Dispatch

Beaten into Submission

Is violence the only way Egypt knows how to deal with Islamists?

CAIRO — Back in the days when Islamists of all stripes -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to the hard-line Salafists to the violent al-Gamaa al-Islamiya -- were outlawed and hounded by President Hosni Mubarak's police state, I was still a young reporter at the beginning of her career. It was the early 1990s, and outfitted in sneakers and the idealism of youth, I would beat innumerable paths between the offices of their lawyers across Cairo, the Brotherhood's headquarters (then in the vegetable market of Cairo's Souk el-Tawfikia), the military courts of Haekstep, the cramped offices of human rights groups, and village after desperate village in Upper Egypt.

One day I was interviewing al-Gamaa al-Islamiya lawyer Abdel Harith Madani at his small office, busy taking notes as he recounted the injustices of the Mubarak regime. At the end of the interview, he proudly showed me pictures of his young daughter. The very next day I was covering the news of his death after he had been taken into police custody.

I sat next to an old woman in black who cried silently as her son, a medical student in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut, was undressed in front of a military judge to show the signs of torture on his body. I was hard-pressed to maintain a professional decorum as the judge scoffed that his injuries did not look serious.

I walked around the Cairo district of al-Darb al-Ahmar and tried to talk to people about a young man who -- it had been claimed -- was thrown out of the fourth-story window of the police station while being interrogated. All the while, security men lurked nearby, intimidating the people of the district. No one would tell me the truth.

In the city of Sohag, I looked into the eyes of an old man whose only son had just been returned to him in a sealed coffin. "He was just a good boy who liked to go to the mosque," he said. "Like all the Sunnis."

This was the cruel reality of life under Mubarak.

As Egyptians toppled President Mohamed Morsy's rule last week and as the military responded to Islamist protests in front of the Republican Guard headquarters with a heavy hand this week, we must again reconsider the crude Mubarak-era logic that "there is no other way to deal with Islamist groups" but through such repression. It is not only for the Islamists' sake that Egyptians must strive for a just government: The Mubarak regime and its security apparatus entrenched a rule of human rights violations that went well beyond the Brotherhood and enveloped the majority of this country's poor and dispossessed in the darkness.

Any semblance of a modern, democratic state cannot exist with these kinds of abuses. The discourse against the Brotherhood since the June 30 protests and the bloodshed at the Republican Guard headquarters are fearful signposts along that road. This is a cross that our Jan. 25 revolution -- which stands for human dignity and the equality of all -- should never have to bear.

That said, the task of reconciliation has been made even more difficult by the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which has revealed itself as a force intent on the annihilation of all political opposition. Ever since the Brotherhood piggybacked on the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, the Islamist organization has consistently alienated every group that has tried to work with it.

The repression experienced by Islamists is not an excuse for the blunders and crimes they committed after ascending to power. There was the scissor-wielding, niqab-wearing primary-school teacher who cut off the hair of her unveiled student -- and got away with it. There was the torture that continued in prisons, police stations, and Brotherhood offices, as well as the passing of a constitution that lacked a minimum national consensus. The message was the same: We are taking over Egypt for ourselves.

And while the Islamists flagrantly flaunted the "democratic process," the opposition was held liable to the tyranny of the ballot box. We ran from election to referendum -- only to hear Islamist preachers whipping their followers into a frenzy, warning that if their side did not win this coming ballot, Christians and the forces of secular darkness would reign.

The lot of non-Islamist voters was to roast in an eternity of hell, we were told. Christians were threatened and intimidated into staying away from the vote. Anyone who was against Morsy or "the Islamic nation" was an infidel. That included fellow Muslims: On June 22, shortly after the Egyptian president sat impassively through a tirade by an Islamist preacher against Shiites, a mob dragged four Shiite men through the streets of the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam, beating them to death.

It is true the Brotherhood won the elections and referenda, but you would be hard-pressed to paint this as a victory for democracy. And it came at a price for the movement itself, which was elected by predominantly poor voters who voted the Brotherhood in because they thought it would mean extra bags of rice. The unfulfilled promises soon wore thin, and as the economy failed to improve under their "Islamic" rule, the backlash was inevitable.

