North Africa, West Asia

There will be blood: a dispatch from Cairo

The two competing narratives are so at loggerheads that the country risks being driven down the dangerous road of constant low-intensity conflict.

Franco Galdini
8 October 2013

The writing was on the wall. The road map agreed upon by the army and the interim government is delivering according to plan. A ‘Committee of 50’ is drafting a new constitution and parliamentary elections will be held in late January or early February 2014, followed a few months later by presidential ones. Critical voices from the United States and Europe, that had previously arisen in condemnation of the military deposing a democratically elected president (lest it be called a coup d’état), have now switched to the language of reconciliation.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned yet again by a Supreme Administrative Court order after enjoying legality as an NGO for a few weeks, see the continuation of demonstrations as the only way to restore legitimacy. And so it was that the October 6 celebrations turned into bloody clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi crowds, the latter supporters and supported by the army and security forces against the former. Official sources speak of 34 killed and 200-plus injured, but the numbers are bound to rise.

Two days before today’s clashes, the eerie silence engulfing Cairo resembled that of East Jerusalem on any given night: a city under occupation. And yet, such has been the Egyptian capital on most Friday nights since President Morsi was toppled last July, due to the strict 7 PM curfew imposed by the Egyptian army, which is meant to prevent Muslim Brotherhood supporters from mounting mass protests on the Muslim weekly holiday.

Nowadays, the army seems to be enjoying a great degree of popularity among ordinary Egyptians. ‘Under President Morsi, divisions were emerging in the population, something never seen in Egypt before. We are all brothers, us and the Christians, and Morsi was trying to divide us. The army intervened to save the country,’ says Ihab, a taxi driver. ‘They were allowing Al Qaeda types to go through Cairo airport and set up training camps in Sinai : El Sisi felt the country was at risk, he does not want to be President,’ adds Aiman, who works in the tourist industry.

General Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s portrait, whom former President Morsi himself had appointed as his Minister of Defence, has become ubiquitous around the Egyptian capital. His radiant face in impeccable military attire can be seen on posters glued to the armour of the many military vehicles standing guard at key power centres in Cairo. Some carry the banner ‘the people, the army and the police are one (hand)’, or ‘the country loves you.’ Often, General El Sisi is pictured alongside President Gamal Abdul Nasser and his successor Anwar al-Sadat, both military men turned politicians. Former President Mubarak, also a career officer, is conspicuously absent. There is no dearth of Egyptian flags, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs displaying one that stretches for 20 of its 30-plus-storey building.

Another indication of the popularity the General enjoys at the moment lies in the simple question of who Egypt’s current President is. Most people in the streets wouldn’t know. The idea of having former President of the Constitutional Court ʻAdly Mansour as President of the Republic would be very progressive in principle. There are serious doubts, though, about whether Mr Mansour is really calling the shots in the country.

Massive celebrations had been organised for Sunday October 6, the fortieth anniversary of the October war against Israel, which is proudly commemorated in Egypt as it led to the return of the Sinai peninsula – lost to Israel in the 1967 war – followed by the 1979 Camp David peace agreement. Over the past few days, radio programmes have constantly been reminding people of Sunday’s important commemoration. But for some, the party had already started on Saturday afternoon: in Talaat Harb street in downtown Cairo, the horrific traffic ground to a halt due to a group dancing around a minivan with loudspeakers blasting out music, along the lines of ‘thank you for your help, oh army of my country.’ Women were ululating intermittently, as they would at weddings, while one of them held a poster of General El Sisi high above her head.

The polarisation on the streets is palpable: on Friday night, a couple of nights before October 6, pro-Morsi protesters attempted to march to Tahrir Square, which the army completely sealed off to traffic for the weekend. The crowd dispersed when soldiers started shooting in the air. The same night, four people died in clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and locals in the Cairo quarters of Zaitoun and Maniyyal.

On Saturday, October 5, a group of students wearing t-shirts with ‘forty years since the October victory’ written on them, symbolically paraded in front of the soldiers stationed in Tahrir Square, waving the Egyptian flag in sign of support for the army. Two hours before the Anti-Coup Alliance had called for a massive rally in Tahrir Square for October 6. The mood was sombre: everyone seemed to predict that there would be blood on the streets.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters view the army as usurpers of the ballot box, which had given President Morsi a four-year mandate. They conveniently forget about Morsi’s increasingly dictatorial tendencies during his year in power and his forfeited electoral promises. Instead of creating alliances with the social forces who had been behind the January 2011 revolution, he decided to side with the army and inevitably alienated possible allies in the fight against the ‘deep state’ left over by Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Large swathes of the electorate and minorities felt marginalised, including many who had voted him into the presidential palace to prevent Mubarak-crony Ahmed Shafiq from winning the Presidency.

In turn, army backers view the military’s intervention as the only sensible choice to rescue a country on the brink of social and economic implosion, due to the divisive policies of a president more responsive to a secretive cabal, than to the needs of the Egyptian people. They are ready to overlook the army and security forces’ heavy-handedness when dealing with Morsi’s supporters, as exemplified by the massacre at Rabaa Al Adawiya sit-in in mid-August, the mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood cadres and the closure of many Islamist-leaning television channels and newspapers. The demonisation campaign against the Brotherhood has reached such peaks of hysteria that it is quickly turning into dehumanisation: slogans such as Al Ikhwan Al Kherfan (‘the Sheep Brothers’) daub Cairo’s walls. The language of fighting terrorism has now been borrowed from the dictionary of US foreign policy elites to justify abuse against the organisation. 

Polarisation translates into chronic instability, and Egypt will not be able to overcome the huge challenges it faces unless a serious dialogue is initiated between all concerned parties with the aim of achieving reconciliation. The events of the past weeks and months find diametrically opposing explanations in the mouths of those for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, a division that often runs contrariwise with those against and for the army. The two competing narratives are so at loggerheads that the country risks being driven down the dangerous road of constant low-intensity conflict.

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