Originally published in The Independent, 18 August 2013
Yasmine Ahmed’s two brothers had been trapped in the siege for over 12 hours. Packed into a sweltering back room barricaded with chairs and wooden tables, they had been cooped up alongside hundreds of panicking Islamists and the decomposing corpses from another weekend of violence.
Away from the besieged protesters, down a corridor and inside the main prayer hall of the mosque, an army commander huddled in a circle with his troops. Standing on the grubby carpet littered with discarded shreds of cotton wool and surgical pads, his face was slick with sweat.
Hundreds of locals were crammed against the pointed steel gates of the mosque courtyard. Many were in no mood to forgive those trapped inside; in the minds of some Egyptians, the Morsi supporters have become little more than “terrorist” outlaws.
“Their fate is not in my hands now,” said Yasmine, 20, a college student. “The army and the police think the people trapped inside are terrorists. But they are not. What we have now is chaos. There is chaos between all the Egyptian people.”
The fear and anxiety were palpable. Weeping relatives tramped around the prayer hall, while jumpy police officers toted their Kalashnikovs in one hand, wide-eyed and frantically chewing gum.
Adding to the sense of confusion, dozens of civilians had also managed to gain access to the building. All the while, hundreds of Morsi supporters – who had sought sanctuary in the mosque following the gunfights that erupted in nearby Ramses Square on Friday – shouted and yelled out from behind their barricades.
At around 12.40pm, the situation suddenly deteriorated. Heavy bursts of gunfire began crackling outside the mosque. “It’s the Muslim Brothers,” shouted a boy in his late teens. “They’re firing at us from above.”
Panic gripped the prayer hall. Dozens of black-clad men from the security services ran for shelter under the windows of the eastern wall. Others squatted behind thick pillars as the live rounds swooshed around outside the mosque.
One policeman ran to prod his gun through a smashed window in the western wall. His darting eyes searched for the source of the shooting. Seeing no target, he stepped away.
Suddenly a squad of armed police dashed to the corridor leading to the barricaded back room and lined themselves against the wall. Pointing their gun barrels skyward, they poised themselves to end the siege. Groups of civilians, relatives and other armed police ran to take cover next to the eastern wall.
Just then someone pointed to the windows on a second floor overlooking the prayer hall. “There are people upstairs,” he screamed. A moment later there was a flash and a small explosion in the centre of the room. Soldiers and civilians started screaming. A cloud of pale smoke dissipated around the hall.
Seconds later there was another loud boom, this time from the direction of the corridor leading towards the barricaded Islamists. Panic erupted as those inside the mosque began fleeing for the door. A senior police officer ordered people to leave, furiously waving an arm as he stomped through the prayer hall with a Kalashnikov in his right hand.
Outside, the scores of civilians who had gained access to the main courtyard cowered against the mosque walls as heavy bursts of live ammunition clattered around Ramses Square. Eyewitnesses reported seeing gunshots being fired from the mosque’s minaret.
Amid the fear and confusion, angry civilians mobbed foreign journalists who had been reporting on the siege. One Western reporter was briefly knocked unconscious after being clubbed over the head with a stick. Soldiers fired shots in the air to scare away the attackers.
At least two journalists were rescued from angry locals by troops stationed in Ramses Square. Other reporters were also arrested or detained in Cairo yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency last year after decades of repression, looks in danger of being expunged again from Egypt’s political life. Yesterday it was reported Egypt’s Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has proposed disbanding the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the prospects of large-scale arrests if membership becomes outlawed.
It was also reported that Egyptian security forces yesterday arrested the brother of al-Qa’ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mohammed al-Zawahiri, leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafist group, was detained at a checkpoint in Giza. Said to be an ally of ousted President Morsi, Mohammed al-Zawahiri is accused of commanding Islamic insurgents in the Sinai peninsula.
The interim government, backed by an apparently irrepressible military establishment, has initiated a bloody war on political Islam. Successive massacres over the past six weeks have been so astonishingly brutal that nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed.
