Four months in Cairo
It is strange to watch a coup d’état unfold before your very eyes. The phrase conjures up images of countless historical upheavals, from Cuba to Czechoslovakia to Guinea-Bissau: transformational events with their backdrop of grinding tanks and toppled statues, burning palaces and swaggering generals. Castro and his olive green fatigues; gunshots, mayhem, chanting crowds taking to the streets. Yet in Cairo in summer 2013, as the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled by the country’s military generals, it was the silence that was most striking.
Back on 3rd July, after hearing reports of troop movements across the capital, I leapt into a taxi and hurried towards Cairo University, the scene of a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in which had taken root following the eruption of rallies against then-president Mohamed Morsi days earlier. Crossing the main bridge over the Nile, I found dozens of soldiers forming a human barrier. Several army trucks filled with troops were parked bumper to bumper along one side of the bridge; further along, closer to the sit-in, were dozens more soldiers blocking the roads. There were no clashes, no Islamists being dragged kicking and screaming into the armoured personnel carriers – just an extraordinarily eerie calm. And yet this was Egypt’s coup d’etat; an elected president had been toppled and the generals had quietly slotted their boots back into the stirrups of the state.
For a while everything ran smoothly. There was jubilation on the streets of Cairo when news of the putsch emerged. Popular discontent with Islamist rule was high and millions of Egyptians were fully supportive of the generals’ actions. Many of them had rallied in the days before the coup and called for Mr Morsi’s resignation. Egypt’s commander in chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – the man now in de facto control of the country – made a televised statement. Announcing the suspension of the constitution, he said the army did not want to intervene in politics and that it would “never turn a blind eye to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
As if to emphasise that all was well, he appeared alongside Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei and the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic institution. But all was not well. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies were still key players on the political scene – ghosts at the revolutionary feast. Mohamed Morsi was the country’s first democratically elected president. His supporters would need to be dealt with.
When el-Sisi, dressed in full uniform and wearing wraparound shades, appeared at a rally on 24th July and issued an extraordinary call for Egyptians to stage nationwide demonstrations to support a crackdown on “terrorism and violence”, it appeared that the Brotherhood’s days might be numbered.
On 14th August the crackdown shifted into top gear. Security forces were dispatched to the two major pro-Morsi demonstrations which had developed on opposite sides of the capital. The encampment outside Cairo University was cleared with relative ease, but at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque things were not so simple. Over the course of several hours, police marksmen supported by troops unleashed a previously unseen level of brute force in which several hundred Islamist protesters lost their lives.
Many months down the line, my notebook retains the power to resurrect a succession of grim snapshots from that day. The rows of bodies which grew longer and longer by the hour; the doctors tending to shocking head wounds, the young girl in pink trousers tottering between the heads of corpses in the mosque. Human Rights Watch described 14th August as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” Yet the horror of that day has been assiduously whitewashed by the generals, and many opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood have found ways to justify what took place as an unpleasant but necessary intervention by the state.
“There has been an attempt, which unfortunately has been successful, to silence any opposing viewpoints,” says Mohamad el-Masry, a professor of journalism at the American University of Cairo. This attempt to silence the opposition began immediately after the toppling of Morsi. After whisking the president away into detention, the security services apprehended all the members of his inner team and drew up a list of hundreds of other leading Islamists to be rounded up and detained. All of the main Islamist television channels were swiftly closed down, silencing the most strident opposition voices.
“Police unleashed a previously unseen level of brute force in which several hundred Islamist protesters lost their lives”
Government-run newspapers were predictably gung-ho in their calls to deal with the Brotherhood, but privately-owned publications became equally on-message. Clashes with the police, which a year before might have been portrayed as political activism, were instead described in the newspapers as “Brotherhood terrorism”. Jingoistic little tags began appearing on the screens of the private television stations with slogans such as “War on Terrorism”, to convince the masses they were involved in a Manichean battle against evil.
Living in Egypt, one can sometimes be hard pressed to find any acknowledgement – certainly on an official level – that an atrocity took place on 14th August. Part of the explanation lies with the behaviour of Islamist leaders. Following the toppling of Morsi, many issued blood-curdling speeches vowing revenge against liberals, Christians and anyone else they deemed responsible. Fundamentalists who attacked churches in central Egypt following the massacre served only to exacerbate the suspicions of anti-Islamists – as did the residual memory of the Brotherhood’s militant past. “The Muslim Brotherhood has been a terrorist organisation since they were founded,” says Mohamed Osman, a man who worked on the presidential campaign of Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa. “The majority of people in Egypt believe that what el-Sisi did was a must.”
Controlling the narrative
Following the coup d’état, the country began to experience a genuinely destabilising threat from Islamist insurgents. In September, a suicide bomber attempted to kill the interior minister, while the following month a massive explosion ripped through the security headquarters in the South Sinai town of al-Tour. There is no evidence that the Brotherhood has had any direct link with these attacks, yet a belief remains that such a link exists.
“Why have these things started happening since Morsi was toppled?” asks Ahmed Said, the head of the Free Egyptians party. He claims that there is “no other explanation” apart from to conclude that the Brotherhood were somehow involved.
According to Professor el-Masry, much of the blame for the sharply polarised discourse lies with pro-military propaganda in the media. “It’s a military lovefest and the news is almost completely one-sided,” he says, adding that he knows of Egyptian journalists working for major papers who have been directly instructed to ignore the Islamist perspective.
In October a video was leaked online which appeared to show a group of high-ranking officers – including el-Sisi himself – talking before the coup about how they could reintroduce the so-called ‘red lines’ which have long prevented Egyptian journalists from discussing sensitive military matters. The red lines had faded somewhat following the fall of Mubarak, but the officers wanted them back. Describing media coverage disrespectful of the military as “dangerous”, they decided that the big media owners needed to be pressured into a position of self-censorship.
The generals’ tactics have been devastatingly effective, according to Gamal Eid, executive director of the Egyptian Network of Human Rights Information. “Any decision the current government makes is supported by the people immediately in order to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he tells me. “They are using the Brotherhood as a pretext to pass any law they want.” However Naomi Sakr, a British professor and author who has written a book on Egyptian journalism, argues that it was “not so much a question of government propaganda”, but rather one of media control. “Many of the paper and TV owners are anti-Brotherhood, and it is in their interest to go along with the government,” she said.
The definition of Egypt’s predicament in such starkly divisive terms has taken its toll. Bassem Youssef, the wildly popular television satirist, was taken off air on 1st November after his bosses decided he had overstepped the mark with his anti-establishment jabs. Egypt’s kung-fu champion, Mohamed Youssef, was sent home from a tournament in Russia for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the yellow ‘Rabaa’ sign, a four-fingered salute to honour those killed in the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque massacre. Al-Ahly’s star striker Ahmed Abdel-Zaher was suspended from playing football for the same crime.
And then came a truly egregious case of doublethink, with the erection of a Tahrir Square memorial built by the government whose security services had killed the very people being honoured. It was unveiled on 18th November, the anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street riots, when more than 40 activists were killed in fighting with police and leaked videos showed security forces throwing dead bodies on piles of rubbish.
This attempt to establish symbolic control, to set the military’s version of events in stone, was not a success. The memorial was defaced and destroyed by secularist protesters within 24 hours of being put in place, a sign that not everybody is willing to sign up to the military’s agenda. But given the lack of high profile opposition figures challenging the government’s narrative, it remains unclear how much of a hearing their voices will ever get.
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