Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony

Laura El-Tantawy/VII Mentor Program
Bodies inside the Iman mosque in the Nasr City district of Cairo, before police raided the mosque and took the bodies to the morgue, August 15, 2013


They came to the Cairo morgue looking for bodies. This was nearly a month before the Egyptian police confronted the Muslim Brotherhood on August 14. A woman whose husband hadn’t come home in three days, a couple whose son had been absent for a week, three relatives looking for a man, Karam, who had been missing for nine days. He had last been seen on July 2, on his way to his mother’s apartment. He had taken a taxi there and neighbors saw him get out at the main street. There was fighting in the neighborhood between the residents—mainly supporters of the protest against President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood called Tamarod (“rebellion”)and members of the Brotherhood, and people cautioned him against entering the alley that turned onto another alley that led to his mother’s building. He was warned, according to a press account, that “the Brotherhood have the area in peril” and “bullets were flying everywhere.” Karam said he didn’t care—the fighting wouldn’t stop him—he had come all this way to see his “beloved” mother, who was elderly and lived alone. A shopkeeper told me this. A relative told me the same.

The morgue where his family found him had been in chaos for days. Pools of blood were drying up on the tiled floor and fresh ones were everywhere. The only thing you could really hear was the wailing, and howls of “my son,” “my husband,” “my fiancé.” The dead seemed mostly to be men. Someone spoke of children but it was hard to tell. The decrepit place was filled to capacity and a worker shrieked about the lack of refrigerators. Corpses lay shrouded in sheets or what remained of their clothes, laid out in rows on the floor.

Among them was Karam. His face was swollen. His hair was crusted with dried blood. Lash marks and bruises disfigured him, and his body was scarred with lesions and circular burns, like the rings of a stove emblazoned on skin—on his chest, his back, his buttocks, his ribs. His neck was slashed too, as if with the mark of a slaughtering. His cousin had to look twice, three times, a fourth, to make sure it was really him.

The doctor’s report, labeled “Karam Hosn” and dated July 11, didn’t offer much new information that I hadn’t already pieced together, although it did use the words “torture,” “haemorrhaging,” and “thrown for dead.” It also made note of his fractured skull and mentioned signs of electrocution. Karam’s mutilated body was found in a fenced public garden, Orman Garden, near Cairo University and al-Nahda Square, by the neighborhood of Bein al-Sarayat. It is a short twelve-minute drive across two bridges from Tahrir Square, and had been the site of one of the two main sit-ins in Cairo in support of President Morsi. According to interviews, press accounts, and a report by Amnesty International, Karam had been dumped in the garden after being tortured by Morsi supporters, and left for dead. The neighborhood had been all but deserted as the Islamists took it over and their encampment grew. Shops and businesses in the area had completely shut down. Someone had found Karam’s body one morning and called the police.

The clashes that led to the death of Karam had erupted on July 2, following a forty-eight-hour ultimatum handed down the day before by Egypt’s military commander, Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, to President Morsi, asking him to end the political impasse and respond to the demands of the people. The people he was referring to were the 17 or 33 million Egyptians (the counts vary according to whom you choose to believe) who had taken to the streets on June 30 as part of the Tamarod movement. This protest was a symbolic vote of “no confidence” in President Morsi, urging him to step down, to call early elections, and to hand power to the chief justice in the interim. It also called for the army to intervene. The movement was launched in April by three young, little-known activists, and had gathered 22 million signatures by the day the protest against Morsi took place.

Certainly I had never seen so many people in the streets. Not during the uprising in Tahrir Square of 2011, not even on the celebratory night of February 11, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. As I looked out from a balcony with a panoramic view, the city on June 30 resembled a rippling ocean of people carrying the Egyptian flag—a scene replicated in other cities across the country. Despite the broiling summer heat, the protesters said they were willing to camp out until their demands were met. Everyone I knew was out in the streets.

Many of the people there had voted for Morsi. One year before, on the day in June 2012 when he was elected, the extent of his powers was opaque. There was a general feeling that his leadership was “transitional”—to bring Egypt out of the political limbo that followed Mubarak’s fall and see to the drafting of a constitution that would bring new presidential elections. While many who voted Morsi into office had intended their vote chiefly as a way to deny power to his opponent Ahmed Shafik, people seemed willing to give the soft-spoken, US-educated engineer a chance. Soon after his swearing in, he declared that he was “a servant” to “the people” and that if they ever asked him to step down then he would. But his rule was quickly marred by his party’s efforts to create an Islamist monopoly of power that came to resemble Mubarak’s era, only, with its repressive, fascist bent, perhaps even worse.