True to Egyptian nature, which is in fact rather carefree and fun-loving, with a mix of BS thrown in for good measure, people got tired of being told how to be "good Muslims." They got tired of the consistent ineptitude of the government -- the power cuts, fuel shortages, and economic crises. They were even embarrassed by the president's recurrent international faux pas, from crotch-scratching to his blundering English.

Egypt is a country in revolutionary transition. On June 30, millions of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets across the country and made their voices heard: Enough of Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, they said. But leading up to these massive protests, the response of the Brotherhood and Morsy was clear: Opposition would only bring blood, terrorism, and annihilation. "We will cut off the invisible fingers that work to hinder good relations," Morsy said, threatening those attempting to undermine his presidency prior to the June 30 protests.

The head of state rhetorically gave citizens the finger.

The hate that Brotherhood leaders have expressed for their fellow citizens has been heart-wrenching. The Brotherhood incited violence against female protesters, while the movement's supporters labeled non-Islamists as "alcohol-consuming pigs, whores, and infidels" -- just to name a few choice epithets.

The effect of this hate speech perhaps finds its best reflection in the response to Morsy's ouster. The first thing that the former president's supporters did in the city of Luxor was to attack Christian homes -- before they headed off to attack a church. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, the country's second-largest city, Morsy supporters threw young men off rooftops. Were these orchestrated party directives? Or simply the fruits of their indoctrination?

National reconciliation never seemed as remote or unattainable as it does today. But I, for one, do not want to have to look into the eyes of another parent who has lost his or her child. I do not want to see the scars of police brutality on another body. Enough of the shattered minds, bodies, and souls.

The Muslim Brotherhood knows only violence in response to its opponents. But our new Egypt must not succumb. The heroes of this hour are not the Egyptian Army or the security forces. The heroes are the Egyptian people, who are just now discovering for themselves a new road to the future. As we do so, we must never forget that the principles for which we overthrew our dictator -- human rights and due process for all.

Ed Giles/Getty Images

Dispatch

Cairo's Forever War

The day after a massacre, Egypt's Islamists settle in for a long fight.

CAIRO — As Egypt enters a tense, hot Ramadan, supporters of overthrown President Mohamed Morsy have settled in for a long fight.

By the tens of thousands, if not more, they packed the square and streets around Cairo's Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque on Tuesday night, the eve of the holy month, praying, celebrating, and listening to a recording of the man they still consider their country's leader. They vowed not to leave until he is reinstated.

"We're not just the Muslim Brotherhood, all the Egyptians are here in the streets with us," said Tantawi Mohamed, a general surgeon who arrived at the sit-in on Saturday from his home governorate of Minya, some four hours to the south. "I work in a private hospital. My people, my wife, I left them all in Minya and came here and I'll stand here until Doctor Morsy returns to us."

The Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in has waxed and waned since it began more than a week ago in response to the millions of protesters who turned out to demand Morsy leave. But on Tuesday -- even after a bloody army rampage left at least 51 of Morsy's supporters dead the previous morning -- the demonstration grew huge and festive, taking on the atmosphere of an Islamist Tahrir Square.

Amateur guards in hard hats apologized for pat-downs at the chest-high, ad-hoc brick barricades blocking the road toward the mosque. Behind them, a swarm of vendors sold popcorn, pears, koshari, vegetables, and juice, in addition to Egyptian flags, religious trinkets, black banners bearing the Islamic testament of faith, and a seemingly endless number of Morsy posters.

A crowd surrounded a group of men who danced in a circle, singing "Egypt is Islamic, Egypt is Islamic."

When lines of Morsy's supporters bowed in prayer, they packed the roads that branched away from the mosque for more than a hundred yards in several directions. Thin lines of protesters squeezed among their ranks to get in and out, many of them families with women and children. It was a crowd notably more conservative than the counterpart that ousted their president, but not without diversity in both class and dress.

"There must be 100,000 people here," said a young man attempting to enter, his hands on the back of the man in front of him.

"No man, there's two or three million," said an older man confidently, on his way out.

Many of those at the sit-in seemed to be in a constant state of worship. During a pause in one of the main prayers, they listened as a familiar voice, hard to hear at first, came over the battered loudspeakers hanging from intermittent lamp posts. Men called for silence.

It was the voice of Morsy from a year ago, delivering a speech marking the beginning of Ramadan, when he was president.

