Death Spiral

In trying to save Egypt, the military and the Brotherhood may end up destroying it.

CAIRO — Abdel Hamid Madi lies in a bed in the al-Tamin al-Sahy Hospital, close to the Islamist sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque, where thousands of Egyptians have staged a month-long protest against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsy.

Madi's voice is hoarse. He had joined Morsy supporters marching along Nasr Street, just outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in early Saturday morning when police, accompanied by 300 men in regular clothing and flanked by 20 armored vehicles, fired tear gas and then shot at the protesters in a battle that lasted from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. The assault would cost at least 80 Muslim Brothers their lives -- most of the dead were killed by bullet wounds to the head, throat, and chest.

Madi and others lobbed stones at their opponents, whom they feared would storm the sit-in. Meanwhile, anti-Morsy snipers fired from atop the al-Azhar University buildings flanking the street, mowing down protesters. A sniper bullet tore through Madi's right chest -- a doctor told him it punctured his right lung.   

At the hospital, a middle-aged female cousin in a black abaya and headdress sat silently among the visitors, but no one in the room even looked at her, save for her husband -- Madi's cousin -- and another Brotherhood supporter. She seemed to be wishing herself away. "We are democrats. Otherwise, I might kill her," his cousin joked in an effort to deflate the tension.

The scene seemed to be a perfect microcosm of Egypt's complicated dynamics. The abaya-clad woman had supported the pro-army rallies last Friday, while her husband and Madi protested what they saw as a military coup that overthrew Egypt's first democratically elected president. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief and defense minister, called for Friday's rallies so that the people could give him the mandate to "crush terrorism," as he put it. The call amounted to tacit orders to break up the pro-Morsy sit-ins.

Here in this hospital room, the two sides met in stony silence. Madi felt betrayed by the friends who had protested with him in Tahrir Square against Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and later during the 16 months of military rule. He rejoiced at the election of Morsy; they grew to hate the Brotherhood over the one year of Islamist rule. Madi expected they would not care he had been shot, or care about the others who had been killed. They would say the bloodshed was justified. "By siding with the military, my friends are responsible for the killing in recent weeks," Madi said.

He despaired that Egyptians are reversing all of the gains they made after shocking the world by bringing down Mubarak in 2011. After Saturday's massacre, Madi acknowledged that the Brotherhood is outnumbered, and that popular sentiment is on the side of the generals. He sees Egypt re-embracing its authoritarian past and the security state it had rejected. "Those on the side of the truth are always a minority compared to the majority who don't understand, or don't have conviction to fight for the truth," he said, in admission of his side's weakness. "This is a fact of history."  

Many Egyptians now head to Tahrir Square, once the site of rallies against security forces' brutality, to celebrate the army and police, blithely waving posters bearing Sisi's image. Supporters of Morsy's ouster argued it was not a coup, but their position is looking increasing indefensible as the ascendency of the security apparatus becomes increasingly visible. On Saturday, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced he was reviving the hated state police departments that monitored political and religious groups before Mubarak's fall. In response, the interim government's liberal and secular participants -- who themselves once railed against Mubarak's oppressive state -- were conspicuously silent.

Many of the onetime critics of Mubarak's authoritarian state also echo the security forces' hatred of the Brotherhood. "In Rabaa, they have been inciting their followers and urging their supporters to go shoot [opponents]," said Hussein Gohar, the international secretary of Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi's Egyptian Social Democratic Party.  "At the end of the day, the army and police have to step in and take control of the situation in Cairo and the governorates."

Those close to the military establishment, meanwhile, are framing what is happening in Egypt as the beginning of a decisive war against the Brotherhood. On Saturday, the military launched a new anti-terrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula dubbed "Operation Desert Storm."

The pro-military civilians in government have endorsed the linkage between the terrorism in Sinai and the Islamist protests in major cities. "There was no violence in Sinai for a year, then Morsy leaves office and the violence increases," said Khaled Daoud, a member of Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei's party and spokesman for the broader anti-Brotherhood bloc, the National Salvation Front. "They are abusing and exploiting their supporters."

The high-pitched rhetoric has led both sides to fear for the worst. Ayman Salama, a retired brigadier general and professor of international affairs at Cairo University, says the state could engage in a prolonged conflict against the Islamists. "I don't exempt civil war. It is foreseeable," he said.

Many educated Egyptians indicate they are ready for tough actions against the Brotherhood, and have no qualms about sacrificing freedom for stability. If some of them supported the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak, their experience with Islamist governance has led them to trust the army more than the ballot box.

"People need electricity, gas, water, security, and education above all. After this we can talk about democracy," said Ayman Galy, a Ph.D. student in migration studies at Cairo American University.  He referred to the Brotherhood as "the mother of all criminal and terrorist groups."

But after having their first taste of power, rank-and-file Brotherhood members cannot abide the idea they can once again be relegated to the shadows. "For the first time in my life, I was part of something that mattered," explained Munir Shinawi, a 49-year-old agricultural engineer, resting in a tent in the Rabaa sit-in after Saturday's massacre.

The showdown between the new military-guided state and the Brotherhood is yet another challenge for civil society activists who spearheaded the 2011 revolt against Mubarak, and who have held on tightly to their political independence. Many are convinced that once the Brotherhood is driven underground, the military will then target liberal and secular groups that do not bow to its will. Last Friday, even as rival demonstrations massed in support of the Brotherhood and the military, about 50 activists gathered beneath a Cairo highway underpass crying, "Down with Morsy! Down with Sisi!" Bystanders thought they were crazy -- but for the activists, it was a matter of survival.