Even taking the conservative estimates of health officials, the bloodletting points to a country that is ripping itself apart. At least 600 dead after Wednesday’s massacre of Morsi supporters; more than 170 on Friday; hundreds more since the popular coup greeted with such jubilation by some on 4 July.
Nobody has been safe. Among the dead during Friday’s violence was Ammar Badie, the son of the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide. On Wednesday, the daughter of Mohamed el-Beltagi, a leading Brotherhood official, was killed during the massacre. Mostafa Yacoub, said he had known 17-year-old Asmaa el-Beltagi and that she had grown distant from the Brotherhood ideology espoused by her father.
During violent demonstrations at the end of 2011 he said Asmaa had shared the streets with liberal and secular protesters who were battling the central security forces.
“She was young and wanted to develop her own thoughts,” said Mr Yacoub. “She did a lot of community work. She wanted to be open to other sides of society.” Those hopes were exterminated on Wednesday when police bullets shredded the Islamist encampment in eastern Cairo.
Islamists have responded to the recent violence by attacking churches, Christian homes and businesses.
The attacks confirm what many liberals have long suspected – that followers of political Islam are agents of intolerance and not fit to enjoy power in Egypt.
Yesterday’s reports that the authorities are considering ways to consign the Brotherhood to political oblivion are a natural consequence of such sentiment.
It is hoped that Egypt’s deputy prime minister will propose a possible way out of the bloody confrontation when the cabinet discusses the crisis today.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has condemned the “disproportionate use of force” by the Egyptian security forces as he issued a fresh appeal to all sides to end violence.
In Cairo, the city that breathes with a bustling vivacity, it feels as if it has died a death of sorts. As a result of the new 7pm curfew, the city centre is enveloped in a deathly pall of quiet by nightfall.
The roads that would usually be bursting with street hawkers and honking drivers are empty. Volunteers staffing civilian “checkpoints” – usually little more than a steel road barrier dragged into the street – check car boots and rummage through the passengers’ rucksacks.
For its 17 million inhabitants, the city can rarely have felt so alien. For the political map-makers of Egypt’s tortured transition, the future can hardly have seemed less certain.
Originally published in The Independent, 17 August 2013
Cairo is convulsed by deadly gun battles this evening as the consequences of Wednesday’s mass killings reverberated around the country.
With army helicopters hovering high over the city centre and security services marshalling firepower to continue their bloody crackdown, Egypt looked in danger of sinking into greater violence.
Last night there was no confirmed death toll, but dozens of civilians were reported to have been killed. The violence spread across the country, with deaths reported in numerous provinces, including eight in Damietta, and four in Ismailia.
“The army and the police are killing their own people,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, an Islamist who had made his way to central Cairo for a rally. With bursts of machine-gun fire rattling around the central train station, he told The Independent that “this is not our country any more”.
The worst violence erupted in Ramses Square, the sprawling plaza in central Cairo which had been the focus of demonstrations called by supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi. But in a sign that the civil unrest which has gripped Egypt for much of the past two years may have reached a tipping point, other neighbourhoods were also caught up in the chaos.
Garden City, the leafy Nileside enclave dreamed up by British colonialists, was echoing to the sound of gunfire last night. Residents shuttered windows as security services carried out operations. Witnesses also reported hearing gunfire in Zamalek, the plush upper-class island which is home to a Hilton hotel.
Many Egyptians had woken up yesterday bracing themselves for the worst. Allies of Mr Morsi had called for dozens of demonstrations, with a week of daily rallies planned across Egypt. One Brotherhood leader warned that the level of anger was such that his organisation could no longer control its followers. The interior ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement that police had been authorised to use lethal force against protesters who threatened state buildings.