Last November the president gave himself unprecedented absolute powers to pass a hastily drafted constitution that ensured Islamist domination. The cabinet and upper house of parliament—which he had promised would be “representative”—were to be overwhelmingly made up of his Islamist peers. At the same time the state’s security apparatus was committing abuses that were as bad or worse than any under the previous regime. Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch Egypt goes so far as to say:

The police state was alive and kicking with Morsi’s blessing. He chose to ally himself with the police as opposed to “pro-revolution” forces calling for accountability and police reform.

Among other things, early this year Morsi simply ignored an official seven-hundred-page fact-finding report on police abuses committed during the revolution and up until his election, claiming that he “never received it.”

In the months before the June protests against Morsi’s rule, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent organization, criticized a new bill endorsed by Morsi, saying that “the Muslim Brotherhood is laying the foundations for a new police state by exceeding the Mubarak regime’s mechanisms to suppress civil society.” Persecution of minorities by Islamic radicals had also increased. In April armed thugs opened fire on a funeral of Coptic Christians who had themselves been killed in sectarian attacks in the days before. The lynching of four Shiites in public view by Islamists this June, because of their faith, was a culminating and particularly dark moment for Morsi’s Egypt, and one that the president in a subsequent wide-ranging speech chose not to address.

The killings had come after months of sermons by Brotherhood-allied clerics inciting hatred of religious minorities, sermons that the government had also ignored. Turning a blind eye seemed to be Morsi’s approach. In December, outside the presidential palace, his supporters opened fire on thousands who were protesting his constitutional declaration. Eleven were killed and hundreds injured, including some who were tortured by Morsi’s supporters. Morsi again made no mention of any of this in an address to the nation. Nor did he denounce the frequent attacks on conscripts at security checkpoints in the Sinai by jihadist groups.

On June 26, four days before the Tamarod protest, local human rights groups released a joint declaration that stated:

While the president continues to address people with speeches of “love,” morality, compassion etc. we increasingly hear and receive cases of sexual torture and harassment in police stations, prisons, and on the streets, targeting men and women alike, young and old, as if the opposition to this regime does not qualify for this alleged “morality.”

The statement went on to list abuses during Morsi’s twelve months in office, citing “hundreds of demonstrations and protests reminding the elected president of his promises, only to be met with tear gas, cartouche, bullets, prison and torture.”

The statement listed three hundred cases of torture, “not inclusive of organized state violence”; at least 157 cases of murder and suspected murder “during demonstrations, in police stations and prisons”; hundreds of detainees including at least three hundred children; and over sixty unidentified bodies delivered by police stations to the morgue and later ordered buried by prosecutors without further investigation, “while families continue to search for the missing loved ones.”

Over those many months, as tension mounted, the army and political parties and leaders had repeatedly called for “dialogue”—which Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood systematically rejected or dismissed. They made the same request again in the week leading up to June 30, when the army urged the president to take action to end the political stalemate and looming crisis. They warned that Egypt was on the brink of collapse. The president, in response, gave a two-and-a-half-hour speech on state TV accusing his opponents of conspiracy against him, citing figures and facts that in many cases proved fictitious. Although he also spoke about making mistakes, this was only a small part of his tirade.

It seemed as well, from the experience of everyday life, that the state was in free fall. The Brotherhood kept speaking of strengthening the economy, but the country’s currency reserves were dwindling, and in supermarkets—even those with government-subsidized goods—the prices of basic commodities changed by the week, rising as the Egyptian pound swiftly plummeted against the dollar. Fuel shortages had become worse, the result of growing gas shipments to Gaza. Power cuts, not unknown in the final years of Mubarak’s rule, became more frequent and lasted longer.

Accounts vary about what happened to set off the clashes that erupted across the country on July 2—violence that escalated after Morsi’s ouster and arrest by the military the following day and continued intermittently through the month. Rioting and violence took place in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Minya, Beni Suef, and a dozen other major cities. In many places, in particular outside of Cairo, people said that Morsi supporters went “wild” after his arrest by the army along with the detention of seven of his allies, destroying property, setting things on fire, beating people up, shooting. But there were also accounts of anti-Morsi thugs attacking the president’s supporters, including people at sit-ins and women and children who were marching in favor of Morsi.

