North Africa, West Asia

Egypt’s bloody coup d’etat

Egyptians must brace themselves for more violence: the proponents of severely curtailed liberties in the name of national security and the advocates of illegal retribution are back with a vengeance.  

Ahmed Safwat
30 October 2013

On National Police Day in 2011—which falls each year on January 25, Egyptians revolted against the scourge of state violence and police brutality. Eighteen consecutive days of mass nationwide protests, during which millions flocked to the streets, culminated in Hosni Mubarak's fall. Although the faltering economy and diminishing influence in the ever-volatile Middle East and Africa may have partly fueled the anti-regime sentiment, overcoming oppression was the chief cause for public outrage.

Ask any well-informed historian, politician, or indeed human rights activist, and they will tell you that the first free national election held in Egypt since the overthrow of the monarchy was the parliamentary election in November 2011. Islamic-leaning blocs -comprising the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party as the largest constituent element - formed in the wake of the Revolution and emerged as clear winners in the first free lower and upper house elections, collectively securing more than 65 and 73% of the popular vote, respectively. In June of last year, Mohammad Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party became the first freely elected president in the country's history, after diverse independent-minded voters, staunch supporters, fellow Islamists, and some former political rivals closed ranks behind his candidacy. Islamists also came out on top with very comfortable margins in the second constitutional referendum held in post-revolution Egypt. Almost two-thirds of the valid votes cast in the constitutional referendum held last December approved the constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly and endorsed by Islamic-aligned parties and some independents.    

Opposition groups neither managed to propose solid programs to address the challenges, both historic and contemporary, facing the country at large, nor did they reach out to vulnerable and underserved voters by means of firm solutions to alleviate severe hardships and extreme suffering. The opposition's reaction to coming up short five consecutive times ranged from denial about being a minority who ran uninteresting, at times even frivolous or substance-free, campaigns that failed to earn the public trust to arrogantly accusing the underprivileged segments of the population and specific social groups characterized by a high degree of common values within the electorate, of ignorance.  Their discourse has shown signs of little regard for public well-being.  

By contrast, Islamic parties conveyed economic and political rhetoric in terms readily apprehensible to masses of illiterate, semiliterate, and educated persons alike, all the while relevant to individuals and groups on a bare-subsistence plane of living. They also appeased a Muslim-majority population yearning ardently for recovering the lost glory of their ancestors and Arab nationalists longing for regional supremacy. For instance, campaign promises were made to reinvigorate Egyptian foreign policy in order to restore its influence in the Muslim world, the Middle East and the African sphere, purposefully emphasizing the importance of strengthening existing ties between Egypt and the rest of the world.

History, not pundits and ideologues, will decide whether campaign pledges were redeemed or breached. However, developing practical solutions to real-life problems is easier said than done. Elected representatives have been in dire need of overcoming their own strikingly poor performance. Lacking a comprehensive nation-building strategy as an antidote to mediocrity, petty political skirmishes and partisan feuds have encroached upon peoples' aspirations, leaving little room for the long list of more pressing issues facing the Average Joe.  

The opposition - whose mainstays are self-proclaimed secularists, liberals, leftists, and socialists - seem to have arrived at the realization that future free elections would also favor Islamists unless reform and modernization attempts were stalled on all fronts. The revival and mutation of old collusions as a springboard to seize power came to fruition as fledgling alliances were forged between ex-regime loyalists, largely incompetent opposition factions, and businessmen who thrived during Mubarak's rule, along with their protégés, all unwaveringly committed to derailing both elected institutions and representatives at all costs.  

Though some criticisms were indeed merited, newspaper article upon newspaper article and innumerable television broadcasts indulged in smear campaigns devoted to tarnishing the reputation of Islamists. Hate-filled propaganda and vehement attacks on Morsi - not sparing his personal demeanor, cultural traits, and private life - were incessant. Everything about him - from his hand gestures and modest demeanor to his Arabic vocabulary and cultural references - was methodically ridiculed.  