Even for a Friday morning – the Muslim day of rest – the streets were quiet. Soldiers in Tahrir Square, the crucible of a revolution, sat expectantly behind their gun turrets. At around 1pm, after several thousand Islamist protesters had reached Ramses Square, shots rang out from the direction of a police station in a road leading off the plaza. At times, the bursts of gunfire were intense. Palls of smoke from burning debris added to the confusion. A young boy, perhaps only 16, was raced to a field clinic with a chunk the size of an orange slice missing from his forehead.
“The government calls all these people terrorists,” shouted Mohamed al-Adawy, 30, gesturing to the thousands of protesters packed inside the square. “They are not terrorists. They are teachers, or engineers and come from all walks of life.”
At al-Tawheed Mosque, about half a mile east of Ramses Square, shawl-wrapped corpses were lined up one by one. Inside the prayer hall down below, doctors frantically performed CPR on dying patients. “The police don’t have any humanity,” said Dr Hassan Sulayman. “They have killed people like animals.”
Originally published in The Independent, 15 August 2013
As hundreds of Islamists were being gunned down on the streets of Cairo during Wednesday’s bloodbath, the ugly consequences began to ripple hundreds of miles down river to the towns and cities along Egypt’s Nile Valley.
Outraged supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi, reacting to the ferocious crackdown launched against protesters camped out in Cairo, started attacking police stations and government institutions in several provinces. Scores were killed and many more wounded. But in a development which does not bode well for an already fractured society, it was the nation’s Coptics which bore the brunt of some of the worst violence.
Christians account for an estimated 10 per cent of the country’s 85 million population. A former Coptic Pope, Kyrillos VI, once claimed that Egypt’s Muslims and Christians were a single people “ worshipping the same God in two different ways.”
Yet following Wednesday’s nationwide violence, when churches, Christian-owned businesses and property were attacked by angry mobs, Egypt’s Copts appear to be feeling increasingly vulnerable.
“I’m expecting a period of heavy assaults against Christians,” said Kamel Saleh, a member of the Coptic church’s senior lay committee. Mr Saleh added that ever since 30 June, when huge crowds of protesters began calling for the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, church leaders had been engaged in contingency planning to decide how Christians could respond to expected attacks. “The churches themselves are just buildings and can be repaired,” said Mr Saleh. “ What worries me is the unprecedented level of violence which will be difficult to climb down from.”
Following the decision by Pope Tawadros, the Coptic Patriarch, to give his blessing to the 3 July coup, officials were expecting the worst. But inflammatory speeches from Cairo’s tent encampments were enough to convince some Christians that Islamists harboured violent intentions. Safwat Hegazy was among those who spoke to pro-Morsi protesters during the Cairo sit-ins. Hegazy, a television imam, has made fiery declamations “There is no doubt in my mind that the Muslim Brotherhood are able to influence the violent groups who attacked Christians,” Mr Saleh said.
According to Ishak Ibrahim, a Cairo-based human rights researcher focusing on religious issues, a total of 23 churches across the country were torched by angry mobs following Wednesday’s operation by the security services. At least seven were completely destroyed, he said. Two monasteries were also attacked.
In the city of Sohag, the Bishop of Mar Girgis Church reported that the building had been set alight by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were no police present – a common feature in many of the attacks, according to witnesses.
Mr Ibrahim said the recent violence has the potential to become much more serious. “It will become a big problem,” he said.
Originally published in The Independent, 15 August 2013
As machine gun fire crackled around the besieged Islamist encampment in eastern Cairo today, a 12-year-old boy called Omar was sat on a mattress drinking from his carton of orange juice. Just a few yards away, the bodies of 31 protesters lay on the grubby, blood-caked floor.
Many had been shot through the head and chest with high velocity bullets; some bore gnarled lips betraying the agonising throes of death.
When asked how he felt to witness such scenes, the young boy – wearing Puma flip-flops and blue jeans – remained silent and appeared confused for a few moments. Then, with childlike fragility, he said very simply: “It’s not very nice”.
Whatever else the Egyptian state was hoping to achieve by launching its long-awaited crackdown, the hundreds of young children who were cowering inside the besieged sit-in will not likely forget the ferocity of a government which has now declared war on the country’s Islamists.
