Beaten into Submission

Is violence the only way Egypt knows how to deal with Islamists?

Ed Giles/Getty Images
Ed Giles/Getty Images

CAIRO — Back in the days when Islamists of all stripes — from the Muslim Brotherhood to the hard-line Salafists to the violent al-Gamaa al-Islamiya — were outlawed and hounded by President Hosni Mubarak’s police state, I was still a young reporter at the beginning of her career. It was the early 1990s, and outfitted in sneakers and the idealism of youth, I would beat innumerable paths between the offices of their lawyers across Cairo, the Brotherhood’s headquarters (then in the vegetable market of Cairo’s Souk el-Tawfikia), the military courts of Haekstep, the cramped offices of human rights groups, and village after desperate village in Upper Egypt.

One day I was interviewing al-Gamaa al-Islamiya lawyer Abdel Harith Madani at his small office, busy taking notes as he recounted the injustices of the Mubarak regime. At the end of the interview, he proudly showed me pictures of his young daughter. The very next day I was covering the news of his death after he had been taken into police custody.

I sat next to an old woman in black who cried silently as her son, a medical student in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut, was undressed in front of a military judge to show the signs of torture on his body. I was hard-pressed to maintain a professional decorum as the judge scoffed that his injuries did not look serious.

I walked around the Cairo district of al-Darb al-Ahmar and tried to talk to people about a young man who — it had been claimed — was thrown out of the fourth-story window of the police station while being interrogated. All the while, security men lurked nearby, intimidating the people of the district. No one would tell me the truth.

In the city of Sohag, I looked into the eyes of an old man whose only son had just been returned to him in a sealed coffin. "He was just a good boy who liked to go to the mosque," he said. "Like all the Sunnis."

This was the cruel reality of life under Mubarak.

As Egyptians toppled President Mohamed Morsy’s rule last week and as the military responded to Islamist protests in front of the Republican Guard headquarters with a heavy hand this week, we must again reconsider the crude Mubarak-era logic that "there is no other way to deal with Islamist groups" but through such repression. It is not only for the Islamists’ sake that Egyptians must strive for a just government: The Mubarak regime and its security apparatus entrenched a rule of human rights violations that went well beyond the Brotherhood and enveloped the majority of this country’s poor and dispossessed in the darkness.

Any semblance of a modern, democratic state cannot exist with these kinds of abuses. The discourse against the Brotherhood since the June 30 protests and the bloodshed at the Republican Guard headquarters are fearful signposts along that road. This is a cross that our Jan. 25 revolution — which stands for human dignity and the equality of all — should never have to bear.

That said, the task of reconciliation has been made even more difficult by the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which has revealed itself as a force intent on the annihilation of all political opposition. Ever since the Brotherhood piggybacked on the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, the Islamist organization has consistently alienated every group that has tried to work with it.

The repression experienced by Islamists is not an excuse for the blunders and crimes they committed after ascending to power. There was the scissor-wielding, niqab-wearing primary-school teacher who cut off the hair of her unveiled student — and got away with it. There was the torture that continued in prisons, police stations, and Brotherhood offices, as well as the passing of a constitution that lacked a minimum national consensus. The message was the same: We are taking over Egypt for ourselves.

And while the Islamists flagrantly flaunted the "democratic process," the opposition was held liable to the tyranny of the ballot box. We ran from election to referendum — only to hear Islamist preachers whipping their followers into a frenzy, warning that if their side did not win this coming ballot, Christians and the forces of secular darkness would reign.

The lot of non-Islamist voters was to roast in an eternity of hell, we were told. Christians were threatened and intimidated into staying away from the vote. Anyone who was against Morsy or "the Islamic nation" was an infidel. That included fellow Muslims: On June 22, shortly after the Egyptian president sat impassively through a tirade by an Islamist preacher against Shiites, a mob dragged four Shiite men through the streets of the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam, beating them to death.

It is true the Brotherhood won the elections and referenda, but you would be hard-pressed to paint this as a victory for democracy. And it came at a price for the movement itself, which was elected by predominantly poor voters who voted the Brotherhood in because they thought it would mean extra bags of rice. The unfulfilled promises soon wore thin, and as the economy failed to improve under their "Islamic" rule, the backlash was inevitable.

True to Egyptian nature, which is in fact rather carefree and fun-loving, with a mix of BS thrown in for good measure, people got tired of being told how to be "good Muslims." They got tired of the consistent ineptitude of the government — the power cuts, fuel shortages, and economic crises. They were even embarrassed by the president’s recurrent international faux pas, from crotch-scratching to his blundering English.

Egypt is a country in revolutionary transition. On June 30, millions of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets across the country and made their voices heard: Enough of Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, they said. But leading up to these massive protests, the response of the Brotherhood and Morsy was clear: Opposition would only bring blood, terrorism, and annihilation. "We will cut off the invisible fingers that work to hinder good relations," Morsy said, threatening those attempting to undermine his presidency prior to the June 30 protests.

The head of state rhetorically gave citizens the finger.

The hate that Brotherhood leaders have expressed for their fellow citizens has been heart-wrenching. The Brotherhood incited violence against female protesters, while the movement’s supporters labeled non-Islamists as "alcohol-consuming pigs, whores, and infidels" — just to name a few choice epithets.

The effect of this hate speech perhaps finds its best reflection in the response to Morsy’s ouster. The first thing that the former president’s supporters did in the city of Luxor was to attack Christian homes — before they headed off to attack a church. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city, Morsy supporters threw young men off rooftops. Were these orchestrated party directives? Or simply the fruits of their indoctrination?

National reconciliation never seemed as remote or unattainable as it does today. But I, for one, do not want to have to look into the eyes of another parent who has lost his or her child. I do not want to see the scars of police brutality on another body. Enough of the shattered minds, bodies, and souls.

The Muslim Brotherhood knows only violence in response to its opponents. But our new Egypt must not succumb. The heroes of this hour are not the Egyptian Army or the security forces. The heroes are the Egyptian people, who are just now discovering for themselves a new road to the future. As we do so, we must never forget that the principles for which we overthrew our dictator — human rights and due process for all.

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