Death Spiral

Death Spiral

CAIRO — Abdel Hamid Madi lies in a bed in the al-Tamin al-Sahy Hospital, close to the Islamist sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque, where thousands of Egyptians have staged a month-long protest against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsy.

Madi’s voice is hoarse. He had joined Morsy supporters marching along Nasr Street, just outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in early Saturday morning when police, accompanied by 300 men in regular clothing and flanked by 20 armored vehicles, fired tear gas and then shot at the protesters in a battle that lasted from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. The assault would cost at least 80 Muslim Brothers their lives — most of the dead were killed by bullet wounds to the head, throat, and chest.

Madi and others lobbed stones at their opponents, whom they feared would storm the sit-in. Meanwhile, anti-Morsy snipers fired from atop the al-Azhar University buildings flanking the street, mowing down protesters. A sniper bullet tore through Madi’s right chest — a doctor told him it punctured his right lung.   

At the hospital, a middle-aged female cousin in a black abaya and headdress sat silently among the visitors, but no one in the room even looked at her, save for her husband — Madi’s cousin — and another Brotherhood supporter. She seemed to be wishing herself away. "We are democrats. Otherwise, I might kill her," his cousin joked in an effort to deflate the tension.

The scene seemed to be a perfect microcosm of Egypt’s complicated dynamics. The abaya-clad woman had supported the pro-army rallies last Friday, while her husband and Madi protested what they saw as a military coup that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief and defense minister, called for Friday’s rallies so that the people could give him the mandate to "crush terrorism," as he put it. The call amounted to tacit orders to break up the pro-Morsy sit-ins.

Here in this hospital room, the two sides met in stony silence. Madi felt betrayed by the friends who had protested with him in Tahrir Square against Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and later during the 16 months of military rule. He rejoiced at the election of Morsy; they grew to hate the Brotherhood over the one year of Islamist rule. Madi expected they would not care he had been shot, or care about the others who had been killed. They would say the bloodshed was justified. "By siding with the military, my friends are responsible for the killing in recent weeks," Madi said.

He despaired that Egyptians are reversing all of the gains they made after shocking the world by bringing down Mubarak in 2011. After Saturday’s massacre, Madi acknowledged that the Brotherhood is outnumbered, and that popular sentiment is on the side of the generals. He sees Egypt re-embracing its authoritarian past and the security state it had rejected. "Those on the side of the truth are always a minority compared to the majority who don’t understand, or don’t have conviction to fight for the truth," he said, in admission of his side’s weakness. "This is a fact of history."  

Many Egyptians now head to Tahrir Square, once the site of rallies against security forces’ brutality, to celebrate the army and police, blithely waving posters bearing Sisi’s image. Supporters of Morsy’s ouster argued it was not a coup, but their position is looking increasing indefensible as the ascendency of the security apparatus becomes increasingly visible. On Saturday, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced he was reviving the hated state police departments that monitored political and religious groups before Mubarak’s fall. In response, the interim government’s liberal and secular participants — who themselves once railed against Mubarak’s oppressive state — were conspicuously silent.

Many of the onetime critics of Mubarak’s authoritarian state also echo the security forces’ hatred of the Brotherhood. "In Rabaa, they have been inciting their followers and urging their supporters to go shoot [opponents]," said Hussein Gohar, the international secretary of Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi’s Egyptian Social Democratic Party.  "At the end of the day, the army and police have to step in and take control of the situation in Cairo and the governorates."

Those close to the military establishment, meanwhile, are framing what is happening in Egypt as the beginning of a decisive war against the Brotherhood. On Saturday, the military launched a new anti-terrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula dubbed "Operation Desert Storm."

The pro-military civilians in government have endorsed the linkage between the terrorism in Sinai and the Islamist protests in major cities. "There was no violence in Sinai for a year, then Morsy leaves office and the violence increases," said Khaled Daoud, a member of Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei’s party and spokesman for the broader anti-Brotherhood bloc, the National Salvation Front. "They are abusing and exploiting their supporters."

The high-pitched rhetoric has led both sides to fear for the worst. Ayman Salama, a retired brigadier general and professor of international affairs at Cairo University, says the state could engage in a prolonged conflict against the Islamists. "I don’t exempt civil war. It is foreseeable," he said.

Many educated Egyptians indicate they are ready for tough actions against the Brotherhood, and have no qualms about sacrificing freedom for stability. If some of them supported the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak, their experience with Islamist governance has led them to trust the army more than the ballot box.

"People need electricity, gas, water, security, and education above all. After this we can talk about democracy," said Ayman Galy, a Ph.D. student in migration studies at Cairo American University.  He referred to the Brotherhood as "the mother of all criminal and terrorist groups."

But after having their first taste of power, rank-and-file Brotherhood members cannot abide the idea they can once again be relegated to the shadows. "For the first time in my life, I was part of something that mattered," explained Munir Shinawi, a 49-year-old agricultural engineer, resting in a tent in the Rabaa sit-in after Saturday’s massacre.

The showdown between the new military-guided state and the Brotherhood is yet another challenge for civil society activists who spearheaded the 2011 revolt against Mubarak, and who have held on tightly to their political independence. Many are convinced that once the Brotherhood is driven underground, the military will then target liberal and secular groups that do not bow to its will. Last Friday, even as rival demonstrations massed in support of the Brotherhood and the military, about 50 activists gathered beneath a Cairo highway underpass crying, "Down with Morsy! Down with Sisi!" Bystanders thought they were crazy — but for the activists, it was a matter of survival.

"We are confident and afraid that after the Muslim Brotherhood leaves Rabaa, Gen. Sisi will act against any popular movement," said one activist, who went by the name Khalid. "For certain, they will jail me at some point." 

Those activists aren’t the only ones uneasy about both sides’ willingness to pay the ultimate price. Islamists say they will stay in the streets until the last drop of their blood is shed, while the military also shows no signs of backing down. "If the army wins, it might lead us to military dictatorship or fascism," said Gamal Sultan, editor of the independent Masrayoon newspaper. "The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood will lead us to theocratic fascism."

Sultan said intermediaries have conducted talks between the military and Brotherhood, but the chances of a last-minute deal appear more remote by the day. He fears for his country if a deal is not found. "Egypt could turn into a failed state, a country that fails to control the street," he warned. "It means the absence of law, where there is chaos and clashes between the police and people and a huge cost in blood."