The day after at least 74 Islamist protesters were killed in clashes with Egyptian security forces, none of Egypt’s main newspapers on Sunday showed the injured, the dead, or even the vast crowds staging a sit-in against the coup that deposed former President Mohamed Morsi.
One newspaper went so far as to blanket the front page with regal photos of Egypt's military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and revered nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser with a headline roughly equivalent to, “Spot on, chief!”
The elevation of General Sisi to almost legendary status when well over 200 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed in clashes since he led a July 3 coup has raised cries of anguish from a small but vocal segment of Egyptians. They openly wonder how their fellow citizens – including so many who fought for democratic government in the 2011 protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak – have become so deliriously in love with the army, and worry they are blind to the potential for a return to dictatorship.
“People of Egypt, political parties, where are you?” asked Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who quit to run for president in 2011, on Al Jazeera today. “How can it be that there is no reaction condemning this massacre and mourning the people who died? I don’t know what is wrong with Egyptians.”
Hossam al-Hamalawy, a member of the far-left Revolutionary Socialists and a long-time activist, describes the atmosphere as similar to America’s “post-9/11 frenzy.” While the Muslim Brotherhood are not “angels,” he says, the media and army are whipping up hysteria against them.
“The media is lying, exaggerating, and picturing this like Islamist demons with horns creating havoc everywhere,” he says, describing the country as infected with a “zombie” virus. “You’re getting responses on the social networks when you tweet or post pictures [of those wounded or killed] like, ‘Oh yeah, they deserve that. I wish Sisi would kill more.’ ”
Protests, mandates, and crackdowns
After three weeks of unrest, Sisi called last week for the public to give him a mandate to crack down on violence and "terrorism," prompting dueling protests in Cairo and elsewhere Friday. Just before 1 a.m. Saturday morning Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda would be cleared “soon.”
Clashes broke out at the edge of Rabaa as protesters moved to expand the sit-in toward the 6th of October Bridge, a major thoroughfare, and security forces fought back. By 1:45 a.m., bodies began arriving in the field hospital at Rabaa and within two hours many of those arriving bore gunshot wounds to the head and chest, according to a Human Rights Watch.
Doctors at the field hospital told Human Rights Watch that the killings appeared more targeted than in a previous massacre at a Republican Guard office in Cairo, where Morsi was believed to be held, on July 8.
“This time it was like 80 percent were shot by snipers targeted from above,” versus 10 percent on July 8, a doctor named Fouad told HRW.
The Ministry of Interior held a press conference hours later and blamed the Rabaa protesters for instigating a “crisis” and throwing tear gas canisters and Molotov cocktails at the security forces. The ministry insisted that no live fire was used by the police.
Apart from a small circle of human rights activists and leftists, much of the country beyond Muslim Brotherhood supporters seemed ambivalent about or even supportive of the security forces’ action – and rebuffed criticism that it represented a violation of basic freedoms.
“After we’ve seen the real side of those Islamists and how much they hate the country and the citizens of the country, they don’t have a right to protest or a right to protection,” Lt. Hamdy Bokheet, a military spokesman, was quoted as saying in Al-Akhbar newspaper. On the same page, prominent lawyers were featured asserting that the army had a legal right to clear the protests by force. Bokheet said he expected the protesters would be removed within 72 hours.
In addition to such press reports, flyers are being distributed in the Nile Delta calling for evacuating the Brotherhood from their homes and shutting down their businesses, says Wael Abbas, a blogger and human rights activist. “It’s like the Kristallnacht of Egypt.”
A wider campaign against dissent?
While the Brotherhood is taking the brunt of such hatred, some see them as just the first target in a wider campaign to crush opposition that might be abetted by a restoration of the Mubarak-era Emergency Law, which was used to stifle political dissent for decades.
“Now they are using the war on terrorism card in order to more or less cement the counterrevolution,” says Mr. Hamalawy. “This emergency law is not going to be just against Islamists – also trade unions, leftists, human rights activists, against anyone later who will raise the banner of dissent against the government.”
Even the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement that gathered 22 million signatures calling for early presidential elections, which led to the massive protests that ended in the coup, called Interior Minister Ibrahim’s comments Saturday “unacceptable” and a contradiction of the 2011 revolution. Among other things, Mr. Ibrahim announced that state-security departments in charge of monitoring political and religious activity, which had been closed after the 2011 revolution, had been reinstated, reported the English language version of the government-owned Al Ahram newspaper.
For at least some young revolutionaries who swelled Tahrir Square to oust Mubarak in 2011, only to see the interim military government (SCAF) detain and kill protesters in the tense months that followed, the public embrace of the army is at best strange.
“They killed us before; how can we trust them again?” asks Eve Radwan, an artist and video editor. On the other hand she understands why many people blame the Muslim Brotherhood for heavy-handed rule and responsibility for more recent violent protests, including in Port Said this winter. “Muslim Brotherhood actions made people cold-blooded. They don’t care about the Muslim Brotherhood anymore.”
Public anger toward the Brotherhood goes well beyond disapproval of their politics, and is driven in no small measure by fear that they are behind jihadi violence in Sinai and are plotting a wave of violence in Egypt proper. Many freely characterize it as a terrorist group, and denounce its members as outsiders.
“The Muslim Brotherhood are not Egyptian, they are not even human at all,” says Abbas Abbas Mahmoud, an engineer kicking back at Café Riche, where Gamal Abdel Nasser reportedly planned the 1952 Free Officer’s Coup that deposed the monarchy, paving the way for him to become a wildly popular president.
Sisi is “exactly like Abdel Nasser,” says the café’s owner, Gen. (Ret.) Magdy Yacoub, who has a poster of a radiant Sisi surfing atop his cluttered desk.
Indeed, the comparison is sweeping through the media, with Sisi emerging as a symbol of the yearning for dignity and security that many feel has been lost since Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism made Egypt a powerful regional leader.
“He’s something beautiful,” says Mahmoud, a 20-something running a kiosk at the edge of Tahrir featuring Sisi and Nasser memorabilia. He says he’s sold 25,000 posters in the past month. “He made all our dreams come true.”
In one of the more prominent odes to Sisi, Al Masry Al Youm columnist Ghada El Sharif wrote in a column last week titled “Sisi, you just need to wink” that if the general wanted to take on the Islamic quota of four wives, she was available. “This is the way we want to implement sharia,” she said, deriding the Brotherhood as men with six-foot beards and donkeys and comparing Sisi to Nasser, who cracked down on the Brotherhood after surviving an assassination attempt.
Indeed, one of the reasons for Sisi’s enormous popularity is that he’s seen as a man who has the will and the ability to protect the country from the Brotherhood.
“He came in and rescued people from the Muslim Brotherhood who in many people’s eyes destroyed the economy and society,” says army supporter Mohammed Ahmed Ismail, noting that when Sisi threatened Morsi with a 48-hour ultimatum, he kept it. “So he was like a knight on a white horse.”