Egypt’s leaders have unleashed a chain of unforeseeable consequences. Deadly clashes were reported in provinces around the country, as police stations, government institutions and Coptic churches were attacked in apparent revenge attacks.
Scores were killed, hundreds more injured.
In a sign of how deeply the crackdown will affect Egypt’s ongoing political transition, Mohamed el-Baradei, the vice President and Nobel laureate, resigned in protest over the crackdown. Meanwhile Egypt’s interim government has imposed a month-long state of emergency and night time curfew.
Inside the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, the building which lies at the heart of the east Cairo encampment, crying babies clung to their mothers as gunfire raged around them following the start of the operation.
In the centre of the prayer hall, laid out on the carpet among hundreds of women and toddlers in the stifling heat, ten bodies had been placed side by side inside a cordon.
A little girl of about seven or eight, wearing pink trousers and a T-shirt, made her way from one side of the mosque to the other by tottering between the heads of the corpses.
“The police and the army don’t understand any language except force,” said Khalid Mohsen, a 50-year-old engineer who was trapped inside the siege. “They want to kill anybody who has an opposing view.”
Given the sheer level of firepower unleashed on protesters, it is a view which many Islamists may find hard to argue with.
According to witnesses the gunfire began early in the morning at around six o’clock, as security forces who had surrounded the site launched their ferocious assault. At a separate encampment in the west of the city, a similar operation was also ordered.
By late afternoon the shooting was still continuing. Heavy semi-automatic bursts of gunfire echoed around the nearby suburbs throughout the day. If there was any let up, it was brief. For about 10 hours, the supporters of Mohamed Morsi were subjected to a near-continuous barrage of live fire.
Single sniper shots shrieked down Nasr Road, the main thoroughfare leading through the camp; sustained bursts of machine gun fire clattered into nearby buildings; wayward rounds shredded through the labyrinthine networks of tents and tarpaulin shacks.
At the nearby hospital, staff draped the windows with blinds as a precaution against sniper rounds.
One doctor at the hospital, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said that even the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008 had not been as bad.
“I was working there as a medic during that battle,” he told The Independent. “The Jews were much more humane that what is happening today. Even in war, the rules are more respectable than this.
“In 12 days of fighting in Gaza, there were less dead than in six hours here.”
Amid the dizzying chaos of the massacre – the third which has been perpetrated against Egypt’s Islamists in a little over a month – reliable casualty figures were difficult to come by.
According to Egypt’s Health Ministry, 149 people were confirmed dead. Yet the true figure is likely to be much higher. Dr Hisham Ibrahim, the head of the Rabaa al-Adawiya field clinic, told The Independent that several hundred people had been killed.
Whatever the final tally, the constant stream of bullet-riddled, disfigured protesters meant it was impossible to store the corpses properly. Inside a room which during the previous two massacres has been used as a morgue, 42 bodies were crammed up against each other on the floor.
As the carnage unfolded and more protesters were killed, other areas were appropriated to house the dead.
Behind the stage which has been used by Islamist leaders to rally pro-Morsi supporters for the past six weeks, 25 bodies were laid out wrapped in white shawls, unrefrigerated in the sweltering August sun.
Next to the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque – where flies were soon gathering on the ten corpses laid out in the prayer hall – another room being used as a makeshift morgue.
A total of 31 bodies had been placed here. Volunteers had no time for sentimentality; the same hall was being used to treat wounded protesters, many of whom were lying moaning in agony just yards from the nearby cadavers.
“It’s a genocide,” said Dr Yehia Makkayah, a medic at the Rabaa hospital. “They want us to disappear from the country. I could never imagine that Egyptians would shoot Egyptians using these weapons.”
Such was the chaos inside the hospital, a reception area on the second floor had been utilised as yet another morgue to store a further 26 bodies. One floor up in a tiny storeroom, two more corpses were lying in gleaming pools of fresh blood.
