Dispatch

Things Fall Apart

As the body count rises in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood insists it will stick to non-violent resistance. But even its members admit that they can't convince everyone to go along with the plan.

CAIRO — Farag, a midlevel Muslim Brotherhood member, swears he'll do whatever it takes to bring his freedom back. He braved bullets and tear gas in the raging streets of Egypt's capital on Aug. 14, after all, as security forces annihilated Cairo's Islamist sit-ins, resulting in at least 638 deaths. But he has no illusions about how this will end.

"Did you see the movie Schindler's List? Yesterday was exactly the same," he said by phone as he drove his car through a deserted Cairo on the night of Thursday, Aug. 15, taking delight in his subtle defiance of the military curfew in the capital. He had been caught in the center of the pro-Morsy protest outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque when the crackdown began, as bullets whistled by him, inches from his head, and people dropped around him. "It was a new holocaust -- they were burning corpses in the street."

Even several weeks before bloodshed became Egypt's daily reality, Farag had already imagined the killings and screaming men and women. He knew the Brotherhood was ready to march defiantly against the security forces -- and that the police and Egyptian Army would be only too happy to greet the protesters with bullets.

Farag knew something else too. He confessed that the Brotherhood's star was waning and radical Islamists were on the rise. "The security thinks if they kill one person, three people will be afraid. But what happens is they create 10 more who are ready to die and others who want to take revenge," he said and then paused. "When we become armed, it will be a civil war."

Farag said that the option of turning to violence "is not a choice for the Brotherhood. It is not up for discussion even behind closed doors." He worried, however, about individuals outside the Islamist movement's chain of command -- the brother or father who turned to terrorism after his son was killed. Once the Islamist community picked up weapons, he said, it would be too late to save Egypt.

Friday's events are validating Farag's worst fears. The Brotherhood-led coalition against the new government called for protests it dubbed a "Day of Anger," triggering clashes between the security forces and protesters. The violence, which claimed the lives of at least 80 people, looks likely to fuel the confrontation between Islamists and the police and Army. The Muslim Brotherhood already called for a week of daily protests, which it vowed to continue "until the coup ends."

As sand-colored armored personnel carriers with mounted machine guns blocked the entrances to Tahrir Square on Friday, thousands of demonstrators converged on the nearby Ramses Square. Youths soon marched from the square to the nearby Azbekiyah police station, forming tense clusters around the building as one young Egyptian banged on a drum to summon more people to the front. It is unclear who initiated the ensuing clash, but the results were all too familiar: As gunshots rang out, bloodied bodies were carried back from the front lines to al-Fateh mosque, by Ramses Square.

Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American spokesman for the coalition opposing the military, knows the potential costs of this resistance. While on the main stage of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in while it was being dispersed on Wednesday, he said, he bent down to adjust his phone charger -- and felt a rush of wind as a sniper shot barely missed his head. The sniper didn't miss a second time, though: Immediately after, a bullet hit his arm.

"They're shooting at anyone who is taking pictures," Soltan said about Friday's violence. "The police have started another massacre.… If it started this early on, I wonder what they will do after the curfew. This is the military regime trying to force their rule down Egyptians' throats."

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said it was confronting "armed men" at Azbekiyah and also at other locations throughout Cairo. Sky News Arabia aired footage purporting to show armed men patrolling Cairo's May 15 Bridge. The security forces eventually opened fire in the area, causing some protesters to jump off the bridge to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Soltan said that the coalition would continue to advocate nonviolence, but made no promises that he could prevent all anti-military protesters from taking up arms. "In revolutions, you do your best to control the protesters, but there are always outliers," he said. "There were snipers all around us in Rabaa al-Adaweya, on top of the buildings. If we wanted to, we could have ransacked those buildings, but we didn't touch them."

There have already been several instances of Islamist violence throughout the country. Mobs have burned churches across Upper Egypt and stormed a government building in Giza, setting it ablaze. A Facebook page belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood's political party justified the attacks on the churches by saying that the Coptic pope "is involved in the removal of the first Islamist president" and was "the first to respond to [army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi's call to authorize the killing of Muslims."

