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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.

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