A woman in a Nile Delta city told me by phone that her family was terrified, hiding in apartments of friends and out of view of the streets after thugs attacked her while she took part in a pro-Morsi march. To be an Islamist, she said, was now a crime. I heard numerous similar accounts from credible sources, both from Islamists and from people who opposed them.

In the neighborhood of Bein al-Sarayat in Cairo where Karam was killed, the most consistent account I heard was that some people there shot their guns into the air when pro-Morsi supporters took to the streets visibly wielding swords and truncheons. In response to these shots, the pro-Morsi protesters wreaked havoc, smashing shops, setting cars ablaze, running into buildings, firing their guns, grabbing what apparent nonsupporters they could find, dragging them off, and beating them.

That is what many eyewitnesses told me. When I asked a state security source, he did not deny the stories I’d heard. “You never really know the full picture,” he said, “but our investigations indicate as much. But there is a strong chance that the initial shots were from third-party agents, to stir chaos and position the Brotherhood as victims.” Karam had been one of those lynched by the Islamist mob.

Even weeks later, into early August, bodies were still turning up with signs of torture. Human rights groups had pointed to the evidence of heavy weapons at the pro-Morsi sit-in at al-Nahda Square. A relative who lives nearby saw Morsi supporters with both swords and guns.

There is much more documented evidence of the abuses in Cairo, as well of the more widespread violence at the hands of an increasingly aggressive and armed contingent of Islamists. In Alexandria, footage in close-up recorded on a mobile phone shows a man wearing the black flag of jihad like a cape around his neck, pushing three young men off the twenty-foot-high water tower on the roof of a building, and then beating them to death. Later, caught by police after having shaved his beard as disguise, he admitted he was in a state of rapture when he committed murder. In Cairo there were many accounts and testimonies of abuse by Islamists including incessant beating, stomping, slashing, stabbing, and electrocution.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released or made statements citing “evidence indicating that supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi tortured individuals from a rival political camp.” Eleven bodies of people known to be anti-Morsi had been found in July and early August with indications of torture.

In the days after the June 30 demonstration, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and clerics allied with them called for jihad and bloodbaths, live on TV. Essam El-Erian and Mohamed El-Beltagy, both high-ranking members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said the situation could only end in “civil war.” El-Erian called on people to fight, and die, for Morsi.

The Brotherhood and its supporters then came under assault themselves. On the morning of July 8, outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard—a division of the army assigned to protect the capital—shooting and clashes broke out. There too the accounts vary. Some say the soldiers randomly opened fire. Others say that as some protesters moved in on the building and threatened to break through the barricades (it was believed Morsi was held there), a warning shot was fired into the air, and then in a split second there was havoc. Others have reported that armed men on motorbikes set off the clashes when they drove by and fired at the guards.

Having been at the scene of dozens of clashes in the past two years, often from the outset, I know that the claim of a “third party” not clearly connected with either side provoking violence has sometimes been true. Mubarak’s police state, it should be remembered, cultivated an elaborate network of paid thugs. State security documents obtained by a local daily newspaper following Mubarak’s ouster said that there were 165,000 thugs on the government’s payroll; and remnants of the former regime have employed them during the past few years. Sources I’ve talked to and testimonies by others show that they have been used by the Brotherhood as well. There is no doubt that they have been active of late.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Coptic Christians calling for help after a Molotov cocktail landed inside St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral, Cairo, April 7, 2013


Former president Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since July 3. Neither his wife nor his children have seen or spoken to him in that time. A visitor from the European Union talked to him in prison and found that he was unharmed and had access to the news. His Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters made it quite clear in the weeks after his disappearance that they would not negotiate until he was released and reinstated as president. As the days passed, their determination and encampments—at al-Nahda Square and around the Mosque of Rabaa al-Adawiya—kept growing. They built toilets and recreation parks, organized a large-scale kitchen and barber service. There were activities for the children and people were fed two decent meals a day.

With the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan in early July, the protest swelled. The Brotherhood’s strength had always been its ability to provide handouts of food and other necessities. This was how it first won votes. Again, at the larger encampment at Rabaa, the meals and other services encouraged people to camp out indefinitely. They began, at some point, to build walls around themselves.