"He's still president," said Tarek Osman, a 43-year-old textile engineer standing beneath a tent next to a flat-bed truck loaded with tomatoes and cucumbers.

He said that he had once trusted Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who had been elevated by Morsy shortly after he took office -- and helped orchestrate the popular coup that ended his presidency. Sisi had once been perceived as close to Morsy, the two less than friendly but far more at ease than one might expect of a general and a long-repressed Muslim Brother. Sisi's personal religious devotion reportedly contributed to this perception.

But to the tens of thousands packing the Rabaa el-Adaweya sit-in, which wraps around a large defense ministry compound, Sisi is now the enemy, a traitor. "The price of treason is blood," according to graffiti that has been scrawled beneath military guard towers across the walls of the compound. Then came the soldiers and riot police, who killed 51 Morsy supporters and wounded at least 300 more in a Monday pre-dawn attack on an extension of the sit-in at the Republican Guards Club.

"Sisi killed the people praying beside the Republican Guards but he left protesters in front of the federal palace [on June 30]," Osman said, pointing to the massive anti-Morsy demonstrations that eventually led Sisi to step in, detain Morsy, and end his government. "Why this imbalance?"

Osman echoed a belief held by many of Morsy's supporters that those who opposed them did so not out of legitimate desire to change a failing government, but because they had been manipulated or fired by vengeance.

"Sisi told us that when the people made a revolution on the 30th of June, he obeyed the revolution. But that's not a revolution, because everyone in Tahrir or the federal palace was firstly sons of army members, and Christians, and the followers of Mubarak, the thieves, the thugs," he said. "That's not our people, authentic people in Egypt. The authentic people are here."

Those inside the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in -- who have been energized by Brotherhood leaders to remain, peacefully, until Morsy returns -- hold Osman's view. Outside, many citizens, political elites, and privately owned media have already begun to move on. They're characterizing Morsy's supporters as "extremists," or even "terrorists." The two worldviews seem cleanly separated, the lack of overlap a dismal sign for reconciliation, even as the military-backed interim government begins to appoint ministers and lay a roadmap for elections which it says the Brotherhood can join.

Outside a fast-food restaurant, a group of protesters watched their own sit-in play out on a television screen. One man in glasses and a pressed white dress shirt stepped away to speak quietly.

A resident of the neighborhood, he didn't want to give his name. He said that the protesters who had been encamped outside the Republican Guards Club instigated the military's lethal response. Perhaps two dozen men on motorbikes and firing birdshot charged a guarded barricade in an attempt to breach the club.

He dismissed the argument, put forth by Morsy's supporters, that the popular but ultimately military-backed coup against an elected president had been a devastating crime against "legitimacy."

"Couldn't you say Mubarak had legitimacy," he asked. "If 30 million people come down to the streets, what does that mean ... If they want to elect one of their men again, OK, they can do it in two months or six months."

But compromise is not on the agenda of the Rabaa el-Adaweya protesters, nor of the Brotherhood's leaders -- at least not publicly.

As a long march of Morsy supporters symbolically carrying their own funeral shrouds and bearing mock coffins symbolizing the 51 people who died on Monday morning entered the sit-in, five men held up a banner with images of two dead protesters and the words: "Our peacefulness met with bullets."

Aisha Ibrahim, a bespectacled housewife wearing a niqab and a green headband reading "yes to legitimacy," watched the coffins come in.

"It was dirty work. The army had to shoot us while we were praying," she said, her voice hoarse. "I'm not afraid of anyone, our lord is here."

Ibrahim complained that private media channels -- which now display banners reading "against terrorism" and "the people's word against extremism" -- were lying about the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in. Video provided by the military and aired by some in the wake of the Republican Guards shooting showed, among images of Morsy supporters firing homemade handguns, bottles of whiskey supposedly recovered from their tents.

"All those corrupt channels, like CBC, I don't want to say names, they said we had weapons and bottles of wine.... On the contrary, when you go into the middle of the people, it's a place of good manners, a place of respectability, a place of morals," she said.

Negotiating with the military after the "massacre" was impossible, she said.

"After what happened? Never, never. What should happen is that Doctor Morsy returns," Ibrahim said. "They tell you that we're the minority. Do you see all that? That's a minority. When you leave and go write, tell them we're not a minority."

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Image