Insurgent strike kills nine in Egypt

The aftermath of a bombing outside the South Sinai security HQ

The aftermath of a bombing outside the South Sinai security HQ


Originally published in The Independent, 7 October 2013

Hopes that calm was returning to Egypt were further dashed on Monday when Islamist militants launched a series of nationwide strikes against government targets, leaving nine people dead and scores wounded.

A massive car bomb exploded outside the main security headquarters in El Tor, the administrative capital of the South Sinai province – an area popular with British holidaymakers and divers – killing three policemen and ripping through the HQ’s four-storey building.

Soon afterwards, six soldiers, including one lieutenant, were gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Ismailia, a city which sits along the strategically vital Suez Canal waterway. The soldiers had reportedly been on patrol when masked gunmen opened fire on their pick-up truck.

Both attacks happened after militants launched a dawn assault on a government satellite station using a rocket propelled grenade – this time in Cairo, which has so far largely escaped the attentions of anti-government extremists.

The attacks happened in the southern suburb of Maadi, a leafy, upmarket area which is home to many foreigners and British expats working for oil companies and other big investors.

Nobody was killed and only two people were injured, but the fact that militants managed to launch such a brazen assault in the capital suggests that the scourge of Islamic militancy – which has so far been contained to Egypt’s north-east desert frontier – may be in danger of spreading to the mainland.

“This is a particularly concerning development,” said Charles Lister, a Cairo-based security analyst. “Once a trend like this begins, and one attack turns into three or four, it’s very hard to see it come to an end”.

Tarek Saadi, an estate agent based near the tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh, said he was in El-Tor getting his drivers’ licence renewed when he heard the bomb explode. “I was at the police traffic department, sitting down inside the building when I heard this big explosion. I looked outside and saw a load of smoke and dust rising into the sky about a kilometre away.”

Like many Egyptians – some of whom are fed a media-spun narrative that has successfully conflated the Brotherhood with a genuine problem of religious militancy – he blamed the country’s political Islamists for triggering Monday’s attacks. “It’s disgusting,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood had always been terrorists and traitors. What’s new?”

Nader el-Sharkawy, a liberal politician based in Sharm el-Sheikh, said that the attacks were the “price of freedom” following the July coup that removed Mohamed Morsi from power. “When the army removed the terror group from power then this was the reaction,” he said.

The attacks came after more than 50 supporters of Mr Morsi were gunned down during protests on Sunday – the latest mass killings since the state-sponsored summer massacres of nearly 1,000 civilians, most of them Islamists. Authorities had warned demonstrators not to take to the streets, saying that anybody who did so would be considered a foreign agent.

Many Egyptians were preparing to use the afternoon to celebrate Armed Forces Day – the revered national holiday marking the beginning of Egypt’s last war with Israel in 1973.

Ignoring the statements from officials, thousands of pro-Morsi protesters marched towards central Cairo and Tahrir Square, demanding the return of their toppled leader.

Almost inevitably, the day ended in yet another bloodbath, with troops and members of the central security forces opening fire on demonstrators using live rounds. But the government now finds itself in a quandary. In its bid to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, the authorities have arrested thousands of its members and overseen a court decision to outlaw the group from public life.

All the while, an Islamic insurgency, which has no proven connection with the Brotherhood – but is rallying to the group’s cause by waging war against its government tormentors – continues in earnest. The political transition, including the drafting of a new constitution and forthcoming elections, is rumbling ahead with no dialogue between the interim government and their ostracised antagonists in the Islamist camp.

And yet still the pro-Morsi constituency appears able to court the support of the many thousands who rallied in the streets on Sunday.

According to Cairo-based politics expert Emad el-Din Shahin, it is a state of affairs which cannot continue. “The military solution against the Brotherhood is not going to work,” he said. “To keep killing is untenable.”

During the 1990s Egypt faced a widespread Islamic insurgency that culminated in the notorious massacre in Luxor. Tourists were targeted, Coptic Christians were attacked and whole neighbourhoods fell under the control of extremist militants as the world wondered whether it was about to see an “Islamic revolution on the Nile”.

The north Sinai desert bordering Israel has faced a problem of growing radicalisation for some years – but Monday’s developments in south Sinai and elsewhere in the country marked a fresh escalation.


More than 50 dead as Brotherhood protest

Islamists used the October War celebration to protest

Islamists used the October War celebration to protest


Originally published in The Independent, 6 October 2013

At least 51 people were killed when supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi used the revered anniversary of Egypt’s last war with Israel to stage one of their biggest protests since the state-led summer crackdowns against the country’s Islamists.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched through central Cairo to demand the reinstatement of Mr Morsi, triggering clashes with both the police and rival demonstrators who turned out to celebrate the military.