Whatever happened on Friday, Soltan pledged, the groups opposed to the new government would continue to take to the streets. "The blood of over 4,500 martyrs will not go in vain," he said. "Even if you disperse today's protests, we will keep coming back tomorrow, and the day after.… The Ministry of Interior is the military's professional thugs; once they have been defeated, the military will have no choice but to back down."

For Farag, the Muslim Brotherhood has already become a bystander in Egypt's crisis. On Aug. 14, he said, crowds ignored the group as it urged people to go home. "It was out of our control," he said. "People were angry for blood after security burned our mosques and insulted our religious institutions."

Farag's attempts to find a middle path through the crisis seem increasingly out of place in today's more violent Egypt. His words had been a jumble of contradictions in the weeks before the recent bloodshed: He swore the Brotherhood was peaceful, but vowed they would die marching before the Army's and police's guns. He explained this was not provocative -- it was a matter of basic rights. He deplored the Islamists' turn to extremism, but believed that the Egyptian security forces' violence and the West's failure to take a firm stand against the coup had pushed the Brotherhood in this direction.

"In the long term, the international community is giving birth to people with no hope who will take revenge," he said. "The West is creating a generation of terrorists."

Even as the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya was crushed, he said, he saw his former comrades become radicalized. These were people he had known and debated with about the need to push for gradual change through democratic institutions -- now they smiled cruelly at him, and he looked down at his shoes. Nothing was clear to him anymore.

"I am not the person you met before. I am angry. I am caught in a chaotic way," he explained, as he drove through the Cairo night. "I won't pick up arms, but I cannot blame the people who do."

Photo: VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Sightseeing in Yemen's Droneland

For an infamous danger zone, Marib province is beautiful, ancient, and, at times, remarkably peaceful.

MARIB, YEMEN — The invitation came early in the morning. A friend texted, asking whether I'd like to travel with him to Marib province, in Yemen's rugged interior. I said yes, but with two conditions. First, we'd have to see the Arsh Bilqis, a millennia-old ruined temple whose five pillars are one of Yemen's most ubiquitous national symbols. Second, he'd have to guarantee my safety. Marib's reputation for instability -- not least of all due to its long-standing al Qaeda presence -- makes it a place one can't travel to lightly. In recent days, a series of U.S. drone strikes has pounded the region.

He answered both in the affirmative, so I packed my bags and hopped in a car with my friend and one of his co-workers a few hours later.

As we wound through mountain after mountain, it was the twists and turns of the roads -- rather than any security concerns -- that left me nervous nearly to the point of shaking. But despite my long-standing fear that I'm destined to die young in a tragic Yemeni car accident, we nevertheless made it safely to the provincial capital in decent time. Upon first impression, the monotony of its sweltering gray streets cast it more as an economically depressed town in the middle of nowhere than a place on the front lines of the battle against al Qaeda. At least in their initial stages, the bulk of the conversations I had with people there reinforced that notion.

Yemenis often talk about Marib the way Westerners talk about Yemen itself -- peppering discussions of the place with stereotypes of backward tribesmen and complaints about lawlessness and irresolvable disorder. Although Marib is the source of much of the country's oil and gas wealth, few of its residents have access to regular water and electricity, let alone decent health care or schooling.

It was Marib's more pedestrian challenges that seemed to be at the forefront of locals' minds: the rampant unemployment, the lack of development, the absence of government services, the "theft" of the province's natural resources, and the resentment all these things have fueled. The locals wanted to make sure I was aware that al Qaeda wasn't the only thing making their lives difficult.

"Even our own government may act like we're a bunch of backwards extremists, but look for yourself.… Don't you think we just want to live in peace?" a young Maribi studying at Sanaa University's satellite campus in the provincial capital mused to nods from the others in the room.

I nodded, mumbling something about how that's all anyone anywhere truly wants.

"We want to live with dignity, free from fear," another continued, "whether from the fighters of al Qaeda or from the American planes that terrorize everyone whenever they appear."

Nearly every time the subject came to al Qaeda during my time in Marib, the American drone program came up along with it. It's not as if people there seemed to have any sympathy for the group; condemnations of al Qaeda were generally treated as statements of the obvious. But the psychological effects of previous strikes were palpable, the lingering fear they've sown clear solely through the tone of a person's voice.

