These days of chaotic, bloody brutality are a time for mourning, as the toll continues to rise for those killed by the Egyptian security force’s operation to break up pro–Mohammed Morsi sit-ins as well as from retaliatory attacks. There have been too many gruesome days in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, but never have the prospects for recovering from the damage seemed so bleak. At the moment, it is not unreasonable to fear Egypt backsliding to a state worse than that of Hosni Mubarak’s.
In the past two and a half years, an unleashed Egypt has chanted, “The people demand the downfall of the regime,” … and then the military … and then the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, graffiti on a grimy wall in Cairo simply reads, “Down with the whole world.”
It is almost impossible to describe the sheer intensity and scale of the Aug. 14 security force crackdown on the Nahda and Rabia al-Adawiya camps, where supporters of the deposed president had gathered for 41 days following the July 3 military coup. Bulldozers, snipers, assault weapons, tear gas, pellets and helicopters overhead were all reported at the scene.
Aerial images from that evening on Egyptian state television showed much of Rabia, sometimes described as a small city, up in flames. A number of journalists compared the scene to a war zone. What occurred there is far from the “gradual dispersal” of protesters designed to minimize carnage that the interim government had promised in the preceding days. Rather, the “dispersal” was an all-out attack. Egyptian human rights groups condemned the violence in a statement titled to aptly summarize the situation: “Non-peaceful assembly does not justify collective punishment.”
While talk of breaking up the protests had been building for days, marches by Brotherhood supporters to government ministries the day before the crackdown may have spurred the military to action. Reuters reported that outside the Interior Ministry, residents had thrown stones and bottles at the pro-Morsi marchers and called them “terrorists” as police warded the demonstrators off with tear gas.
Cairo and 13 other cities across the country are now under emergency law and curfew. Police have threatened to arrest anyone out after 7:00 pm, leaving Cairo, a city that normally settles after 3:00 am, eerily quiet.
There is no independently verified death toll. For now, Egyptian authorities report 638 dead and more than 4,000 injured, while the Brotherhood tallies their dead at some 2,200. Decaying bodies fill makeshift hospitals and morgues where grieving families struggle to identify their dead. Many of the bodies have been burned under unclear circumstances still being pieced together.
Churches across the country are under retaliatory attack by reportedly pro-Morsi supporters. The Interior Ministry said that at least seven churches had been vandalized or torched by suspected Islamists on Aug. 14, while unofficial reports cite more than fifty churches and related institutions attacked. Two deaths have been reported related to sectarian violence.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the vice-president for foreign affairs and liberal veneer on the interim government, resigned the day of the crackdowns, declaring that he could “not bear the responsibility of a single drop of blood … especially with my faith that we could have avoided it.”
Neither the Brotherhood’s leadership, which called on its supporters to join the sit-in as the onslaught began, nor the military leadership supported by the supposedly liberal National Salvation Front and Tamarrod, the youth movement that sparked the June 30 protests that led to Morsi’s overthrow, share ElBaradei’s sense of guilt. Bloodthirsty, they are calling on their supporters to “resist” each other. The Brotherhood declared Friday, Aug. 16, “A Day of Rage” against the military’s violence across the country.
The National Salvation Front released a statement on Aug. 15 “saluting the police and military forces … imposing their will of complete victory.” Appearing as the military’s puppet, Tamarrod called for its supporters to take to the streets on Aug. 16 and stand up to the Brotherhood by forming “neighborhood watch committees,” a senseless call that if heeded will likely provoke some of the bloodiest street battles Cairo has ever seen.
Egyptians’ deep-rooted, insidious hatreds and prejudices have been released in a fury as the institutions of the deep state and the Brotherhood, both cheered on by popular support, play a deadly zero-sum game. After the violence of the crackdown, the military has made clear that only one side will emerge intact from this struggle, which is unlikely to end soon. A severely wounded beast now clearly fighting for its survival, the Brotherhood will in the coming days put up staunch resistance. On the day of the crackdown, Brotherhood supporters attacked state institutions and churches in Upper Egypt and the Delta.
In cries that have become heartbreakingly familiar, a woman at the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in wailed, as fighting raged around her, “Are we not Muslim! Are we not Egyptian!” That is what demonstrators gathered against Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional decree pleaded to their Brotherhood attackers in front of the Ittihadiya presidential palace.
With ordinary political contests transformed into existential battles, the cycle of demonizing those with differing political views has ripped Egypt apart. “Thug,” “terrorist,” “kafir” (non-believer) are loosely thrown around by the Brotherhood and their opponents in the sludge of hatred. The inherently competitive nature of electoral politics, which at its basest thrives on exploiting divisive fissures, has helped entrench such hyped-up prejudices against the “other” in Egypt.
During the December 2012 constitutional referendum, Islamists equated saying “yes to the constitution” as saying “yes to Islam,” asserting the dominance of their religious interpretation. This, along with the Brotherhood’s majoritarian politics at a time when social and political trust in a shaken Egypt was weak, fueled the fears that it was seeking to build an Islamic state. While its history, ideology and belligerence to compromise worked against the organization, the mistakes made by its members in government were not far beyond the usual trials and errors of emerging democracies.
In the more hopeful yet still repressive days of the 2011 parliamentary elections, when the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces crushed anti-military protests, many non-Islamists voted for the Muslim Brotherhood with cautious optimism. Confident in Egypt’s ability to define its own path on its own terms as a nascent democracy, they asserted that Egyptians must make their own choice in the country’s first free and fair elections.
As the world warily watched, a middle-aged man in a worn brown galabiya, waiting to vote, declared, “If we make the wrong choice, we’ll fix it.”
The price for “fixing” the Brotherhood’s election may prove perilous and regressive for Egypt. While many Egyptians see this as a struggle between the “integrity of the state” and the Brotherhood, it is worth remembering that the state they are now seeking to preserve is the same one that the 2011 revolution sought to bring down in favor of democratic, civilian rule based on the rights, freedoms and dignity of all of Egypt’s citizens.
This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on August 16, 2013. It was revised for style on September 19, 2013.
Photo credit: Marcia Qualey