Egypt’s Islamists Turn Violent
The Muslim Brotherhood says that its protests are purely peaceful -- but evidence is mounting of torture and weaponry at its Cairo sit-ins.
CAIRO — Ahmed Sabet, 22, has been hospitalized for over a week.
"They stamped on his face," said his cousin, Aly al-Masry, 20, who told Sabet’s story from his bedside as he drifted in and out of consciousness. "He has three stab wounds, a bullet hole through his leg and stick marks all over his body. There are bruises where he was dragged along the asphalt."
On the night of July 26, during clashes with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, Sabet, who is part of the April 6 Youth Movement that opposes the former leader, told Foreign Policy he was a victim of an armed assault by an Islamist mob. He says was dragged by pro-Morsy protesters to a nearby mosque, where a dozen other individuals were being held. There, he says, they tortured him for 14 hours.
The turmoil in Egypt has shown no sign of ending since Morsy’s ouster more than a month ago. And there are ominous signs that the violence is poised to worsen: The Egyptian government ordered the police last week to take "all the necessary measures" to disperse the two major pro-Morsy sit-ins that have been going on for more than a month, raising fears that the security services could once again open fire on Islamist demonstrators, as they have done previously. Meanwhile, President Adly Mansour delivered a speech on Aug. 7 declaring that the period of negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood "ended today," and other officials have denounced the Islamist protesters as "terrorists" contending the sit-ins are armed encampments that represent a danger to national security.
There is now mounting evidence that some Brotherhood loyalists within the pro-Morsy sit-ins — which up until now had remained largely peaceful — are indeed armed, and have committed what some human rights groups describe as torture against their political opponents. In interviews, multiple Egyptians who clashed with or observed the pro-Morsy sit-ins describe being beaten and fired on by Morsy supporters.
Amnesty International released a report on Aug. 2 in which anti-Morsy protesters recount being "captured, beaten, subjected to electric shocks or stabbed" at the Islamists’ two encampments in the Cairo districts of Nasr City and Giza. Ten citizens have reportedly filed torture complaints at local police stations, Amnesty reported. And the violence has even claimed lives: "[W]e were told by the morgue five bodies bearing the marks of torture were found near both camps," says Mohamed Lofty, an Amnesty researcher.
The body of 32-year-old tuk-tuk driver Amr, whose family requested that his full name not be published, was one of those found bearing signs of torture near a pro-Morsy sit-in. Amr’s corpse was dumped naked and mutilated by a metro station near the Giza encampment on July 20.
"I didn’t know my own brother from the body in the morgue. You could see the burn marks," said his sister Samah, 35. "He was beaten by sticks everywhere from his head to his feet, and they electrocuted his face and his chest."
Amr was on his way to the neighborhood near the encampment when he went missing on July 17. Days later, the police tracked Amr’s phone to a man based in the Giza camp, who said he had found the phone in the sit-in and claimed Amr had been accused of spying and stealing by the protesters. Samah believes Amr was tortured to death inside the sit-in.
Lofty explained that individuals like Amr are picked up by the self-appointed sit-in security guards if they are considered to be thieves, spies, or pro-military infiltrators. "People take justice into their hands, they think they are entitled to apply punishments, investigate and use cruelty," he said. "They apply their own law in the camps."
Authorities are still investigating the murder.
In addition to the torture allegations, human rights groups also say there is evidence that some Morsy supporters have brought guns to the protests — echoing claims by government officials, including Prime Minister Hezam al-Beblawi, that the protesters are armed and have "broken all the limits of peacefulness." These reports don’t bode well for likely upcoming efforts to break up the sit-ins: If protesters are armed, Egypt’s poorly trained police force may not be able to shut down the encampments without considerable use of force and possibly further bloodshed.
"We can say with confidence that there are weapons in the Giza sit-in … it is not very well concealed," says Karim Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He pointed to a pro-Morsy rally in the nearby neighborhood of Bain el-Sarayat on July 2, when pro-Morsy protesters, marching back to the sit-in, opened fire on local residents as clashes erupted.