Spurring intense irritation at Morsi's mismanagement and resentment toward the Muslim Brotherhood, media outlets owned by Mubarak business tycoons spread rumors alleging that the Egyptian administration would facilitate selling the Suez Canal and the Giza Pyramids to Qatar, that Egypt would cede control of Halayeb and Shalateen to Sudan, and that the Muslim Brotherhood had struck a deal to sell 40% of the Sinai Peninsula to the US, which would, in turn, allow Hamas to annex the relinquished territory. Such ludicrous fabrications were firmly refuted by Morsi's staff, but the Opposition's rumor mill has never stopped grinding. After all, being a trustworthy politician is, in essence, a social endeavor and psychological studies draw a strong correlation between social exclusion or rejection, on the one hand, and aggressive behavior, on the other hand.   

The opposition undermined legislative proposals to fight rampant corruption, create an open and transparent government, and cut wasteful spending. Initiatives targeting social equity and concerted efforts to boost the dwindling economy encountered an equally contentious fate, leading some to blame the government for all Egypt’s economic woes. The opposition resorted to retrogressive methods to impede socio-economic progress and thwarted plans to garner national consensus on a wide range of issues.  Abuse of authority, dishonorable conduct, and criminal violations have been commonplace police practices in modern-day Egypt (and many would rightfully contend that they have always been present). Police atrocities against civilians were rising exponentially before the revolution and have been well-documented by various stakeholders. Sadly, inflicting torment and duress to intimidate, humiliate, or extract forced confessions from suspects and prisoners during interrogations is not an isolated aberration; rather palpably, it is a standard, institutional practice and a by-product of a corrupt, dysfunctional police culture whose cornerstones are a complete lack of accountability and a ruthlessly enforced code of silence. Founded in 1913 and replaced in March 2011 by the Homeland Security Service, the State Security Investigations Service is single-handedly responsible for the murder, torture, rape, disfigurement, and disappearance of thousands of individuals, many of whom are believed to be Islamists. Police reform proposals were nonetheless shunned by the opposition, citing concern over Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the police.  

Judicial reform aimed at fending off critics over recurring travesties of justice was also met with antagonism. Even though some assassinations were caught on camera, teams of notorious police snipers who shot to death, blinded, and caused permanent incapacitation to protesters have not been brought to justice. Among the most grotesque verdicts were the acquittals of all police defendants tried for killing hundreds of protesters nationwide during the revolution. Similarly bizarre verdicts included the May 8 appeals court decision to uphold the acquittal of all 24 of Mubarak stalwarts accused of instigating, and afterwards unleashing, outlaws wielding whips and sticks whilst mounted on camels and horses to charge into Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011 with the army standing suspiciously right by—a battle scene reminiscent of medieval times, killing several demonstrators and injuring hundreds amidst confusion and chaos. Further, reform intended to instill judicial independence through safeguarding and implementing the trias politica, or separation of powers, principle proclaimed in the Constitution. Forces adamant about keeping the judiciary beyond the purview of public scrutiny fiercely fought the proposed bill.  

Driven by a weakening currency and inept management of the impending economic crisis, the last few months of Morsi's reign were marred by surges in the prices of principal food staples and raw materials. Frustration levels rose amid frequent gasoline and diesel shortages as well as protracted power outages, sometimes twice or thrice daily. It certainly did not help that some presidential decrees have been bent on untangling Egypt's complex web of corruption but came up sadly lacking in prudence and foresight. There are reasonable grounds to believe that sabotage has been responsible for the public nuisances that not only coincided with but were also especially devised and meticulously planned to repel any and all attempts to ensure that Egyptians were given a fair chance to lead a decent life, creating an environment conducive to a coup d'état.  

It is quite simply staggering that, since Morsi was ousted, power outages due to the overloading of electricity mains and rolling blackouts have ended, fuel supplies have been in abundance after once bordering on scarcity, and crippling labor protests demanding pay rises have become a thing of the past. The so-called “Tamarod” demonstrations leading up to June 30 served to create a false veneer for imminent military intervention. Notwithstanding the dissatisfied masses voicing concern over the deteriorating state of affairs in Egypt, they harbored vicious gangs of thugs who have shamelessly and cowardly killed dozens of Egyptians, while thousands more have been wounded. The Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo and scores of affiliated offices across the country were besieged by Mubarak-era goons. Police troops turned a blind eye to the ransacking, looting, and torching that ensued.  