"You just don't know when another one will come," a teenager who witnessed a strike told me, the cracks in his voice doing more to convey his point than anything he could ever say. "Civilians have been killed and injured. Each time we hear the sound of a plane, we immediately worry it will happen again."

"Do Americans know this?" he said, straining his words as he seemed to hold back tears. "Does your government?"

I'd hate to imply that such heavy moments characterized the bulk of my conversations in Marib. For the most part, they were remarkably informal and, at times, uplifting: a gesture to shared humanity.

But even during my visit to the ruins of the Arsh Bilqis, the shadows of U.S. drones seemed nearly inescapable. 

My friend's local partner, the head of the Marib-based NGO that was hosting his meetings, jumped at the opportunity to make the visit happen, driving us out in his Land Cruiser and maintaining a continuous narration of the area's history, both ancient and modern. Seeing the surprisingly peaceful greenery of the Wadi Abida, often dubbed an infamous "al Qaeda hotbed," was an education in itself.

"What's it like driving through Marib with an American?" I asked our host at one point, expecting him to agree that the whole thing felt a bit unreal.

"It's weird," he said with a pause prior to heading in a different direction. "Your planes bomb my country, and you're sitting in the back of my car even though … you're my enemy."

Uttered without even a hint of hostility, his words still left me numb. It had nothing to do with any fears for my safety -- if anything, it seemed like the guy would take a bullet for me, if necessary. That didn't change the fact, however, that he still irrevocably associated me with the missiles my country's military has launched at targets in the vicinity of his home. It wasn't always this way, he noted, reminiscing about when he used to work with a tourist company "before drones or al Qaeda."

Either way, my instincts immediately told me nervous laughter was the only acceptable response, freeing me up to silently speculate about the long-run effects of fallout from the so-called "war on terror."

By the time we made it to the Arsh a little later, the mood had again lightened, and after giving the five columns and the surrounding ruins their necessary attention, the four of us did the inevitable and scoped out a decent spot to take ridiculous pictures of each other in the hopes that at least a few would be decent enough to post on Facebook. I had more interviews to do and my friend had a pressing meeting, so we were only able to spend about a half-hour there. But still, as we drove off, I saw fit to declare an early mission accomplished. Obviously, I'd file a few stories, but as I flipped through my iPhone, the photos of me standing in front of Yemen's most famous ancient monument with one of my closest friends seemed like enough to deem the trip a success. From this point forward, whenever I thought of Marib, I figured, I'd think of the Arsh and these photos, gesturing on some small level to some better world where Marib is simply a decent place for a road trip rather than an al Qaeda hideout.

When I got word of a drone strike in Marib a few weeks later on Aug. 6, however, those memories of jokingly flashing peace signs in front of ancient ruins suddenly felt rather incongruous. I thought back to my friend's comment that the only time he was truly worried during the trip was when we stopped so I could use the bathroom in the middle of the desert on our way back to Sanaa. Noting that we were in a car full of young men parked on the side of a highway shortly after dusk, he said he couldn't shake fears that we might get droned. At the time, there hadn't been a strike in the province in months; it was hard not to see the scenario he imagined less as a legitimate fear and more as a piece of black comedy -- an American journalist making it safely in and out of a particularly unstable part of an unstable country, only to have his own government accidentally kill him as he's taking a piss on the side of the road. As I wondered whether I'd passed by the site of the latest strike during my trip to Marib, however, his fears didn't seem as irrational. It was the fourth in a series of drone strikes tied to a raised terrorism alert stemming from intercepted communications between high-ranking al Qaeda officials. The threat shuttered embassies across the region, prompting British and American diplomats to evacuate Sanaa, while spurring the United States to carry out 10 attacks on al Qaeda targets -- two of which occurred in Marib -- in roughly two weeks.

I went to Marib to experience its history. I came away with a more nuanced take on a part of Yemen that even Yemenis tend to stereotype. Yet I still can't help associating Marib with drones and al Qaeda terrorists. Far more unsettling, however, is that when people in Marib think of terrorism, they also think of drones. And being an American means that when they're thinking about drones, they're ultimately thinking of me.

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images