Corridors barely two yards wide were lined with dozens upon dozens of wounded. Luckier patients received drip feeds from a friend or relative; those who were luckier still had the luxury of a hospital bed. The floors were sticky with blood and vomit.
The sheer volume of the dead and the dying meant it was often impossible to move up and down the main staircase. Injured protesters, most of them felled by live fire, were stretchered up to the operating rooms, blood trickling from their wounds as they went. The dead were stretchered in the other direction, down to the lower level morgues.
“The army are the dogs of the Israelis,” said Mohamed Mostafa, a vet who was keeping vigil at the bedside of his brother-in-law, a 36-year-old whose spine had been shattered by a bullet. “They are not Egyptians.”
At the main morgue beside the field clinic, the mother of one victim, 16-year-old Malik Safwat, struggled to reach him through the tightly-packed rows of corpses.
“Don’t move that body,” said one of the morgue attendants to a volunteer trying to clear a path. “Move a lighter one.” She eventually found him, tearfully shaking his left knee from side to side as if to try and wake him up. His sister had also arrived. “My darling,” she said in a trembling voice. “Why my darling?”
By around 5pm, the security services had gained access to the hospital and were clearing everybody out into the surrounding streets. Thousands of people began filing out of the camp, as police bulldozers moved in to destroy the remaining tents.
Originally published in The Independent, 12 August 2013
On a long, straight stretch of Nasr Road, the 12-lane highway leading towards the Islamist tent city in eastern Cairo, the streets are still stained with the blood of dozens of Islamist protesters.
Many of them perished during the massacre carried out by Egypt’s security forces last month. Like other areas of Cairo, their memories are kept alive by those who have grown more determined through death.
“We are prepared to die for our cause,” said 31-year-old Ahmed Sharkawy as he stood next to one of the dozens of makeshift memorials which now dot the asphalt along the highway. “We won’t leave the sit-in. If they come to clear us out using tanks, we will lie beneath the wheels.”
For the past six weeks, supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi have been camped out in their massive tent cities on the streets of the Egyptian capital. They continue to demand the return of their ousted leader – something which has been rejected outright by their political opponents.
Following weekend reports that the security services were preparing to launch an operation to clear the sit-ins, speculation was rife that a crackdown may be imminent.
By yesterday evening, the expected operation – which has been hinted at by anonymous security sources quoted by the local press and international news organisations – had still not begun.
But many of the demonstrators who remain camped out yesterday appeared increasingly defiant when they spoke to The Independent.
“The army are traitors,” said Said Hanif, a 48-year-old engineer, as he made his way to the east Cairo encampment with his wife.
In reference to the belief among pro-Morsi supporters that last month’s popular coup represented an illegitimate power grab by the military, he said that Egypt “belongs to the people, it doesn’t belong to the army”.
The pro-Morsi sit-ins have become a nasty thorn in the side of Egypt’s political powerbrokers.
In the east Cairo suburb of Nasr City – where the largest of the two main protest sites has sprung up – an enormous encampment sprawls for half a mile in all directions from a crossroads near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. Moreover, despite its appearance of a unified, homogenous whole, varying threads of Islamist allegiance have taken root. The Muslim Brotherhood may form the most influential block, but other groups have staked a claim. The fundamentalist Al-Asala Party has its own tent headquarters, as does Gamaa Islamiya, the group which once waged a campaign of terror against the Egyptian state.
It poses a tricky quandary for Egypt’s rulers. Either they can allow the country’s refusenik Islamists to continue their sit-in, or they can break it up by force. The first option, while less confrontational, would leave a looming, ever-present shadow lingering over the whole transition process.
But the second option could result in hundreds of deaths and a chain of dangerously unpredictable consequences.
Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said that efforts were being made to resolve the current impasse through negotiations. Yet he hinted that the government’s patience was wearing thin.
“It is not reasonable for any democratic government to have to accept sit-ins where violence is being used and the security of citizens and the country is being threatened,” he said.