The interim president, Adly Mansour, and the prime minister and the military and political leaders repeatedly tried to engage in talks with the opposition. They insisted that they were committed to including the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process, which they said should include a new, fair constitution and new elections. The army and government called daily for the Morsi supporters to return to their homes; to end the impasse peacefully, with talks, with compromises. They guaranteed them protection and a safe passage home. Egypt’s vice-president, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, was the staunchest advocate of a peaceful settlement, and more than anything else this gave the prospect of negotiations credibility. Repeatedly, the Brotherhood’s leaders said that there would be no talks without Morsi’s release. “The democratic process has been hijacked,” one of the leaders told the press. “There is no talking.”

As the Brotherhood’s Rabaa encampment grew, so too did the grievances of those millions who supported Tamarod as a necessary protest against Morsi’s regime. Not only was the Brotherhood inciting violence, but its tactics were interfering with day-to-day life. Morsi’s supporters would often take to the streets and block major thoroughfares and bridges, bringing the city to a standstill. Gun battles would follow. For the residents of the apartment blocks around Rabaa Square, life had become untenable. Residents complained that they could no longer get into or out of their buildings. People had taken over their garages and were using their electricity lines to power the camp.

In the days leading up to July 26—the anniversary of Nasser’s military coup of 1952—El-Sissi called on Egyptians to take to the streets in a show of support for the army. He asked that the people “publicly” give the army “the mandate” to take the necessary actions to secure the interests of the state. It was clear that he meant the clearing of the pro-Morsi camps. On July 26, millions of people took to the streets—more people than even on June 30. “We mandate you,” posters read. “Sissi for President,” others said.

As dawn approached on August 14, police forces surrounded the two pro-Morsi sit-ins. It had already been leaked to the press over the weekend that the clearing was imminent. The government had urged the people in the camps to leave peacefully. The night before, security forces alerted residents that they would be surrounding the area, asking them to stay in their homes the following day.

According to senior police officers who directed the operation, and also to people I know who live in overlooking buildings, security forces began to ask the protesters to leave at 6 am using loudspeakers. Just before 7 am, they repeated their calls, indicating the paths of exit they wanted protesters to take. During those calls, gunfire broke out. The Islamists claim it came from security forces. The police insist that it started within the square and from snipers allied with Islamists.

Police water cannons were used, sound bullets were used, and then rounds of tear gas were fired. After that, according to the police, they used live ammunition. “Our target was armed people in the camp,” Bahaa El-Sherif, a senior police commander involved in the operation, said. “We wanted to disperse as many of the unarmed and innocent protesters as we could with the tear gas, so that we could move in to target and arrest the armed ones.” The police said they arrested sixty Islamist snipers from one building alone.

On the ground, the situation was so chaotic that it was hard to really know where bullets were coming from. The clear footage I have seen shows the Islamists setting civilian cars on fire following the police calls for evacuation. It shows an unfinished building filled with Islamist activists shooting guns and throwing Molotov cocktails and construction materials toward the police and into the crowds. Police are seen helping women out of the camp through the safe exit. Some soldiers and security agents helped the injured; one is seen handing a woman water.

Much footage captures Islamist protesters firing at the police over the crowds, and one video shows a man within the camp shooting a woman standing next to him. In footage from the pro-Morsi sit-in at al-Nahda Square, symbolic makeshift coffins were filled with bullets, hand grenades, and other artillery supplies. Some foreign press reports singled out one video as evidence that police were “firing live ammo” during the first hour. On examining the tapes I saw they were using tear gas guns. But later, both sides were firing live ammunition without restraint. Videos show rows and rows of bloodied shrouds. Eventually, after hours of clashes, the protesters set their tents and belongings on fire as they left.

One must ask, was there no other way than to pit a police force with a record of brutality against a group with a history of violence? Couldn’t the army have waited, instead of engaging in an operation in which so many were killed? Despite evidence that the Islamists had weapons, and that many of them had been willing to use torture and violence, thousands of others there simply hoped for better lives. The confrontation with the police that day—which ended with scenes of dead bodies piling up, of mothers grieving for their children—violates every principle that the original revolution stood for.

