Egypt's military faces the fallout of Cairo bloodshed

Egypt's image of civilian governance has evaporated after yesterday's clashes, but the military said its actions headed off an even greater disaster.

Amr Nabil/AP
An Egyptian child displays empty tear gas canisters among the debris of a protest camp in Nahda Square, near Cairo University in Giza, Cairo, Egypt, Thursday. Egypt faced a new phase of uncertainty on Thursday after the bloodiest day since its Arab Spring began, with over 300 people reported killed and thousands injured as police smashed two protest camps of supporters of the deposed Islamist president.

The true toll of yesterday's crackdown on two protest camps became more apparent today as the number of dead rose above 500.

While the military oversaw cleanup of the smoldering debris at the site where thousands of supporters of the former President Mohamed Morsi had camped for a month and a half, and where more than 200 people were killed yesterday, the interim government began to deal with the repercussions of the crackdown.

Nobel laureate and interim deputy vice president Mohamed ElBaradei, who opposed a violent crackdown on the protesters, resigned yesterday, and US President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation to criticize Egypt's actions and announce the cancellation of joint military exercises. 

Egypt's government appeared to be losing the sheen of civilian credibility it had worked hard to project after the military deposed Mr. Morsi in response to massive protests against the former president.  

“The unfortunate aspect of the June 30 protests and July 3 coup is that this was always a military push to assert its authority and basically rid any civilian competitors from challenging its power,” says Joshua Stacher, a professor and Egypt expert at Kent State University who recently published a book on autocratic rule in Egypt and Syria. 

But while that may not have been apparent to some a month and a half ago, it is now, he says. “It doesn't mater how many civilians they dress it up with, it's incredibly clear and naked now who's running the show in Cairo.”

Facing the consequences

Security forces attacked the two protest camps yesterday after weeks of warnings that they would forcibly clear them. The Ministry of Health said 638 people were killed in the operation and the ensuing wave of violence across the country, which included attacks by angry citizens on police stations and churches. The death toll is expected to rise further.

The interim president, Adly Mansour, today accepted the resignation of Mr. ElBaradei, who had been a key source of international credibility for the government. And President Obama, speaking from Massachusetts's Martha's Vineyard, announced that the biannual joint military exercises called Bright Star will be canceled and said his national security team would evaluate possible further action. US aid to Egypt (around $1.5 billion every year, most of it military aid) will still flow, at least for now. 

After the military deposed Morsi, “there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path. Instead, we've seen a more dangerous path taken,” Obama said.

The US “strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces,” including violence against civilians, he said, and criticized the Egyptian government's declaration of emergency law. “But while we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.”

But the cancellation of the joint military exercises, which were scheduled to take place next month, was not a significant step, says Mr. Stacher. The military exercises, he says, are essentially a trade show for US military hardware, so the cancellation "probably costs the US arms manufacturers some business, but overall the joint military exercises didn't happen in 2011, so it's not he first time they've been canceled." Given the level of instability in Egypt, it would likely be difficult to hold the exercises anyway, he says. 

Counter-narrative

In a briefing for international reporters today, Foreign Ministry officials countered criticism, saying that pro-Morsi protesters fired at police, and police responded with maximum restraint. They objected to media coverage that portrayed the police attacks as a massacre. The officials showed footage of the operation, some of which showed armed protesters shooting assault rifles and pistols over the sandbag barricades at the edge of the protest camps. 

“This is was a true recipe for disaster, and leaving it unattended would have caused the country to get into a real civil war,” said Assistant Foreign Minister Hatem Seif El Nasr. “An end had to be put to that. And that was the public sentiment, the vast majority of Egyptians felt, of course everyone wanted this to be done without any loss of life, any casualties, and I think that maximum restraint and techniques were put in place so that inevitable casualties would be put to the minimum. But it doesn't only depend on the security forces, it also depends on the other side, how they engage the security forces.”

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdelatty added, “The issue here is who started firing. This is the most important issue.”

They also highlighted the 21 police stations attacked throughout the country yesterday, as well as the 43 police officers killed, including 11 killed in an attack on one police station. A finance ministry building and other government buildings were also stormed, and 22 churches were attacked, with seven of them fully or partially burned. Today, hundreds of people attacked a government headquarters building in Giza, west of Cairo, and some attacks on police stations and churches continued.

Yet if the government was worried about foreign criticism, its actions today did not show it. In a statement earlier, the Ministry of Interior announced that police would use live ammunition to repel attacks on buildings, and the state news service said that 84 people had been referred to military prosecution. During the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) rule following the 2011 uprising, military trials were a key point of criticism against its leadership.

Revenge

At the mosque where the dead from the larger protest camp were collected, family members called the police attack a massacre. Hundreds of shrouded bodies lay in rows on the carpeted floor. Doctors keeping count said 294 bodies had been brought to the mosque by this afternoon, and it was unclear how many of those were counted in the official death toll.

On an intensely hot afternoon, volunteers methodically sprayed the bodies with disinfectant and perfume and sprayed air freshener into fans in attempts to keep the stench of death at bay. Family members brought blocks of ice and placed them on the bodies in a bid to keep them intact for burial. Some bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Some relatives of the dead said the government was refusing to issue burial permits unless the families stated that their loved ones committed suicide or were killed in a car accident, avoiding the real cause of death on official paperwork. The delay in attaining the right paperwork was one of the reasons that hundreds of bodies sat for more than 24 hours without refrigeration on a hot summer day.

Mohamed Mahdy sat near the body of his brother-in-law, waiting for the proper paperwork. His sister's husband, Mohamed Yaqout, was not a participant in the protest, but was shot in the chest by police when he went to deliver medical supplies to the camp, said Mr. Mahdy. His family learned of his death when a nameless voice, likely a volunteer at a field hospital, called Mahdy's phone from Mr. Yaqout's phone. “The owner of this phone is dead,” he said.

“No more peaceful demonstrations will be happening,” said Mahdy. “These families will take revenge for themselves, especially from the police officers. My family – I guess we will go to court, and find justice through the law. But many people will not do this.” 

At the site of the protest camp where Yaqout died, the tents were gone, their only remains the smoldering debris that workers were carting away. The Rabaa el Adawiya mosque, which had been the focal point of the protest camp, was burned out, the white bricks scorched and debris littering the ground in front of it. On a gate in front of the mosque, where pictures of Morsi once hung, someone had hung a picture of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military chief who ousted him.

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