Demystified: What Exactly Is Going on in Egypt?

Update: According to state-run media, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Prime Minister Hesham Kandil have been officially removed from their posts. Click here for the latest tweets, videos and news updates.

At first glance, the situation in Egypt might have seemed strikingly familiar.

The Egyptian president said he wouldn't step down despite the looming threat of military coup, international pressure, and massive crowds filling Tahrir Square. Violence seethes at the edges of this tension, with body counts and blood-stained sheets fueling rhetoric on both sides. At least 16 people died at a rally Tuesday night alone. Now, on Wednesday afternoon, it appears a military coup has managed to oust President Mohammed Morsi from power.

But this isn't 2011, and these are not the original Arab Spring protests. This time, President Mohammed Morsi won the elections in his country fair and square, and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, are the ones defending themselves from the crowds.

So what are these protests about? As the world waits to see what will happen at the birthplace of the Arab Spring, we've done some investigating. To demystify what's going on, here are the answers to five questions about the protests:

1. What, specifically, are Egyptians protesting?

The simplest answer to this question: the items on this petition disseminated by the Tamarod (Arabic for "Rebel") Movement. Tamarod spokesman Mohamed Abdel- Aziz said they had gathered over 22 million signatures by the beginning of the protests on Sunday. What do they want? The resignation of democratically elected President Morsi, by his own volition, before tomorrow.

Zooming out, however, the most obvious answer is not the entire answer: Many of the people protesting say they didn't feel as though they had a real choice in last year's Egyptian presidential election. Sixteen months after the first revolution in Tahrir Square—a period marked by anxious military rule—Morsi faced off against former air force general Ahmed Shafik, who was once an associate of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. Morsi swept 51.7 percent of the popular vote to cheers of “Down, down with military rule!”

As Ahdaf Souelf articulates in The Guardian, at first, Morsi seemed like the lesser of two evils; but in the intervening months, his variety of "evil" has become less and less acceptable: Last December, Morsi caught flack for taking advantage of fraught negotiations over a national constitution to grant himself unprecedented powers, dismissing the rulings of Egypt's highest courts. Some of the same people filling Tahrir Square during Egypt's last wave of protests feel they haven't been heard or vindicated by any of Egypt's established political parties. They feel disenfranchised from the parties created in its wake, and their turnout now is also meant as a referendum on the Muslim Brotherhood.

2. Why now?

Again, a deceptively simple answer: Protests began on Sunday to mark the one year anniversary of Morsi's election.

But Tamarod has been on the ground for at least two months, gathering signatures at metro stations, local parks, and anywhere they suspect "the people" might be feeling the effects of economic malaise. As the New York Times reported last week, tempatures figuratively and literally began rising "just before Ramadan, the year’s costliest season for Muslims who fast by day and celebrate at night. Adding to tensions, the government has failed to ease frequent electricity cuts and a worsening fuel crisis that has left gas lines clogging major thoroughfares for hours." Social media got the word out, and even protest organizers were shocked by the turnout.

Associated Press on YouTube

3. What do protestors hope will happen if they succeed?

Are protestors calling for another revolution? Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute hopes not, as he writes in the Atlantic : "Opting for a revolutionary course this late in the game–after more than two years of transition and five elections–means starting from scratch with little guarantee that the second time will be much better."

Since protests seem to have more to do with economic grievances and security concerns, ousting Egypt's first elected president leaves little security for the second. Some protestors at first called for a reworking of the fraught Constitution. There were those who believed this could be accomplished through compromise by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood—with new ministers from the opposition, delegating power back to the courts, and early elections—but, by and large, it is now too late.

4. Why are protestors upset with the West?

Western media—and Western diplomats—at first underestimated the scale of the unrest. Critics from within Egypt have also argued that outsiders' emphasis on Morsi's legitimate democratic right to rule detracts from the bigger picture of an underserved population. U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson has been accused of condescension and willful self-ignorance following a June 18 speech: "Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order, and more violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs. Instead, I recommend Egyptians get organized,"" Patterson said. "You will have to roll up your sleeves and work hard. Progress will be slow and you often will feel frustrated. But there is no other way."

5. What should we watch for next?

Another twist: The same people who cheered "Down with military rule!" are, practically speaking, pushing for a military ousting of Morsi. This time, the military at least appears to be on the side of the protestors, in sharp contrast to Mubarak's demise in 2011.

On Monday, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), proclaimed that Morsi had until Wednesday to "meet the demands of the people." Middle East-based journalist Patrick Galey writes: "Even if SCAF doesn’t physically seize power, this is still a coup... [it is] still an outrageous impingement of junta will on civilian politics."

The 16 months following Egypt's first revolution were marked by widespread discontent with the temporary military government, and fears that it wouldn't be so temporary after all. Foreign Affairs' Jeffrey Martini says the militaristic path this time around is worth keeping an eye on: "Having intervened once and gotten burned in the process, the generals are likely to be a lot more circumspect this time around."

Circumspection seems to be running pretty thin at the moment, however. After an angry (and rather rambling) speech by Morsi defending his right to his office, the armed forces posted this response to a military-affiliated Facebook page: “We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.”

Now, it appears the military has followed through on that promise, and indeed managed to overthrow the president.

Have you read anything particularly insightful, thought-provoking, or perspective-changing on this round of Egyptian protests? Tweet at us! I'll keep the list going with your suggestions.