It was the bloodiest day of conflict in Egypt since the violent dispersal of two sit-in pro-Morsi protest camps on 14 August, and showed that despite a crackdown from harsh prison sentences to outright massacres against its supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies remain a force.

The Health Ministry confirmed the death toll of more than 50 across the country, with at least 40 of those dying in Cairo, as well as more than 240 injured. Police chiefs said 423 supporters of the ousted president had been arrested.

While the military is now firmly re-established as the pre-eminent source of power in the country –and there are calls for its leader General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to run in presidential elections next year – the largely Islamist political forces which remain opposed to the current political transition can still command a sizeable following.

“There are 13 million people who voted for Mohamed Morsi and these people need to be represented,” said Sherif Taher, a senior member of the liberal Al Wafd Party. “This country will never find peace unless they are represented.”

Even as fighting continued in the streets, the military went ahead with its plans for lavish celebrations on the national holiday marking the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (often called the October War in Egypt) with Israel.

By attempting to rally on such a sensitive day, the pro-Morsi forces were playing with fire, and officials only moved to stoke up tensions. The interim President Adly Mansour’s media adviser said that anybody protesting would be doing the work of “foreign agents.”

Yesterday morning Egyptians woke to the sound of fighter jets roaring over the capital in a show of power, and in the evening a concert was played out live on state TV from a stadium in Cairo where pop stars sang pro-military anthems.

Sissi attended the show, joined by other senior armed forces personnel and Mr Mansour attended the show.

“There are those who think the military can be broken,” el-Sissi said in an address at the concert.

“You see the Pyramids? The military is like the Pyramids, because the Egyptian people are on its side.”

Egyptian activists in search of middle way demand to be heard

Egyptian activists are demanding a third way

Egyptian activists are demanding a third way


Originally published in The Independent, 20 August 2013

Khalid Abdalla is optimistic. In the wake of the worst mass killings Egypt has known in its modern history, he appears to be one of the few to remain so. As Cairo suffocates under a night-time curfew, and Egyptians count their massacres, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the fate of this country.

But amid the deepening polarisation, one group of activists is attempting to forge a path which steers clear of the rising tide of hysteria and hostility.

According to Mr Abdalla, an English-Egyptian actor who helped found a media and film organisation in Cairo following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the so-called “Masmoua”, or “Heard” campaign, is an attempt to reject the political extremes which led to the unprecedented bloodshed of last week.

Founded just four days ago, it aims to encourage opposition to both the political Islam and military hegemony.

“I believe the majority of people in this country don’t want to live under fascism,” said Mr Abdalla, speaking to The Independent today. The Masmoua movement, he said, was about trying to “create a space in which we get beyond” the extremities which are wrenching the country apart.

Ever since the popular coup on 3 July, which led to the toppling of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has appeared dangerously divided. Despite an ostensibly civilian-led transition, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country’s top soldier, still appears to be tugging the political strings.

Egypt’s Islamists, meanwhile, continue to be the ghosts at the revolutionary feast. Several hundred were massacred last week, while security services have arrested hundreds more up and down the country. With Monday’s killings of more than two dozen policemen by militants in Sinai, along with continued attacks against churches and Christian businesses, an obsequious media is also whipping up fears of the terrorist menace.

The Masmoua campaign uses unorthodox methods to get its point across. Every night, at 9pm, supporters are asked to clatter on a kitchen pan outside their window to register their disapproval.

The idea originated from a similar technique used during the recent protests against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey.

But in Egypt, where protesters in Tahrir Square now erect posters of long-dead generals instead of demanding the collapse of the regime, the Masmoua movement represents an effective way of reclaiming the power of protest, according to Mr Abdalla.

“At the moment, not only are we silenced,” he said, “but we don’t have any place for our voice to go. We don’t have a ballot box. We don’t have any representatives.

“We don’t even have the street. This is why it is essential that the home becomes the battleground.”

Egypt has become a place where political allegiances can sometimes invite disapproving scrutiny.

One prominent Cairo-based academic told The Independent how his mother had recently urged him to shave his beard, such is the level of anti-Islamist hostility from some quarters in what has long been a conservative country.

Aalam Wassef, a film-maker who has also joined the Masmoua campaign, said that some people had not taken kindly to the movement.

“We get suspicion and disapproval,” he said. “There is the suspicion among some that we are Muslim Brotherhood in disguise. Or we are bashed for being irresponsible, or told we are naïve for not sticking by the military.

“Our campaign is about reviving optimism. History teaches us that when dictatorships become more and more violent it’s because they have lost the grip they used to have.”

36 Islamists die in “escape bid”

The prisoners who died had been driven in a police van

The prisoners who died had been driven in a police van


Originally published in The Independent, 19 August 2013

At least 36 Islamist prisoners have been killed in Egypt after an apparent attempt to escape during their transfer to a prison outside Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood described the incident as “cold-blooded killing”.

Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have called for today’s meeting of ambassadors in Brussels to be followed by an emergency session of EU foreign ministers.

After a week in which several hundred people have died during some of the worst mass slaughter Egypt has ever known in its modern history, the nation’s leaders may be wondering how much killing it will take to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to heel.

Hundreds of Islamists were detained during early morning raids yesterday, while Egypt’s army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, made a statement in which he issued veiled threats against the group. Yet still the Brotherhood and its allies ordered mass rallies on the streets of the capital today.

It came as the country’s interim government – whose transitional “roadmap” has been virtually obscured by the torrents of blood spilled over the past week – moved to eradicate the Brotherhood once and for all as a political force.

The cabinet reportedly began deliberations on how to ban the group – a move that would hark back to the eras of previous Egyptian autocrats who tried to cow its leaders using intimidation, imprisonment and execution.

The Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, who suggested outlawing the 85-year-old Brotherhood, told reporters over the weekend: “There will be no reconciliation with those whose hands have been stained with blood and who turned weapons against the state and its institutions.

“It’s very clear right now that the current government wants to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Khalil al-Anani, a Cairo-based political expert. “We’re back to the 1950s and 1960s period of banning them and arresting their leaders. But this is very dangerous and will have serious consequences.”

The sweeping arrests of Brotherhood members were carried out in provinces up and down the country. At least 300 officials and activists were detained, with authorities accusing many of inciting violence and involvement in a recent wave of anti-Christian violence.

Meanwhile General Sisi, who has become a hugely popular figure in Egypt since last month’s coup, said in his statement that the military “will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching of the nation and terrorising the citizens.”

Over the past six weeks, Egypt’s authorities have successfully been creating a climate of fear – spurred on by an Islamist movement, sometimes including armed individuals, which appears to be willing to confront state-sponsored violence at any cost.

Parts of Cairo, a capital renowned for its chaos of hustle and bustle, have become a ghost town by nightfall, patrolled by police squads and cordoned off after the 7pm curfew by groups of neighbourhood vigilantes.

Over the weekend Egyptian officials released a statement expressing their “severe bitterness” towards Western media coverage of the crisis.

During the gun battles which gripped Cairo’s Ramses Square over the weekend – when hundreds of Islamists were trapped inside the al-Fath Mosque – several foreign journalists were beaten or detained by scared and angry locals. Their fear of the flying bullets was perhaps only matched by a fear of the putative Brotherhood menace.

Many Egyptian liberals and leftists have never really got over their suspicion of political Islam. Their fears were fuelled by a doctrine and rhetoric which has often seemed anathema to democracy and secularism. But over the past week, many Islamists have encouraged hostility against them, with dozens of churches and Christian homes torched and looted across Egypt since Wednesday.

Despite General Sisi’s statement yesterday that “there is room for everyone in Egypt”, any kind of political solution now looks inconceivable.

Ahmed al-Anani, an official from the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told The Independent that politicians needed to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. When asked what such a solution might entail, he offered a long sigh and then said: “Believe me, I don’t know.”

The Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah argued it was difficult to see a way forward while the Brotherhood was stuck on the sidelines.

She said: “I don’t see how those in power now, the liberal and civil forces, are going to be able to move on with the transition plan while not settling the situation with the Islamists.” The only way they could continue without the Brotherhood was via the return of the police state, she added.

Exclusive: Cairo at War

Cairo was in the grip of deadly gun battles

Cairo was in the grip of deadly gun battles


Originally published in The Independent, 18 August 2013

Yasmine Ahmed’s two brothers had been trapped in the siege for over 12 hours. Packed into a sweltering back room barricaded with chairs and wooden tables, they had been cooped up alongside hundreds of panicking Islamists and the decomposing corpses from another weekend of violence.

Away from the besieged protesters, down a corridor and inside the main prayer hall of the mosque, an army commander huddled in a circle with his troops. Standing on the grubby carpet littered with discarded shreds of cotton wool and surgical pads, his face was slick with sweat.

Hundreds of locals were crammed against the pointed steel gates of the mosque courtyard. Many were in no mood to forgive those trapped inside; in the minds of some Egyptians, the Morsi supporters have become little more than “terrorist” outlaws.

“Their fate is not in my hands now,” said Yasmine, 20, a college student. “The army and the police think the people trapped inside are terrorists. But they are not. What we have now is chaos. There is chaos between all the Egyptian people.”

The fear and anxiety were palpable. Weeping relatives tramped around the prayer hall, while jumpy police officers toted their Kalashnikovs in one hand, wide-eyed and frantically chewing gum.

Adding to the sense of confusion, dozens of civilians had also managed to gain access to the building. All the while, hundreds of Morsi supporters – who had sought sanctuary in the mosque following the gunfights that erupted in nearby Ramses Square on Friday – shouted and yelled out from behind their barricades.

