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Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony

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

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