There is video evidence of how armed Islamists have used violence against their opponents. Ali Bazeed, 27, who works in a photocopying business overlooking the scene of the Bain el-Sarayat fighting, showed Foreign Policy the shop’s CCTV footage from the night of the clashes. In the video, bearded men and youth trash the premises. One man carries a rifle, while others brandish a pistol and a sword. Bazeed claims to know one of the men wielding a knife in the footage: "He’s from here and lives in the sit-in."
Later in the video, dozens of men from the same group brutally beat a young man caught up in the clashes.
The next day, July 3, which saw the military move in to depose Morsy, brought further evidence that the Giza sit-in was armed. Mohamed, a 22-year-old local journalist and human rights worker, reported seeing handmade shotguns, made by citizens in underground workshops, at the site. "They were lying on the floor in the corner of a tent."
Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a 31-year-old renowned activist and blogger opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood who lives in the area, also recounts being shot at with live ammunition from the direction of the sit-in on July 23.
"We clearly saw a couple of guys with machine guns who were shooting constantly in the air in an Islamist march towards the Giza sit-in a few weeks ago," Abdel-Fattah says. He describes unidentified shooters from within the area of the encampment "taking pot shots" at anyone believed to be a "thug or a threat" during these fights. Abdel-Fattah himself took one bystander who had been shot through the shoulder, with the bullet entering his chest, to the hospital, but the man later died from his wound.
"I talked to people in the camp who admit that they have weapons, but their version is that they are constantly attacked by thugs supported by the police," Abdel-Fattah says. However, he says, those with weapons are in the minority. "We’re dealing with a few highly armed individuals — this is not the whole sit-in."
Meanwhile, reports of attacks on Egyptian journalists at Morsy rallies continue to rise. The Brotherhood has feuded with local media since the military takeover — and most Egyptian news outlets are staunchly critical of the protests, sometimes to a fault. In reaction, demonstrators appear to be taking matters into their own hands.
Cameraman Shehab Eldin Abdel Razeq, 23, who works for ONTV, a television channel widely perceived to be anti-Morsy, was one of the victims of the protesters’ anger. He sustained head injuries after he was beaten with sticks in the Nasr City sit-in on the day of Morsy’s ouster. "They took me to a tent where there were five other people, bound and in a mess," he said. "I had to pretend that I worked for an American network."
The Muslim Brotherhood and the "Anti-Coup Coalition," which has organized the nationwide demonstrations calling for Morsy’s reinstatement, have repeatedly denounced the allegations of violence as a campaign by the authorities to rally public support for a crackdown. And inside the sit-ins themselves, Morsy backers vehemently deny that they are armed.
"We want to talk to the Egyptian media, they’re the ones who turned their backs on us, check my tent, we have nothing like weapons," says Radwan Ragheb, 32, an electrician living at the Giza sit-in.
Top Brotherhood officials, meanwhile, argue that the charges of violence are fabricated by the media and security apparatus ahead of an impending police crackdown.
"The main purpose is to put the protests in the context of terrorism, so that they have to be dissolved as a threat to national security," says Amr Darrag, a former minister of international cooperation under Morsy and leading Brotherhood figure.
In response to Amnesty’s report, those organizing the sit-ins invited the international rights group on a tour of the encampments. Lofty, the Amnesty researcher, interviewed the Nasr City sit-in’s security team, which is charged with instigating much of the violence. They admitted to conducting "interrogations" of "thugs" underneath the sit-in’s main stage, but denied the presence of torture cells.
Despite its recent report, Amnesty has also slammed the government’s calls to clear the sit-in as a "recipe for further bloodshed" given the security forces’ routine use of excessive and unwarranted lethal force. Rights groups say the actions of a few individuals do not give the army carte blanche for a violent dispersal of mainly peaceful protests.
However, with new reports that attempts at reconciliation between the interim government and the Brotherhood have been officially declared a failure, the clock is now ticking for the encampments. The Egyptian security forces are likely to use testimonies of violence and torture as a reason that the sit-ins must be cleared. And with the Muslim Brotherhood showing no signs of giving in, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see how Egypt avoids another round of bloodshed.