At around 12.40pm, the situation suddenly deteriorated. Heavy bursts of gunfire began crackling outside the mosque. “It’s the Muslim Brothers,” shouted a boy in his late teens. “They’re firing at us from above.”

Panic gripped the prayer hall. Dozens of black-clad men from the security services ran for shelter under the windows of the eastern wall. Others squatted behind thick pillars as the live rounds swooshed around outside the mosque.

One policeman ran to prod his gun through a smashed window in the western wall. His darting eyes searched for the source of the shooting. Seeing no target, he stepped away.

Suddenly a squad of armed police dashed to the corridor leading to the barricaded back room and lined themselves against the wall. Pointing their gun barrels skyward, they poised themselves to end the siege. Groups of civilians, relatives and other armed police ran to take cover next to the eastern wall.

Just then someone pointed to the windows on a second floor overlooking the prayer hall. “There are people upstairs,” he screamed. A moment later there was a flash and a small explosion in the centre of the room. Soldiers and civilians started screaming. A cloud of pale smoke dissipated around the hall.

Seconds later there was another loud boom, this time from the direction of the corridor leading towards the barricaded Islamists. Panic erupted as those inside the mosque began fleeing for the door. A senior police officer ordered people to leave, furiously waving an arm as he stomped through the prayer hall with a Kalashnikov in his right hand.

Outside, the scores of civilians who had gained access to the main courtyard cowered against the mosque walls as heavy bursts of live ammunition clattered around Ramses Square. Eyewitnesses reported seeing gunshots being fired from the mosque’s minaret.

Amid the fear and confusion, angry civilians mobbed foreign journalists who had been reporting on the siege. One Western reporter was briefly knocked unconscious after being clubbed over the head with a stick. Soldiers fired shots in the air to scare away the attackers.

At least two journalists were rescued from angry locals by troops stationed in Ramses Square. Other reporters were also arrested or detained in Cairo yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency last year after decades of repression, looks in danger of being expunged again from Egypt’s political life. Yesterday it was reported Egypt’s Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has proposed disbanding the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the prospects of large-scale arrests if membership becomes outlawed.

It was also reported that Egyptian security forces yesterday arrested the brother of al-Qa’ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mohammed al-Zawahiri, leader of the ultraconservative Jihadi Salafist group, was detained at a checkpoint in Giza. Said to be an ally of ousted President Morsi, Mohammed al-Zawahiri is accused of commanding Islamic insurgents in the Sinai peninsula.

The interim government, backed by an apparently irrepressible military establishment, has initiated a bloody war on political Islam. Successive massacres over the past six weeks have been so astonishingly brutal that nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed.

Even taking the conservative estimates of health officials, the bloodletting points to a country that is ripping itself apart. At least 600 dead after Wednesday’s massacre of Morsi supporters; more than 170 on Friday; hundreds more since the popular coup greeted with such jubilation by some on 4 July.

Nobody has been safe. Among the dead during Friday’s violence was Ammar Badie, the son of the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide. On Wednesday, the daughter of Mohamed el-Beltagi, a leading Brotherhood official, was killed during the massacre. Mostafa Yacoub, said he had known 17-year-old Asmaa el-Beltagi and that she had grown distant from the Brotherhood ideology espoused by her father.

During violent demonstrations at the end of 2011 he said Asmaa had shared the streets with liberal and secular protesters who were battling the central security forces.

“She was young and wanted to develop her own thoughts,” said Mr Yacoub. “She did a lot of community work. She wanted to be open to other sides of society.” Those hopes were exterminated on Wednesday when police bullets shredded the Islamist encampment in eastern Cairo.

Islamists have responded to the recent violence by attacking churches, Christian homes and businesses.

The attacks confirm what many liberals have long suspected – that followers of political Islam are agents of intolerance and not fit to enjoy power in Egypt.

Yesterday’s reports that the authorities are considering ways to consign the Brotherhood to political oblivion are a natural consequence of such sentiment.

It is hoped that Egypt’s deputy prime minister will propose a possible way out of the bloody confrontation when the cabinet discusses the crisis today.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has condemned the “disproportionate use of force” by the Egyptian security forces as he issued a fresh appeal to all sides to end violence.

In Cairo, the city that breathes with a bustling vivacity, it feels as if it has died a death of sorts. As a result of the new 7pm curfew, the city centre is enveloped in a deathly pall of quiet by nightfall.

The roads that would usually be bursting with street hawkers and honking drivers are empty. Volunteers staffing civilian “checkpoints” – usually little more than a steel road barrier dragged into the street – check car boots and rummage through the passengers’ rucksacks.

For its 17 million inhabitants, the city can rarely have felt so alien. For the political map-makers of Egypt’s tortured transition, the future can hardly have seemed less certain.

