Cairo’s main morgue is bursting with hundreds of bodies from four of the bloodiest days in Egypt’s modern history. Nearly 1,000 people have died in street battles between the security services and supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, since 14 August, when two Cairo sitins were forcibly cleared.
Refrigerated food trucks, parked on the morgue’s pavement, house the overflow of rotting corpses. The smell of decay hangs in the heat. Egypt’s dead, who include protesters and police officers, are now the barrier to reconciliation as both sides play a zero-sum game. The military, the interim government, the
Egyptian media and liberal political parties defend the actions of the poorly trained soldiers and police, as they say the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are armed and dangerous.
“If the Brotherhood didn’t have weapons, nobody would be touching them,” says Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, the founder of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, to which the interim prime minister and his deputy belong.
Meanwhile the Brotherhood and its “Anti-Coup Alliance” swears that it is protesting without violence for democracy and the vote. “Our power is to be peaceful in marches,” says Tarek el-Malt, a spokesman for the pro-Morsi coalition.
Meanwhile, Egyptians are being forced to choose between two realities: side with the military, its crackdown and its road map to a “democratic” future; or stand by the Brothers and their victory at the ballot box, which was followed by a year of human rights abuses, economic stagnation and authoritarian rule.
This dilemma has prompted a campaign called Heard, launched on Twitter this past week by activists involved in the January 2011 uprising. They bang saucepans at 9pm, two hours in to the curfew declared by the interim president, Adly Mansour, in protest at both the government crackdown and the called-for return to a Brotherhood-led state.
But banging on pots will not stop Egypt’s unresolved tensions from surfacing. Islamist groups, in some cases members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are taking their anger out on Coptic Christian communities, blaming them for Morsi’s fall. The worst of the sectarian attacks are destabilising Upper Egypt. In the past month, two Christians have been killed and dozens of churches, homes and businesses have been ransacked, raided and torched nationwide.
The unrest is spilling into Sinai, where deadly attacks by Islamist militant groups on security forces are becoming increasingly frequent. On 19 August two busloads of unarmed policemen, reportedly on their way back to their barracks in Rafah, were ambushed, leaving 25 conscripts dead, in what security officials called an “execution”. The national authorities accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of masterminding the attacks. On the same day back in Cairo, the Brotherhood mourned its own dead. Thirty-seven bodies of pro-Morsi prisoners bearing signs of torture found their way to the main morgue, human rights groups reported. State media said the men had died from suffocating on tear gas during a botched prison break.
Away from the battlefield, information has become another front line. State and private Egyptian media alike have towed the government line and cheered as armoured cars rolled in to the sit-ins. State TV footage, live streams of which are used by national and international media, are now framed by a banner in English that reads “Egypt fighting terrorism”. The private satellite channel ONTV has started to broadcast a live stream of “Egypt under attack” reports dubbed into English. The State Information Service, meanwhile, sent a mass email to foreign reporters, berating them for their “biased” coverage.
Abou el-Ghar told the New Statesmanthat an alliance of Egypt’s political parties was drafting an initiative calling on all sides to renounce violence and welcoming the Brotherhood back into the fold to join in the military-authored road map. Yet both sides are sticking to their guns. El-Malt maintained that the Brotherhood wouldn’t come to the table unless the constitution is reinstated and its leadership freed. Morsi is still missing, and on 19 August the movement’s ideological leader, Mohamed Badie, was finally taken into detention.
In the meantime, Cairo has become a chaotic war zone. During the day, tanks block the highways and the chatter of automatic gunfire echoes through the streets. At night a curfew smothers the cities as Egyptians hide in their living rooms, glued to TV screens. Caught in the crossfire between two warring visions of Egypt, those who reject both are reduced to breaking the silence with their saucepans.
Jeremy Bowen, page 19