A detailed report in the privately-owned Al Shorouk newspaper last week suggested that the authorities were intending to “kettle” the Nasr City protest – surrounding the sit-in and attempting to apply pressure by cutting water and electricity supplies.
Speaking to Reuters yesterday, a security official said protesters would be removed gradually. Tear gas and water cannons would be deployed if they failed to respond, he added.
But given the determination of many protesters, it seems unlikely that anything other than a full-scale clearance operation by hundreds of police or troops would have any affect.
“Asking us to leave is not a prospect that is grounded in reality,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, a member of Gamaa Islamiya. “If I am killed, I am sure I will become a martyr. In this case I will go to heaven.”
Originally published in The Independent, 10 August 2013
As Egyptians were coming to terms with the chaos and bloodshed that blighted the holy month of Ramadan, a number of the country’s wealthiest businessmen sat down for a dinner of lamb kebabs and stuffed courgettes.
Among them were two of Egypt’s most prominent television moguls; Mohamed el-Amin, head of the hugely popular CBC channel, and Ahmad Bahgat, the magnate behind Egypt’s first-ever private station, Dream TV. Hosting them all in his Cairo home was Hassan Rateb, another wealthy TV channel boss.
But one of Mr Rateb’s invitees did not quite fit the profile of the assorted businessmen and anti-Islamist politicians who were present that evening – Murad Mowafy, Egypt’s former spy chief and the man who is now being courted by influential powerbrokers to become the country’s next president.
Just two years after Egyptians revolted against the military-backed regime that held power for sixty years, the Independent can reveal that powerful business figures are now pushing for an army man to make a bid for power.
According to a source who was present during the dinner, Mr Mowafy was on the guest list that evening because TV channel bosses were trying to persuade him to run for Egypt’s top job at the coming elections.
“They were telling him to go for the presidency,” said the source, speaking to The Independent. “They were saying he would have their total support if he did.”
The source, who asked not to be identified, said Mr Mowafy neither confirmed to his hosts nor denied that he would be considering a run to succeed Mohamed Morsi. “He seemed to be declining more than accepting, but he never said anything directly.” The Independent tried to contact the TV bosses who were present but received no response. But the revelation that Egypt’s ex-intelligence chief – along with other rumoured military figures – is being touted as a candidate has triggered a wave of soul-searching and debate among some liberal and secular politicians, most of whom realise the enormous implications of replacing Mr Morsi with a former military man.
“If the next President of Egypt is from a military background then this will be a negative sign,” said Ahmed Khairy, a liberal politician. “Critics will say to us, ‘you said this was not a military coup, but now you have a President from the military’.”
Following the toppling of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, Egypt’s generals appeared at great pains to emphasise that the coming transition would be civilian-led. A former judge was immediately anointed as the new interim President – part of the point-by-point transitional road-map that was quickly announced.
Since then, the initial hopes that officers would steer clear of politics have begun to dissipate. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s commander in chief and leader of the coup that toppled Morsi – who also holds two cabinet posts – gave a speech last month in which he called on Egyptians to grant him a mandate to crack down on ‘terrorism’ by staging mass rallies across the country.
Some observers questioned why Adli Mansour, the interim President, had not been tasked with delivering the speech.
General al-Sisi himself has been touted as a prospective presidential candidate. A mild cult of personality has begun to develop among those Egyptians who credit him with rescuing them from the perceived threat of Brotherhood rule. Other names whirling around the political party rumour mill include Sami Anan, the former chief of staff who was also dismissed by Morsi after his election, and Hossam Khairallah, a former air force captain who ran for the Presidency last year.
The prospect of a military candidacy would be met with met by incredulity among some Egyptian revolutionaries. “The Egyptian revolution was about overthrowing the power of a military which had governed for itself for 60 years,” said Aalam Wassef, a film-maker who has taken part in rallies opposing army intervention in Egypt.