Cairo convulsed by deadly gun battles

Al Fath Mosque in Ramses Square, scene of the violence

Al Fath Mosque in Ramses Square, scene of the violence


Originally published in The Independent, 17 August 2013

Cairo is convulsed by deadly gun battles this evening as the consequences of Wednesday’s mass killings reverberated around the country.

With army helicopters hovering high over the city centre and security services marshalling firepower to continue their bloody crackdown, Egypt looked in danger of sinking into greater violence.

Last night there was no confirmed death toll, but dozens of civilians were reported to have been killed. The violence spread across the country, with deaths reported in numerous provinces, including eight in Damietta, and four in Ismailia.

“The army and the police are killing their own people,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, an Islamist who had made his way to central Cairo for a rally. With bursts of machine-gun fire rattling around the central train station, he told The Independent that “this is not our country any more”.

The worst violence erupted in Ramses Square, the sprawling plaza in central Cairo which had been the focus of demonstrations called by supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi. But in a sign that the civil unrest which has gripped Egypt for much of the past two years may have reached a tipping point, other neighbourhoods were also caught up in the chaos.

Garden City, the leafy Nileside enclave dreamed up by British colonialists, was echoing to the sound of gunfire last night. Residents shuttered windows as security services carried out operations. Witnesses also reported hearing gunfire in Zamalek, the plush upper-class island which is home to a Hilton hotel.

Many Egyptians had woken up yesterday bracing themselves for the worst. Allies of Mr Morsi had called for dozens of demonstrations, with a week of daily rallies planned across Egypt. One Brotherhood leader warned that the level of anger was such that his organisation could no longer control its followers. The interior ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement that police had been authorised to use lethal force against protesters who threatened state buildings.

Even for a Friday morning – the Muslim day of rest – the streets were quiet. Soldiers in Tahrir Square, the crucible of a revolution, sat expectantly behind their gun turrets. At around 1pm, after several thousand Islamist protesters had reached Ramses Square, shots rang out from the direction of a police station in a road leading off the plaza. At times, the bursts of gunfire were intense. Palls of smoke from burning debris added to the confusion. A young boy, perhaps only 16, was raced to a field clinic with a chunk the size of an orange slice missing from his forehead.

“The government calls all these people terrorists,” shouted Mohamed al-Adawy, 30, gesturing to the thousands of protesters packed inside the square. “They are not terrorists. They are teachers, or engineers and come from all walks of life.”

At al-Tawheed Mosque, about half a mile east of Ramses Square, shawl-wrapped corpses were lined up one by one. Inside the prayer hall down below, doctors frantically performed CPR on dying patients. “The police don’t have any humanity,” said Dr Hassan Sulayman. “They have killed people like animals.”

After the massacre – the backlash

Mobs burned churches in response to yesterday's massacre

Mobs burned churches in response to yesterday’s massacre


Originally published in The Independent, 15 August 2013

As hundreds of Islamists were being gunned down on the streets of Cairo during Wednesday’s bloodbath, the ugly consequences began to ripple hundreds of miles down river to the towns and cities along Egypt’s Nile Valley.

Outraged supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi, reacting to the ferocious crackdown launched against protesters camped out in Cairo, started attacking police stations and government institutions in several provinces. Scores were killed and many more wounded. But in a development which does not bode well for an already fractured society, it was the nation’s Coptics which bore the brunt of some of the worst violence.

Christians account for an estimated 10 per cent of the country’s 85 million population. A former Coptic Pope, Kyrillos VI, once claimed that Egypt’s Muslims and Christians were a single people “ worshipping the same God in two different ways.”

Yet following Wednesday’s nationwide violence, when churches, Christian-owned businesses and property were attacked by angry mobs, Egypt’s Copts appear to be feeling increasingly vulnerable.

“I’m expecting a period of heavy assaults against Christians,” said Kamel Saleh, a member of the Coptic church’s senior lay committee. Mr Saleh added that ever since 30 June, when huge crowds of protesters began calling for the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, church leaders had been engaged in contingency planning to decide how Christians could respond to expected attacks. “The churches themselves are just buildings and can be repaired,” said Mr Saleh. “ What worries me is the unprecedented level of violence which will be difficult to climb down from.”

Following the decision by Pope Tawadros, the Coptic Patriarch, to give his blessing to the 3 July coup, officials were expecting the worst. But inflammatory speeches from Cairo’s tent encampments were enough to convince some Christians that Islamists harboured violent intentions. Safwat Hegazy was among those who spoke to pro-Morsi protesters during the Cairo sit-ins. Hegazy, a television imam, has made fiery declamations “There is no doubt in my mind that the Muslim Brotherhood are able to influence the violent groups who attacked Christians,” Mr Saleh said.

According to Ishak Ibrahim, a Cairo-based human rights researcher focusing on religious issues, a total of 23 churches across the country were torched by angry mobs following Wednesday’s operation by the security services. At least seven were completely destroyed, he said. Two monasteries were also attacked.