Vice President ElBaradei resigned on the evening of August 14, in a public letter in which he wrote:

The groups that have used religion as their shield and succeeded to attracting the public with their distorted view of religion, came to power and stayed there for a year. It was one of the worst years that Egypt ever went through.
It was our hope to lead an uprising of the people on June 30, to put an end to the current situation and place the country on a natural course to achieve the principles of the revolution. This is what I was called on to do and I accepted the invitation to participate in the government. Yet things went in the direction of further polarisation and division, threatening our social fabric with discord. For violence only begets violence.
As you know, I was for peaceful alternatives to resolve this discord, and there were suitable solutions conducive to national consensus, but things didn’t go that way. And that has been the reality of similar experiences. Reconciliation will come in the end, but after we have suffered dearly, which in my opinion, I thought was possible to avoid.
It has become difficult for me to continue to carry my responsibility due to decisions I do not agree with. I cannot afford to bear the responsibility of a single drop of blood before God, and before my conscience and the citizens of Egypt. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of today’s events are the advocates of violence and terrorism.

Since his resignation, a university professor has filed charges asking the state to try him for breaching “national trust.” He has left Egypt. The local human rights groups who had spoken up against Morsi’s abuses in the days before June 30 condemned the violence and released their own statement:

That some participants in the sit-in and its leaders committed criminal acts, were in possession of weapons, and engaged in violence does not give the security authorities a license to impose collective punishment and use excessive force when dispersing the sit-in, according to international standards for the right of peaceful assembly.

Could there have been a different outcome? The government offered little in the way of a real solution, and the Islamists seemed determined to camp out indefinitely. It was either Morsi or martyrdom, they repeatedly said. Their response to the attempts to disperse them has been to go on a rampage, one that was hardly mentioned in many foreign reports I’ve seen—savagely attacking police stations and mutilating conscripts and officers, threatening jihad, running amok in the streets, ransacking property and opening fire, and calling on their supporters to become “human bombs.” The rise in the death count to a thousand includes those caught in the crossfire and aftermath. The anger and the retaliation are unlikely to subside anytime soon. One fears a return to the 1990s, when militant factions of Islamists used armed resistance as their primary tactic. Many of those same militants were released from jail by Morsi and walk free today.

In many ways, the most unfortunate victims in all this are Egypt’s Coptic Christians—long the pawns in a struggle for power. Mubarak’s security agents used them selectively to stir sectarian tensions that gave the government a pretext to keep dissent in check. Today, the Copts are the scapegoats that the Brotherhood is choosing to blame for its failures. In the hours following the dispersal of the sit-ins, there was a wide-scale, nationwide, brutal assault on the Copts, and it has continued into August. One church after another was attacked. Christian shops and schools and homes were burned to the ground. Images show nuns hiding for shelter. EIPR confirmed that twenty-three churches were attacked in one day alone.

In Coptic strongholds, residents are being terrorized. On Facebook, following Obama’s comments on Egypt, a Coptic man I had met at a protest, who lives in the working-class district of Shubra, wrote in response to Obama: “You have your fight against terrorism, leave us to have ours.” It is a sentiment I hear echoed these days, as is the question of why the police and armed forces are doing little to protect the Coptic community.

The country couldn’t have continued for three more years under Morsi’s rule, but neither can it continue with the alarming rage and polarization that has been unleashed. On my street this week, I watched as a shop owner pointed a pistol at a man serving tea at a street-side café. “Terrorists like you have no place here,” he screamed. The man’s beard was his crime.

When many of us went down into the streets on January 25, 2011, the fight was against Mubarak’s corrupt and brutish police state. People from all walks of life were committed to particular ideals of democracy and to the hope for serious change. Today, the sight of police and army vehicles brings a sigh of relief, as do reports of arrests of top Brotherhood leaders. Most people I’ve spoken to seem unmoved by the re-instated emergency law. The caretaker government has said it is necessary to ensure that its plans for a new constitution and elections go forward. Indeed, the government passed an amended draft constitution to the president this week to review. For many, including those grieving for lives lost, the thought of a state backed by the military and protected by the police offers at least temporary reassurance, even if they know of the brutalities those forces can commit, and even as they see further arrests of dissidents being made.

Although I have heard well-informed people insist that Egyptians will no longer accept a state that monopolizes power or abuses them, at this moment, the primitive calculation is one of relative safety—which is far from being assured. Faced with the choice between armed militants and armed men in uniform, Egyptians, by a large margin, are choosing the latter. And yet it was these same forces of state that were responsible for the discontent that led to the uprising against Mubarak; many of those forces have remained intact since his reign. The real coup in Egypt was the one of February 11, 2011, when Mubarak left office, and one wonders when the real revolution might come.

August 26, 2013


Misunderstood Egypt November 7, 2013