On July 3, the world witnessed a full-fledged counter-revolutionary, military-staged coup d'état to overturn the people's January 25 rebellion. It comes as no surprise that the coup was spearheaded by a military officer who hails from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: a close-knit group of Mubarak-era generals who bear the brunt of the blame for cementing Mubarak's 30-year, heavy-handed, authoritarian regime.  

In a show of defiance, millions of protesters have taken to the streets, thronging major urban centers and some rural areas, vowing not to back down until the elected president is reinstated. Since it is widely believed that Muslim Brotherhood members are in the few hundreds of thousands, the massive protests that have been sweeping the nation are a testament to the fact that pro-democracy citizens are not ready to roll back the clock just yet to the most-dreaded age of military totalitarianism—no matter how seemingly mundane. Immediately following the (July 3) military broadcast in which the deposition of the president was declared, several pro-Morsi satellite channels were taken off the air. Within hours of ejecting the president, key officials of the Muslim Brotherhood and hundreds of Islamists were rounded up in state prisons on concocted charges, denying all of them access to legal representation. Evidently, the new military-backed regime has recalled vicious old instruments to suppress and annihilate its de facto opponents. Egyptians beware and brace for more violence: proponents of severely curtailed liberties in the name of national security and advocates of illegal retribution are back with a vengeance.  

A portent of things to come from that time forth, thugs - aided and abetted by police - ambuscaded and killed 16 and injured at least 200 Morsi backers at the sit-in at Giza's Al Nahda Square the night before the curtain was drawn on the short-lived presidency. According to figures released by the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, 84 Morsi supporters, including 8 women and 4 children, were shot dead and more than 1,000 sustained gunshot wounds on July 8 whilst kneeling in prayer during the revered Islamic dawn ritual; they were murdered by live rounds fired by security forces stationed at the Republican Guard club and snipers positioned atop nearby military buildings. Unsurprisingly, the military has defended its actions. Ten days later, following a thorough, week-long investigation, Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian published the complete story of the massacre with eyewitness accounts and video footage corroborating the protesters' narrative of events.  Sequent sit-ins and rallies have not been exempted from the ordeal of perpetual violence that Morsi supporters have been enduring since taking the oath of office. The Nile Delta city of El Mansoura, located approximately 120 km north east of Cairo, became a battleground on the night of July 19, after armed mercenaries ambushed a pro-Morsi march; they cold-bloodedly killed 4 females, including a 15-year-old girl, and as many as 200 women and minors suffered pellet or stab wounds.  

On July 24, the army chief, hiding behind pitch-black sunglasses and taking cover under a brocaded, peaked cap, urged“honorable and honest Egyptians” to take to the streets two days later to grant him a mandate to confront what he called “terrorism.” Apart from the fact that it is not only peculiar but also unlawful to amass public assent to root out "terrorism" as a pretext to crack down on peaceful protesters, his plea is unmistakably an unprecedented call for civil unrest and a license to kill fellow countrymen without a shred of due process of law. His most recent appeal evokes agonizing memories of the hate, hooliganism, and lawlessness that have been the usual concomitants of his incendiary speeches—and this address to the nation proved no exception. On July 26, ant-Morsi groups—including embedded army and police personnel in civilian attire—converged upon Tahrir Square and the presidential palace in Cairo for the party-like atmosphere and jubilant celebrations that the generals and their accomplices had planned and executed. In the meantime, police-affiliated thugs attacked a sit-in staged in and around El Qa'ed Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria, Egypt's main seaport and second largest city. The clashes claimed 10 lives at the very least and dozens were wounded. Warding off rocks hurled by the assailants and foiling attempts to break into the mosque, the congregation conducting prayers inside and dozens of protesters outside took shelter in the mosque, which was beleaguered until the next day. 

Over 100 Morsi supporters were killed, many of whom had been shot in the head or chest, and more than 1,000 were injured at Al Manassa, in the vicinity of Rabaa Al Adawiya, a then month-long sit-in site in an eastern Cairo district, by ruffians for hire and black-clad officers using teargas grenades, buckshot shells, and live ammunition in the small hours of July 27, the eighteenth day of Ramadan, Islam's holiest and most blessed month. The death toll was declared in a televised statement issued by representatives of the makeshift field hospital at Rabaa Aladawiya but was bound to increase, for some of the wounded were in critical condition.  