In the city of Sohag, the Bishop of Mar Girgis Church reported that the building had been set alight by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were no police present – a common feature in many of the attacks, according to witnesses.

Mr Ibrahim said the recent violence has the potential to become much more serious. “It will become a big problem,” he said.

Egypt’s day of shame

Hundreds were massacred by security forces at Rabaa al-Adawiya

Hundreds were massacred by security forces at Rabaa al-Adawiya


Originally published in The Independent, 15 August 2013

As machine gun fire crackled around the besieged Islamist encampment in eastern Cairo today, a 12-year-old boy called Omar was sat on a mattress drinking from his carton of orange juice. Just a few yards away, the bodies of 31 protesters lay on the grubby, blood-caked floor.

Many had been shot through the head and chest with high velocity bullets; some bore gnarled lips betraying the agonising throes of death.

When asked how he felt to witness such scenes, the young boy – wearing Puma flip-flops and blue jeans – remained silent and appeared confused for a few moments. Then, with childlike fragility, he said very simply: “It’s not very nice”.

Whatever else the Egyptian state was hoping to achieve by launching its long-awaited crackdown, the hundreds of young children who were cowering inside the besieged sit-in will not likely forget the ferocity of a government which has now declared war on the country’s Islamists.

Egypt’s leaders have unleashed a chain of unforeseeable consequences. Deadly clashes were reported in provinces around the country, as police stations, government institutions and Coptic churches were attacked in apparent revenge attacks.

Scores were killed, hundreds more injured.

In a sign of how deeply the crackdown will affect Egypt’s ongoing political transition, Mohamed el-Baradei, the vice President and Nobel laureate, resigned in protest over the crackdown. Meanwhile Egypt’s interim government has imposed a month-long state of emergency and night time curfew.

Inside the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, the building which lies at the heart of the east Cairo encampment, crying babies clung to their mothers as gunfire raged around them following the start of the operation.

In the centre of the prayer hall, laid out on the carpet among hundreds of women and toddlers in the stifling heat, ten bodies had been placed side by side inside a cordon.

A little girl of about seven or eight, wearing pink trousers and a T-shirt, made her way from one side of the mosque to the other by tottering between the heads of the corpses.

“The police and the army don’t understand any language except force,” said Khalid Mohsen, a 50-year-old engineer who was trapped inside the siege. “They want to kill anybody who has an opposing view.”

Given the sheer level of firepower unleashed on protesters, it is a view which many Islamists may find hard to argue with.

According to witnesses the gunfire began early in the morning at around six o’clock, as security forces who had surrounded the site launched their ferocious assault. At a separate encampment in the west of the city, a similar operation was also ordered.

By late afternoon the shooting was still continuing. Heavy semi-automatic bursts of gunfire echoed around the nearby suburbs throughout the day. If there was any let up, it was brief. For about 10 hours, the supporters of Mohamed Morsi were subjected to a near-continuous barrage of live fire.

Single sniper shots shrieked down Nasr Road, the main thoroughfare leading through the camp; sustained bursts of machine gun fire clattered into nearby buildings; wayward rounds shredded through the labyrinthine networks of tents and tarpaulin shacks.

At the nearby hospital, staff draped the windows with blinds as a precaution against sniper rounds.

One doctor at the hospital, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said that even the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008 had not been as bad.

“I was working there as a medic during that battle,” he told The Independent. “The Jews were much more humane that what is happening today. Even in war, the rules are more respectable than this.

“In 12 days of fighting in Gaza, there were less dead than in six hours here.”

Amid the dizzying chaos of the massacre – the third which has been perpetrated against Egypt’s Islamists in a little over a month – reliable casualty figures were difficult to come by.

According to Egypt’s Health Ministry, 149 people were confirmed dead. Yet the true figure is likely to be much higher. Dr Hisham Ibrahim, the head of the Rabaa al-Adawiya field clinic, told The Independent that several hundred people had been killed.

Whatever the final tally, the constant stream of bullet-riddled, disfigured protesters meant it was impossible to store the corpses properly. Inside a room which during the previous two massacres has been used as a morgue, 42 bodies were crammed up against each other on the floor.

As the carnage unfolded and more protesters were killed, other areas were appropriated to house the dead.

Behind the stage which has been used by Islamist leaders to rally pro-Morsi supporters for the past six weeks, 25 bodies were laid out wrapped in white shawls, unrefrigerated in the sweltering August sun.

Next to the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque – where flies were soon gathering on the ten corpses laid out in the prayer hall – another room being used as a makeshift morgue.

A total of 31 bodies had been placed here. Volunteers had no time for sentimentality; the same hall was being used to treat wounded protesters, many of whom were lying moaning in agony just yards from the nearby cadavers.