It would also land Egypt’s liberal and secular parties in a quandary. Many are currently debating whether to rally around a single candidate to maximise their chances of a non-Islamist victory. If a credible military contender emerged, it would leave them juggling the temptation of electoral triumph with the implications of backing a traditionalist war horse.
Yet with the military’s stock on a high amid the perpetual unrest, what might have been unpalatable last year now seems a realistic prospect.
“Having someone with an army background is not a reason to reject him,” said Shehab Wagih, a liberal politician. “We will not deal with a military guy who is still in the army, but if we are dealing with someone who is retired we are dealing with an average citizen.”
Likely leaders: Top brass
Sami Anan was the chief of staff dismissed by Mr Morsi. He was the right-hand man of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who led the military council which ruled Egypt.
For those who can still remember the 2011 revolt, Murad Mowafy may be the old regime candidate. He was the former head of the notorious mukhabarat, or secret police.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
Not a likely contender right now – but if he ran, he would win by a landslide. Egypt’s top soldier has been tipped as a possible candidate, but has so far remained tight-lipped.
Originally published in The Independent, 7 August 2013
Egyptians will celebrate one of the most significant days in the Muslim calendar this morning – but they will do so facing perhaps the gravest crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak two and a half years ago.
On the eve of the Eid al-Fitr festival, the holiday which marks the end of Ramadan, Egypt’s interim President, Adli Mansour, issued a bleak statement announcing that 10 days of talks to solve a dangerous impasse between supporters and opponents of Mohamed Morsi, the deposed leader, had failed.
The statement from Mr Mansour’s office declared that the Muslim Brotherhood – whose followers have been camped out in their thousands for more than a month on the streets of Cairo – was “fully responsible for the failure of these efforts”.
Following weeks of oscillation between threats of an anti-Islamist crackdown and gestures of apparent reconciliation, Mr Mansour’s words appeared to indicate that a state-led backlash against the Brotherhood might be imminent. “I’m sorry to say, but we’re closer to all-out war,” said Sherif Taher, a senior liberal politician.
A leading Brotherhood figure, speaking to The Independent, responded by calling the Egyptian authorities “vampires”. “They cannot satisfy their desire for blood,” said Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Brotherhood’s political wing, who is currently wanted for arrest after prosecutors issued warrants for him and other Islamists.
He warned that the Egyptian government could “not imagine what would happen” if it tried to clear Mr Morsi’s supporters from the streets. But he added that Brotherhood protesters were peaceful and unarmed. “We don’t have anything. It will not be a battle. It will be a massacre,” he said.
Following the presidential statement, Egypt’s Prime Minister Hazem El Beblawi announced on state television that a decision had been taken to clear the Brotherhood from its two Cairo encampments. The decision, he added, was “irreversible”.
The day’s developments came after a week-long flurry of shuttle diplomacy designed to halt Egypt’s slide into further civil unrest.
Envoys from Europe, Washington and the Gulf states have been criss-crossing Cairo in an effort to bridge the ostensibly insurmountable positions held by hardliners on both sides.
Supporters of Mr Morsi have publicly said that they will rejoin the transitional “road map” only once the toppled president is restored to power and the Morsi-sponsored constitution of 2012 is resurrected.
Their opponents, who engineered last month’s popular coup because of fears of an Islamist autocracy, countered that such a move would be impossible. Amid the growing, media-fuelled climate of anti-Brotherhood loathing, many had increasingly come to reject the group altogether as a potential political partner.
Ikbal Baraka, an Egyptian writer, told The Independent that Egyptians were following the lead of Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum to the IRA that Britain would never negotiate with terrorists – a reference to the belief among many liberals that the Brotherhood is little more than a network of would-be Islamist militants. “The Egyptian people have changed,” she said. “They will not accept that we will be friends with the Brotherhood and bury the hatchet.”
In a sign of the uncompromising mood among many of the group’s opponents, John McCain – the one-time US presidential candidate who was in Egypt to offer mediation alongside fellow Senator Lindsey Graham – triggered angry reactions from politicians and talk show hosts when he used a televised press conference to call for the release of detained Islamists.
