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August 13, 2013

Cairo's Dispersal Dilemma

Cairo is abuzz with talk of “dispersals" of the two long-running sit-ins by supporters of deposed president Morsi. Many expected the police to clear the protests today but so far they remain.

The two sites are in different parts of Cairo. The larger, in Rabaa, is estimated to have tens of thousands of men, women and children. One report says the kitchen serves 35,000 meals at each sitting. The other at Nahda is smaller, next to Giza Zoo, and despite all the talk of forced removals, the surrounding streets were bustling as normal today with soldiers and policemen camped several blocks away.

The sit-ins have been there for many weeks now, showing support for Morsi, who has been in custody since being pushed out of office by the military on July 3. There followed a crackdown on the Muslim Botherhood, with senior Morsi supporters arrested on what are regarded as politically motivated charges.

A planned move on the camps was apparently averted after a concentrated diplomatic effort in recent weeks, which included Deputy Secretary of State Bills Burns, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and senior EU diplomats all warning the Egyptian government not to use excessive violence against the protestors. That seemed to have stayed the hand of the security forces, albeit temporarily.

The latest idea is that instead of a sudden forced removal there will be a cordon put up around the camps where people are allowed to leave but not enter, encouraging a gradual dwindling of numbers. It is hard to see that any removal by force will not result in large numbers of casualties.

The protestors have had weeks to dig in, and have concrete barricades set up. Street vendors have been doing a brisk trade in recent days selling goggles and gas masks to the protestors. The camps are expected to harbor an unknown number of small arms, although probably not the rumored RPGs. Both camps are in densely populated areas – the one at Nehda has several buildings around it more than 20 stories high - and any large-scale security operation is likely to be highly dangerous. Security chiefs say they plan to use tear gas to separate the protestors from the site and bulldozers to clear blockades, but that sanitizes what are likely to be extremely violent clashes.

Giant cartoons up around the Nehda camp show soldiers attacking women, and there are thousands of families in the camps, which include bouncy castles, ping-pong tables and other amusements to entertain the many kids.

The hope is that a political deal will mean an end to the sit-ins but that looks like a distant prospect. The protestors’ demand that Morsi be reinstated as President won’t happen. There are efforts under way to have him released from detention so that he can formally resign on television and then slip quietly into exile, but even if he himself would agree to this, it probably wouldn’t mollify his supporters.

“The real leaders of the Brotherhood who might deliver a deal are in jail anyway and not in the negotiations,” said one western diplomat. “It’s hard to see any good end to this.”

But an end seems to be coming. Interim Prime Minister Hazem al Beblawy has insisted the decision to clear the sit-ins is “irreversible”, and local residents, fed up with the protests, urge a solution, with many favoring forced removals.

Sarah Hani lives close to the protest in Rabaa “We definitely want them cleared. So far, the one near us wasn’t at all threatening but it’s a serious inconvenience. The crossroads where they are isn’t big enough for the large numbers there. There’s not enough room for the makeshift bathrooms so they move to nearby streets for that. People feel trapped in their homes. It’s been six weeks of this,” she said. “Continual chanting and loud noise round the clock, some taxis refusing to take us home because of where we live. But unless an unpopular deal is made with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to guarantee a peaceful end to this there will be a lot of blood.”

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.