“It’s a genocide,” said Dr Yehia Makkayah, a medic at the Rabaa hospital. “They want us to disappear from the country. I could never imagine that Egyptians would shoot Egyptians using these weapons.”

Such was the chaos inside the hospital, a reception area on the second floor had been utilised as yet another morgue to store a further 26 bodies. One floor up in a tiny storeroom, two more corpses were lying in gleaming pools of fresh blood.

Corridors barely two yards wide were lined with dozens upon dozens of wounded. Luckier patients received drip feeds from a friend or relative; those who were luckier still had the luxury of a hospital bed. The floors were sticky with blood and vomit.

The sheer volume of the dead and the dying meant it was often impossible to move up and down the main staircase. Injured protesters, most of them felled by live fire, were stretchered up to the operating rooms, blood trickling from their wounds as they went. The dead were stretchered in the other direction, down to the lower level morgues.

“The army are the dogs of the Israelis,” said Mohamed Mostafa, a vet who was keeping vigil at the bedside of his brother-in-law, a 36-year-old whose spine had been shattered by a bullet. “They are not Egyptians.”

At the main morgue beside the field clinic, the mother of one victim, 16-year-old Malik Safwat, struggled to reach him through the tightly-packed rows of corpses.

“Don’t move that body,” said one of the morgue attendants to a volunteer trying to clear a path. “Move a lighter one.” She eventually found him, tearfully shaking his left knee from side to side as if to try and wake him up. His sister had also arrived. “My darling,” she said in a trembling voice. “Why my darling?”

By around 5pm, the security services had gained access to the hospital and were clearing everybody out into the surrounding streets. Thousands of people began filing out of the camp, as police bulldozers moved in to destroy the remaining tents.

“We are prepared to die” – life in Cairo’s tent city

The tent city in Rabaa Adawiya

The tent city in Rabaa Adawiya


Originally published in The Independent, 12 August 2013

On a long, straight stretch of Nasr Road, the 12-lane highway leading towards the Islamist tent city in eastern Cairo, the streets are still stained with the blood of dozens of Islamist protesters.

Many of them perished during the massacre carried out by Egypt’s security forces last month. Like other areas of Cairo, their memories are kept alive by those who have grown more determined through death.

“We are prepared to die for our cause,” said 31-year-old Ahmed Sharkawy as he stood next to one of the dozens of makeshift memorials which now dot the asphalt along the highway. “We won’t leave the sit-in. If they come to clear us out using tanks, we will lie beneath the wheels.”

For the past six weeks, supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi have been camped out in their massive tent cities on the streets of the Egyptian capital. They continue to demand the return of their ousted leader – something which has been rejected outright by their political opponents.

Following weekend reports that the security services were preparing to launch an operation to clear the sit-ins, speculation was rife that a crackdown may be imminent.

By yesterday evening, the expected operation – which has been hinted at by anonymous security sources quoted by the local press and international news organisations – had still not begun.

But many of the demonstrators who remain camped out yesterday appeared increasingly defiant when they spoke to The Independent.

“The army are traitors,” said Said Hanif, a 48-year-old engineer, as he made his way to the east Cairo encampment with his wife.

In reference to the belief among pro-Morsi supporters that last month’s popular coup represented an illegitimate power grab by the military, he said that Egypt “belongs to the people, it doesn’t belong to the army”.

The pro-Morsi sit-ins have become a nasty thorn in the side of Egypt’s political powerbrokers.

In the east Cairo suburb of Nasr City – where the largest of the two main protest sites has sprung up – an enormous encampment sprawls for half a mile in all directions from a crossroads near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. Moreover, despite its appearance of a unified, homogenous whole, varying threads of Islamist allegiance have taken root. The Muslim Brotherhood may form the most influential block, but other groups have staked a claim. The fundamentalist Al-Asala Party has its own tent headquarters, as does Gamaa Islamiya, the group which once waged a campaign of terror against the Egyptian state.

It poses a tricky quandary for Egypt’s rulers. Either they can allow the country’s refusenik Islamists to continue their sit-in, or they can break it up by force. The first option, while less confrontational, would leave a looming, ever-present shadow lingering over the whole transition process.

But the second option could result in hundreds of deaths and a chain of dangerously unpredictable consequences.

Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said that efforts were being made to resolve the current impasse through negotiations. Yet he hinted that the government’s patience was wearing thin.

“It is not reasonable for any democratic government to have to accept sit-ins where violence is being used and the security of citizens and the country is being threatened,” he said.

A detailed report in the privately-owned Al Shorouk newspaper last week suggested that the authorities were intending to “kettle” the Nasr City protest – surrounding the sit-in and attempting to apply pressure by cutting water and electricity supplies.

Speaking to Reuters yesterday, a security official said protesters would be removed gradually. Tear gas and water cannons would be deployed if they failed to respond, he added.

