Monetary Fund or World Bank-dictated “reforms”.
In the years leading up to Mubarak’s overthrow this was accentuated by the 2007 global financial collapse and by global food shortages caused by global warming, the worldwide spread of biofuels and food speculation by multinational corporations.
Anger over food insecurity, unemployment, poverty and decaying infrastructure was intensified by the shameless corruption of Mubarak and his cronies.
Another aspect was that of national dignity. The military’s annual $1.3 billion subsidy was institutionalised after Sadat signed the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel and the US in 1978.
Egypt became the main Arab partner of the US, and its increasingly visible involvement in Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians was a source of great national shame for Egyptians.
This became particularly intense after Israel initiated the starvation siege of the Gaza Strip in 2006. Gaza’s southern border is with Egypt, so Egyptian collaboration is both essential to maintain the siege and difficult to hide.
When the revolution against Mubarak broke out, after a couple of weeks of expressing confidence in the dictator as he rapidly lost control, the US realised the regime in its current form was doomed and needed to salvage its assets.
Hence the US and the military’s 11th-hour defection to the anti-Mubarak cause.
The Muslim Brotherhood also came to the revolution late. Although repressed by Sadat and Mubarak, it had been given more political space than other opposition groups.
Its members could be found both in Mubarak’s jails and in his rubber-stamp parliament. Before 2011, it was the only opposition group with an organised base.
After the overthrow of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi became the interim government.
The Tantawi regime’s initial popularity was quickly eroded by the presence of Mubarak-era politicians, its continued torture and disappearance of activists, its ham-fisted attempts to entrench its political role in a new constitution, its maintenance of the Camp David Accords and the continuing economic crisis.
The attraction of the Muslim Brotherhood to those who wanted to preserve the status quo was that it is essentially a socially conservative and economically neoliberal party, but its history of being repressed and its use of anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric gave it a radical appearance.
Mamdouh Habashi, co-founder of the Egyptian Socialist Party, told Green Left weekly in April that the coming of “the Islamists to power was not by chance. It was a series of actions led and directed by the United States with its tools.
“These were the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood with their deals and in the backstage the big financiers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and so on. These are the tools with which they play and create new facts and divert and divide and so on.”
A hurried electoral process and the administrative disqualification of candidates ensured that the final round of the presidential vote was between Morsi and Mubarak crony Ahmed Shafik.
“At the end of the day, when Egyptians had to vote for a new president, they had no choice but between cholera and cancer,” Habishi said.
In April, Habishi said he was surprised at how quickly the masses had turned against the Morsi government. One aspect was the further deterioration of the economy and the continuation of neoliberalism.
Morsi’s attempts to introduce an autocratic new constitution on November 22 triggered a new wave of protest. That his power grab had come at the end of a week in which Israel had carpet-bombed Gaza while Egypt continued to collaborate fuelled the opposition.
The National Salvation Front was formed uniting almost all non-Islamist parties.
Habishi told GLW: “The Salvation Front that was founded after the decree of Morsi on November 22 bringing together almost all political forces … including Mohamed ElBaredei … including even parts of the old regime … and including our party, other left parties and social democrats.
“They are not homogenous, but agree on one goal: to drop the power of the Islamists. After that we shall not have any Salvation Front because there is no other goal.”
He said the regime’s response was to increasingly rely on paid armed thugs as Mubarak had done. Activists were shot and it is widely believed that the epidemic of sexual harassment and assaults in the vicinity of protests was orchestrated by the regime.
The Tamarod movement has rejected Western media claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a coup. In a statement reported in the July 5 Ahram Online, it said: “The Egyptian people will not hesitate to protect their revolutionary legitimacy that has reflected the people’s will against the tyrants who do not want stability in Egypt …
“We affirm that there are clear attempts to smear our glorious revolution, attempts that seek to portray the people’s will as a military coup, which may lead to intervention by foreign forces in Egypt’s internal matters and which we won’t accept.”
Left-wing groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists and the Communist Party also welcomed the overthrow of Morsi as a step forward for the revolution. But they also warned of the threat posed by the armed forces and called on anti-Morsi protesters to stay in the streets as a counter to military control.
The wave of repression and violence after Morsi's removal indicates the military, concerned with preserving its own power, has an agenda that is not the same as large numbers of those who opposed Morsi on the streets. The struggle to win the goals of the Egyptian revolution continues.