Things Fall Apart

As the body count rises in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood insists it will stick to non-violent resistance. But even its members admit that they can't convince everyone to go along with the plan.


CAIRO — Farag, a midlevel Muslim Brotherhood member, swears he’ll do whatever it takes to bring his freedom back. He braved bullets and tear gas in the raging streets of Egypt’s capital on Aug. 14, after all, as security forces annihilated Cairo’s Islamist sit-ins, resulting in at least 638 deaths. But he has no illusions about how this will end.

"Did you see the movie Schindler’s List? Yesterday was exactly the same," he said by phone as he drove his car through a deserted Cairo on the night of Thursday, Aug. 15, taking delight in his subtle defiance of the military curfew in the capital. He had been caught in the center of the pro-Morsy protest outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque when the crackdown began, as bullets whistled by him, inches from his head, and people dropped around him. "It was a new holocaust — they were burning corpses in the street."

Even several weeks before bloodshed became Egypt’s daily reality, Farag had already imagined the killings and screaming men and women. He knew the Brotherhood was ready to march defiantly against the security forces — and that the police and Egyptian Army would be only too happy to greet the protesters with bullets.

Farag knew something else too. He confessed that the Brotherhood’s star was waning and radical Islamists were on the rise. "The security thinks if they kill one person, three people will be afraid. But what happens is they create 10 more who are ready to die and others who want to take revenge," he said and then paused. "When we become armed, it will be a civil war."

Farag said that the option of turning to violence "is not a choice for the Brotherhood. It is not up for discussion even behind closed doors." He worried, however, about individuals outside the Islamist movement’s chain of command — the brother or father who turned to terrorism after his son was killed. Once the Islamist community picked up weapons, he said, it would be too late to save Egypt.

Friday’s events are validating Farag’s worst fears. The Brotherhood-led coalition against the new government called for protests it dubbed a "Day of Anger," triggering clashes between the security forces and protesters. The violence, which claimed the lives of at least 80 people, looks likely to fuel the confrontation between Islamists and the police and Army. The Muslim Brotherhood already called for a week of daily protests, which it vowed to continue "until the coup ends."

As sand-colored armored personnel carriers with mounted machine guns blocked the entrances to Tahrir Square on Friday, thousands of demonstrators converged on the nearby Ramses Square. Youths soon marched from the square to the nearby Azbekiyah police station, forming tense clusters around the building as one young Egyptian banged on a drum to summon more people to the front. It is unclear who initiated the ensuing clash, but the results were all too familiar: As gunshots rang out, bloodied bodies were carried back from the front lines to al-Fateh mosque, by Ramses Square.

Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American spokesman for the coalition opposing the military, knows the potential costs of this resistance. While on the main stage of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in while it was being dispersed on Wednesday, he said, he bent down to adjust his phone charger — and felt a rush of wind as a sniper shot barely missed his head. The sniper didn’t miss a second time, though: Immediately after, a bullet hit his arm.

"They’re shooting at anyone who is taking pictures," Soltan said about Friday’s violence. "The police have started another massacre.… If it started this early on, I wonder what they will do after the curfew. This is the military regime trying to force their rule down Egyptians’ throats."

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said it was confronting "armed men" at Azbekiyah and also at other locations throughout Cairo. Sky News Arabia aired footage purporting to show armed men patrolling Cairo’s May 15 Bridge. The security forces eventually opened fire in the area, causing some protesters to jump off the bridge to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Soltan said that the coalition would continue to advocate nonviolence, but made no promises that he could prevent all anti-military protesters from taking up arms. "In revolutions, you do your best to control the protesters, but there are always outliers," he said. "There were snipers all around us in Rabaa al-Adaweya, on top of the buildings. If we wanted to, we could have ransacked those buildings, but we didn’t touch them."

There have already been several instances of Islamist violence throughout the country. Mobs have burned churches across Upper Egypt and stormed a government building in Giza, setting it ablaze. A Facebook page belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party justified the attacks on the churches by saying that the Coptic pope "is involved in the removal of the first Islamist president" and was "the first to respond to [army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi’s call to authorize the killing of Muslims."

Whatever happened on Friday, Soltan pledged, the groups opposed to the new government would continue to take to the streets. "The blood of over 4,500 martyrs will not go in vain," he said. "Even if you disperse today’s protests, we will keep coming back tomorrow, and the day after.… The Ministry of Interior is the military’s professional thugs; once they have been defeated, the military will have no choice but to back down."

For Farag, the Muslim Brotherhood has already become a bystander in Egypt’s crisis. On Aug. 14, he said, crowds ignored the group as it urged people to go home. "It was out of our control," he said. "People were angry for blood after security burned our mosques and insulted our religious institutions."

Farag’s attempts to find a middle path through the crisis seem increasingly out of place in today’s more violent Egypt. His words had been a jumble of contradictions in the weeks before the recent bloodshed: He swore the Brotherhood was peaceful, but vowed they would die marching before the Army’s and police’s guns. He explained this was not provocative — it was a matter of basic rights. He deplored the Islamists’ turn to extremism, but believed that the Egyptian security forces’ violence and the West’s failure to take a firm stand against the coup had pushed the Brotherhood in this direction.

"In the long term, the international community is giving birth to people with no hope who will take revenge," he said. "The West is creating a generation of terrorists."

Even as the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya was crushed, he said, he saw his former comrades become radicalized. These were people he had known and debated with about the need to push for gradual change through democratic institutions — now they smiled cruelly at him, and he looked down at his shoes. Nothing was clear to him anymore.

"I am not the person you met before. I am angry. I am caught in a chaotic way," he explained, as he drove through the Cairo night. "I won’t pick up arms, but I cannot blame the people who do."

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