But given the determination of many protesters, it seems unlikely that anything other than a full-scale clearance operation by hundreds of police or troops would have any affect.

“Asking us to leave is not a prospect that is grounded in reality,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, a member of Gamaa Islamiya. “If I am killed, I am sure I will become a martyr. In this case I will go to heaven.”

Generals urged to tighten grip on power

Ex-spy chief Murad Muwafi was being courted by TV bosses

Ex-spy chief Murad Muwafi was being courted by TV bosses


Originally published in The Independent, 10 August 2013

As Egyptians were coming to terms with the chaos and bloodshed that blighted the holy month of Ramadan, a number of the country’s wealthiest businessmen sat down for a dinner of lamb kebabs and stuffed courgettes.

Among them were two of Egypt’s most prominent television moguls; Mohamed el-Amin, head of the hugely popular CBC channel, and Ahmad Bahgat, the magnate behind Egypt’s first-ever private station, Dream TV. Hosting them all in his Cairo home was Hassan Rateb, another wealthy TV channel boss.

But one of Mr Rateb’s invitees did not quite fit the profile of the assorted businessmen and anti-Islamist politicians who were present that evening – Murad Mowafy, Egypt’s former spy chief and the man who is now being courted by influential powerbrokers to become the country’s next president.

Just two years after Egyptians revolted against the military-backed regime that held power for sixty years, the Independent can reveal that powerful business figures are now pushing for an army man to make a bid for power.

According to a source who was present during the dinner, Mr Mowafy was on the guest list that evening because TV channel bosses were trying to persuade him to run for Egypt’s top job at the coming elections.

“They were telling him to go for the presidency,” said the source, speaking to The Independent. “They were saying he would have their total support if he did.”

The source, who asked not to be identified, said Mr Mowafy neither confirmed to his hosts nor denied that he would be considering a run to succeed Mohamed Morsi. “He seemed to be declining more than accepting, but he never said anything directly.” The Independent tried to contact the TV bosses who were present but received no response. But the revelation that Egypt’s ex-intelligence chief – along with other rumoured military figures – is being touted as a candidate has triggered a wave of soul-searching and debate among some liberal and secular politicians, most of whom realise the enormous implications of replacing Mr Morsi with a former military man.

“If the next President of Egypt is from a military background then this will be a negative sign,” said Ahmed Khairy, a liberal politician. “Critics will say to us, ‘you said this was not a military coup, but now you have a President from the military’.”

Following the toppling of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, Egypt’s generals appeared at great pains to emphasise that the coming transition would be civilian-led. A former judge was immediately anointed as the new interim President – part of the point-by-point transitional road-map that was quickly announced.

Since then, the initial hopes that officers would steer clear of politics have begun to dissipate. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s commander in chief and leader of the coup that toppled Morsi – who also holds two cabinet posts – gave a speech last month in which he called on Egyptians to grant him a mandate to crack down on ‘terrorism’ by staging mass rallies across the country.

Some observers questioned why Adli Mansour, the interim President, had not been tasked with delivering the speech.

General al-Sisi himself has been touted as a prospective presidential candidate. A mild cult of personality has begun to develop among those Egyptians who credit him with rescuing them from the perceived threat of Brotherhood rule. Other names whirling around the political party rumour mill include Sami Anan, the former chief of staff who was also dismissed by Morsi after his election, and Hossam Khairallah, a former air force captain who ran for the Presidency  last year.

The prospect of a military candidacy would be met with met by incredulity among some Egyptian revolutionaries. “The Egyptian revolution was about overthrowing the power of a military which had governed for itself for 60 years,” said Aalam Wassef, a film-maker who has taken part in rallies opposing army intervention in Egypt.

It would also land Egypt’s liberal and secular parties in a quandary. Many are currently debating whether to rally around a single candidate to maximise their chances of a non-Islamist victory. If a credible military contender emerged, it would leave them juggling the temptation of electoral triumph with the implications of backing a traditionalist war horse.

Yet with the military’s stock on a high amid the perpetual unrest, what might have been unpalatable last year now seems a realistic prospect.

“Having someone with an army background is not a reason to reject him,” said Shehab Wagih, a liberal politician. “We will not deal with a military guy who is still in the army, but if we are dealing with someone who is retired we are dealing with an average citizen.”

Likely leaders: Top brass

Sami Anan

Sami Anan was the chief of staff dismissed by Mr Morsi. He was the right-hand man of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who led the military council which ruled Egypt.

Murad Mowafy

For those who can still remember the 2011 revolt, Murad Mowafy may be the old regime candidate. He was the former head of the notorious mukhabarat, or secret police.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Not a likely contender right now – but if he ran, he would win by a landslide. Egypt’s top soldier has been tipped as a possible candidate, but has so far remained tight-lipped.