Responding to Mr McCain, who later told a US interviewer that he “didn’t know” the political crisis in Egypt was “this bad”, Ahmed Said, the chairman of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, said that viewers had felt “insulted” watching the senator. “I’m telling you these two guys do not understand what Egypt is about,” he said.
A link to The Independent’s live Q&A on Egypt, 6 August 2013
Originally published in The Independent, 31 July 2013
Egyptian authorities gave the strongest indication yet that security forces were preparing a strike against the Muslim Brotherhood – announcing in a televised statement that the group’s month-long Cairo sit-in was a threat to ‘national security’ and would soon be ended.
The statement, which was issued by the country’s interim cabinet, prompted fears that of another deadly confrontation between authorities and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
The move against the sit-in protest came as it emerged that Egypt’s prosecutors have referred three of the Brotherhood’s most senior figures for trial.
They include the group’s revered Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, along with his deputy Khairat al-Shater and senior leader Rashad Bayoumi. All three are wanted for charges related to inciting violence.
At least 300 people have been killed in nationwide clashes since the June 30 – the date the former president Mohamed Morsi was toppled by an army-led coup. The dead include scores of Islamists who have been gunned down during two separate massacres within the space of three weeks – more than 80 of whom were killed on Sunday when police tried to disperse the sit-in at Rabaa.
The developments raised fears that an anti-Islamist crackdown – which has been anticipated by many since an ominous speech by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s top military commander public face of the coup, last week – is now imminent.
During its televised address, the interim cabinet said that “terrorist acts” and continued traffic disruption were no longer acceptable and “represent a threat to Egyptian national security”.
It added: “The cabinet decided to begin taking all necessary measures to address these dangers and put an end to them, commissioning the interior minister to do all that is necessary regarding this matter within the framework of the constitution and the law.”
Since the first day of the June 30 revolt, tens of thousands of Mr Morsi’s supporters have been maintaining a vigil from two giant tent encampments in separate parts of the city.
The largest, in the suburb of Nasr City in eastern Cairo, has often been filled with tens of thousands of people.
The vast majority of them appear adamant that they will not leave the streets until Mohamed Morsi is reinstated as President – an impossible demand for the Brotherhood’s opponents to recognise. Any attempt to clear so many protesters by force would turn into a bloodbath.
This evening [WED] Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, remained resolute in his assurance that Mr Morsi’s supporters would not melt away. “We don’t recognise this government and we don’t recognise the authorities or the laws they represent,” he told Reuters.
Speaking to The Independent, a pro-Morsi activist said he was not afraid of the impending crackdown. “How much worse can it get?” asked Mohamed Soltan, referring to the two massacres which took place this month. “The government doesn’t understand that blood is the fuel and fire of revolutions.”
Egypt has become dangerously polarised over the course of the past month. Many people – spurred on by a resolutely anti-Brotherhood media – have begun to think of the Islamists camped in Nasr City as little more than a gang of would-be militants.
Statements from the military and television presenters have roused a collective fear of the national “terrorist” threat – conflating a genuine problem of Islamic militancy in North Sinai with scaremongering aimed at followers of Mohamed Morsi.
“The pro-Morsi protest is not a sit-in,” said Haitham al-Shawaf, a member of a youth revolutionary group. “The people there are not protesters, they are militants.”
In a bid to counter the increasingly trenchant rhetoric emerging from both sides, a group calling itself the Third Square movement has occupied yet another plaza in eastern Cairo with a view to rejecting both the influence of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet in a sign of how little traction is being gained by appeals to moderation, the campaign has already earned the opprobrium of Tamarod, the youth movement which spearheaded the June 30 revolt.
The group’s spokesman, Mohamed Abdul Aziz, said Third Square was “dividing the people”, adding: “They are living in the past. Now is the time for consensus, we need to move forward.”