On what has been dubbed “Black Wednesday,” an all-out joint offensive of the armed forces and riot police, backed by armored vehicles, helicopters, and bulldozers, was launched to nab rebels and disperse pro-legitimacy sit-ins at Rabaa Al Adawiya and Al Nahda Square. Stung by growing support for the sit-ins and condemnation of the ongoing bloodshed, the heavily-armed aggressors barbarically raided the two tent cities on August 14, using lethal force from the outset. Government forces bulldozed the encampments, bringing everything in their path to ruin and running over protesters helplessly trapped in crushed tents. Sandbag-lined barricades, shade canopies, camping tents, and stages built out of wooden planks were razed to the ground. Snipers inside helicopters flying at low altitude, assassination squads on rooftops, and ground troops opened heavy gunfire on unassuming, unarmed civilians—who were no match for the unrestrained, brute force of the state. Defiant protesters stood their ground in the face of a hail of bullets covered under the thick smog of teargas. As they tried to diffuse the situation by vacating the premises and fleeing the scene of the military operation—which resembled a war zone, compliant demonstrators were also met with deadly force. Some were struck by a barrage of bullets as they ran to seek refuge in adjacent buildings. The wrath of the assailants was then directed at the wounded and the dead. Inside the 6-story field hospital in Rabaa Al Adawiya, they set ablaze corpses and injured protesters with bullets lodged in their head, neck, or chest. Some of the victims' bodies have later been dumped outside overwhelmed city morgues. Security forces pillaged the remnants of the camps and set the Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque on fire. Persons arrested at Rabaa Al Adawiya and Al Nahda Square were transferred to prisons that can be described as concentration camps. While in police custody on August 18, 36 detainees were killed in a locked van by security forces. Acts of unmatched vindictiveness since August 14 have claimed some 2,600 lives besides thousands of injuries. In an effort to cover up the unparalleled violence by skewing the body count, victims' families have been pressured by morgue officials to sign certificates fraudulently declaring suicide to be the cause of death. The latest state-led massacre against protestors was carried out on October 6; at least 57 demonstrators were gunned down and hundreds were injured as they marched in support of democracy and opposition to the military coup. It is alarming, but not unforeseen, that only four policemen have been charged for the death of the 36 prisoners: their trial is ongoing. None of the other perpetrators of the aforementioned crimes have been arrested, much less prosecuted. 

Overtly embracing political bias - compounded by an eroding sense of morality, local newscasters and talk show hosts have sided with security forces, played down the worst state-led massacres in Egyptian history, or opted to justify or ignore the bloodbath altogether. It is deplorable that, for the past several weeks, the airwaves have been cluttered and contaminated with voices rallying - with passion and ostensible conviction - behind the military. Many taxpayer-funded and privately-owned television networks have gone above and beyond what might be deemed unabashed embellishment of gruesome mass murders; they have goaded putschists into forcibly dispersing pro-democracy sit-ins, further demonstrating their absolute contempt for freedom of expression and utter disregard for the sanctity of life.  

Committing heinous crimes not subject to any statute of limitations and falling under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, Abdel Fattah El Sisi has loosed brute aggression upon demonstrators who have adopted the self-professed pacifist motto: “If you do stretch out your hand to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand to kill you.  Verily, I fear Allah, the Lord of the worlds (The Holy Qur'an, 5:28).”  He has exploited ideological rivalry and social cleavages to pit persons in affluent circles and hirelings whose vested interests have been on the line against those struggling to restore fundamental human rights. He has sanctioned hate speech and discrimination in lieu of tempering political tensions, and has provided fertile ground for sedition mongers commissioned to spark ethnic upheaval and to reinforce the racial divide, which, if left unchecked, could prevail over social peace.

In the days and weeks to come, armed military and police mobs - occasionally masked and in plain clothes - will continue to assault peaceful pro-democracy/pro-freedom protesters in retaliation for their support of President Morsi's legitimate governance and their repeated appeals to uphold the rule of law. Maintaining the status quo would ultimately amount to giving in to deep-rooted corruption and state-sponsored terrorism, both of which have been universal hallmarks of military dictatorships, more so the ones instated in Egypt since 1952. 

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