"We are confident and afraid that after the Muslim Brotherhood leaves Rabaa, Gen. Sisi will act against any popular movement," said one activist, who went by the name Khalid. "For certain, they will jail me at some point." 

Those activists aren't the only ones uneasy about both sides' willingness to pay the ultimate price. Islamists say they will stay in the streets until the last drop of their blood is shed, while the military also shows no signs of backing down. "If the army wins, it might lead us to military dictatorship or fascism," said Gamal Sultan, editor of the independent Masrayoon newspaper. "The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood will lead us to theocratic fascism."

Sultan said intermediaries have conducted talks between the military and Brotherhood, but the chances of a last-minute deal appear more remote by the day. He fears for his country if a deal is not found. "Egypt could turn into a failed state, a country that fails to control the street," he warned. "It means the absence of law, where there is chaos and clashes between the police and people and a huge cost in blood."



'What Happened Today Was a War Crime'

In the wake of the massacre at the Islamist sit-in, supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy count their dead and prepare for the next round of violence.

CAIRO — As dozens of corpses, wrapped in crisp white sheets, were carried out of the field hospital at the Islamist sit-in outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque on Saturday morning, wailing onlookers held onto each other for comfort, screaming out the victims' names. As ambulances lined up to take away the dead, blood trickled down the orange stretchers. A man bent down and stuck his finger in the crimson pool, putting it to his nose. "It smells like shaheed," he said -- martyrs.

The early Saturday morning attack, which killed at least 72 pro-Morsy protesters, seemed to mark the beginning of a new wave of violence meant to disperse the demonstrations opposing the military takeover in Egypt. But a heated who-shot-who debate has since exploded: While Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim vehemently denied the use of live fire by security forces, doctors at the field hospital said they had received a steady stream of injured and dead protesters struck down near the sit-in's brick barricade with gun shots to the head and chest.

"What happened today was a war crime," said Ahmed Fawzy, a cardiologist from the National Heart Institute who spent Saturday treating wounded protesters, many of whom he could not save. "It's catastrophic."  

As the mangled bodies were removed from the sit-in, they passed through a corridor formed by medics and volunteers holding hands. As every corpse passed, the crowd would shout Allahu Akbar, or "God is great."

While Ibrahim said the Muslim Brotherhood fabricated a crisis for "political gains," Islamists insist the Rabaa killings were part of a planned massacre. Near the start of the violence, the Egyptian military invited foreign press on helicopter tours of pro-army protests at Tahrir Square and the Presidential Palace -- a move that conveniently kept them away from Rabaa.

"Do you see human rights? "Do you see democracy?" one man screamed in the mosque turned makeshift hospital filled with unconscious and wounded protesters. "Sisi is a killer! Down with military rule!"

At the Rabaa field hospital, medics displayed handfuls of bullet casings -- evidence, they said, that the security forces opened fire on protesters with live ammunition, though the interior minister denies these claims. The casings bore the Egyptian initials standing for the "Arab Republic of Egypt," which the medics say are written on all military bullets. FP could not independently verify the origin of the bullet casings.

But it wasn't just Cairo that witnessed bloodshed this weekend. In the city of Port Said, one person died and 29 were injured following clashes between pro- and anti-Morsy groups. Once again, Egypt's rival political forces were bitterly divided over what happened: Some witnesses say that attendees at a funeral for a Morsy supporter opened fire at a nearby church and set fire to a police vehicle, while Muslim Brotherhood members stated that the funeral was attacked by thugs.

There is so far no sign that the persistent violence in Egypt will die down. A Human Rights Watch report released Sunday condemned the previous day's bloodshed, saying that the attack "suggests a shocking willingness by the police and by certain politicians to ratchet up violence against pro-Morsy protesters." Following the Rabaa killings, Interim President Adly Mansour delegated to Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi the authority to grant the military permission to arrest civilians.

Meanwhile, Morsy's whereabouts are still unknown. The interior minister said in a press conference on Saturday that he would likely be sent to Tora Prison on the outskirts of Cairo, where another deposed Egyptian leader -- Hosni Mubarak -- is also being held.

The crackdown has also frayed the alliance between the military and some anti-Morsy civilian groups. Tamarod ("rebellion"), the protest movement that spearheaded the June 30 protests against Morsy, criticized the Interior Ministry's decision to reinstate departments to monitor political and religious activities that were shut down following the 2011 revolution. The group expressed grave concern over the possible return to a Mubarak-era state security apparatus.

"Our campaign supports the state's plans in fighting terrorism," Tamarod spokesman Mahmoud Badr said in a statement to the press. "However, we have earlier stressed that this support doesn't include the taking of extraordinary measures, or the contradiction of freedoms and human rights."

The April 6 Youth Movement, one of the activist groups that helped spark the 2011 revolution, has demanded that the interior minister resign following the killings at Rabaa, although the group also added that the Muslim Brotherhood routinely incites violence.

But with every corpse sent to the morgue, Rabaa and the Islamist protesters there have grown more defiant. A short walk from the sit-in, groups of men built a brick barricade higher than the night before. In the baking sun, they handed dusty bricks down an assembly line and recited Quranic verses. Instead of heeding the military's call to disperse, they are organizing medical equipment, rallying volunteers, and fortifying their perimeter.

Hassan, who used to work in Egypt's vast government bureaucracy, said that nothing will force him from Rabaa until he gets his vote -- and his president -- back.

"Soon, the military will come back," Hassan said, washing the dirt from his hands and staring down the road. "We are ready for anything."

Ed Giles/Getty Images