On the eve of Independence Day in the U.S., the skies over Cairo evoke images of raucous Fourth of July celebrations. Fireworks are erupting and crowds are roaring in jubilation in Tahrir Square, as the military has announced the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, less than a year after he took office.
By late Wednesday, a military deadline had passed for Morsi to comply with demonstrators’ demands to resign. The president remained defiant, and insisted he would defend his office with his life.
Rumors circulated that Morsi was under house arrest, as military leaders surrounded the presidential palace with tanks and announced a change of power: They said the country’s chief justice would serve as interim president, and the country’s new constitution would be suspended.
The upheaval comes two-and-a-half years after similar demonstrations led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Last June, Egyptians elected Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—to the presidency.
Since then, opposition groups—and swelling numbers of Egyptians—have opposed Morsi’s steamroller approach to governing, including his leadership on drafting a constitution last November. The leader urged an Islamist parliament to draft and pass the country’s foundational document in a matter of days. Minority groups, including the country’s Coptic and evangelical Christians, warned that the rushed constitution represented a major threat to minorities by potentially enshrining Islamic law into public life.
Morsi had also drawn widespread criticism for stacking the government with Muslim Brotherhood members, and refusing to work with members of other parties since his election. The country’s economic woes have deepened under his leadership, with unemployment rates soaring, food prices doubling, power outages rolling, and gas shortages driving many Egyptians to despair.
By Tuesday afternoon, Coptic Pope Tawadros II had joined a meeting of military leaders, a top Islamic cleric, and secularist opposition groups to discuss a political road map after Morsi’s potential departure. The Coptic pope’s presence at the high-level gathering marked an unprecedented level of influence for the Coptic population—an often-persecuted minority.
The new pope’s involvement represented a marked difference from the last Coptic leader, who spoke little about politics in public life. Tawadros has been far more vocal in insisting religious minorities receive fair treatment from governing authorities and a fuller place in public life.
How the vastly different groups might manage to balance power and agree on a way forward remains unclear. But one thing seems certain: Along with the millions of Egyptians thronging the streets of Cairo and cities across the country, they aren’t willing to go back.