On the Street

Egypt: Shocked, Scared, and Still Divided


Egyptian garbage collectors and residents inspects the remains of the destroyed camp of ousted Mohammed Morsi supporters outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on August 15 in Cairo

Photograph by Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

Egyptian garbage collectors and residents inspects the remains of the destroyed camp of ousted Mohammed Morsi supporters outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on August 15 in Cairo

As dusk settled over the dusty minarets and rooftop satellite dishes of Cairo yesterday, the city was in mourning. Violent clashes between security forces and protesters had left over 530 dead and thousands injured; the liberal Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei had just announced his resignation, and interim President Adli Mansour had declared a month-long state of emergency.

The back streets of Mohandeseen, an upper-middle class Cairo neighborhood, were mostly empty. A few young men gathered by a small, barricaded intersection, looking impatient and a little lost. Couples and families walked briskly through the streets, anxious to be home before the new curfew began. All was quiet, except for the tinny sound of news broadcasts emanating from the hundreds of television screens around the neighborhood.

This was the same neighborhood where, earlier in the day, protesters who had been violently dispersed from protest squares across the city had assembled in front of Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, in an attempt to create a new sit-in and demand the reinstatement of deposed President Morsi. Security forces responded with live ammunition, and more deadly clashes ensued.

At a nearby sandwich shop, Mohammed Hassan had just returned from the protests. “I saw four people killed with my own eyes by the police,” he said. He had been at the new sit-in for hours, and his ears were still ringing from the live ammunition exchanged between protesters and security forces. “Where are my human rights?” he demanded, decrying the army and its ascent to power. “It is a bloody coup.” He said he would return to Mostafa Mahmoud square the next day, and the next, if he was still alive and able to do so.

Yesterday in the early morning hours, state security forces made good on a promise that had been lingering for more than a week; they encircled and forcibly dispersed supporters of the previous president, Mohammed Morsi, from where they had established two protest camps in Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares.

While Egyptian television showed looped footage of snipers attacking security forces from the protest camps and suticases of ammunition stockpiled by protesters, the sheer number of people killed—the vast majority of them pro-Morsi protesters—has shocked many Egyptians. This violence is all the more disquieting because of the contrasting views of many Cairo residents. In the days after the June 30 protests and Morsi’s removal from power, there was a strong and palpable sense of hope on the streets of Cairo. Many Egyptians spoke of a new wave of revolution and how they were happy to be rid of the reviled Muslim Brotherhood government and their strict doctrinal approach to running the country.

With the ensuing violence over the past day, however, that sense of hope has diminished. Experts are beginning to point out similarities between the security forces’ actions yesterday and the strong security apparatus of Mubarak-era Egypt. Some fear that a return to this situation is not far off.

Hesham Sallam, co-editor of the Arab Studies Institute’s publication Jadaliyya, called the crackdown yesterday a calculated move by the army to consolidate power and an obvious attempt to ride the wave of popular discontent against Morsi to its own benefit. “The army and domestic security sector have long been trying to construct a political system in which their own privileges and institutions could be shielded from the uncertainties of electoral politics,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement. He added that the crackdown was an attempt to justify the resurgence of the security state of the Mubarak era.

The burning of several Christian churches by supporters of President Morsi further gives the armed forces the upper hand, he argued, and marginalized any proponents of dialogue, politics, and compromise. “The losers in this confrontation are not just the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt as a whole.”

Tarek Radwan, assistant research director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, also sees the army’s crackdown against the protesters as a step backwards for Egypt. “I don’t want to say this,” he said, “but I really feel that this is the nail in the coffin of the Egyptian revolution. Today, August 14, marks the end of the revolution and the rebirth of the Mubarak regime, just in a different form. You’ve got a Muslim Brotherhood underground, a rising military star, and the police state reconstructed … if this doesn’t describe pre-2011 Egypt, then I don’t know what does.”

Mona Makram-Ebeid, former member of the Egyptian parliament and a distinguished professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, disagrees. She argued that the military gave the protesters several chances to leave the squares safely and justified its actions in the name of creating stability. “Foreign investors are waiting for the situation to stabilize in Egypt. There’s no way that could happen when things are so volatile as they have been over the past month. I think this next phase is a poignant opportunity for the successful implementation of reforms that are necessary to achieve a sustainable democracy.” She also pointed to the burning of several Christian churches over the past few days and blamed the Brotherhood’s leadership for inciting violence against minority groups and committing what she called crimes against humanity.

Nelly Hanna, a professor who chairs the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the American University of Cairo, said the media coverage of the event has been largely skewed in the direction of the Brotherhood protesters. “They’re torching churches, they’re torching ministry buildings. Those are my tax dollars that went into those buildings. Everyone is talking about the human rights of the protesters in Rabaa. What about my rights? I think it’s ridiculous to talk about democracy right now in the middle of political crisis, but I believe that this is still headed in a positive direction.”

Ahmed Farag, a lawyer who was active in protests both against the Mubarak regime and the ruling SCAF party says that the army and protesters both gained from the violence yesterday, which severely disrupted the democratic process. “Now the protesters can claim that it was not a revolution, it was a coup, as evidenced by so many deaths. And now the army can claim they have sufficient reason to stay in power for a long time. Perhaps not officialy in power, but in the backseat. That’s a big problem.”

“My friends and I saw the upcoming parliamentary elections as an opportunity to write a civilian constitution and get rid of the Islamist regime,” he continued. “We believe that this is the best way to move on, to think of the future. Yesterday’s move just delayed us for five years, or more.”

Radwan of the Atlantic Council says he expects to see more violence as a result of yesterday’s crackdown. “In this coming period, you will probably see the low-level insurgency that we saw in Egypt during the 90s,” he said. “More terrorist attacks in the Sinai, attacks on foreigners, kidnappings, bombings.”

Neighborhood locals are shocked at the scale of the security force’s response. After curfew, the streets mostly dark, a few candy and soft drink vendors remained open. One man, who identified himself only as Moab, could barely tear himself away from the television screen long enough to count out change. Three older neighborhood men were gathered around the TV he had rigged up to the outside of his stand, watching the news as images of destruction and footage of clashes from earlier in the day were broadcast from the pedestrian bridge over Nasr Street. “Shame,” he said, simply. “Shame on the army.”

Underwood is a special correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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