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Thousands of people, many of whom had been demonstrating since June 30, filtered out of the Rabaa Al Adawiya protest camp near the presidential palace, nearly 11 hours after security forces launched their campaign.
But their efforts to disperse the camp was a costly one as it was initially met with strong resistance that left hundreds killed and injured. The security action also led to clashes erupting in several cities around the country.
The exact toll appears to be a matter of dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government; at press time, the Islamist group said that more than 600 protesters had been killed and more than 9,000 injured. A doctor told CNN that 3,500 people were killed, but provided no official account to support his claim.
According to the Ministry of Health, the nationwide violence left at least 525 dead, including 43 members of the security forces, and more than 3,700 injured. Security sources say 256 police officers were also injured.*
Egyptian media reported fatalities in clashes in Alexandria, Minya, Assiut, Bani Suef, Fayoum, and the port city of Suez.
A number of Coptic Christian institutions, including churches and seminaries in Minya, Sohag and Fayoum, were also reported by local media to have been attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
As a government-imposed curfew went into effect – the government has announced a month-long state of emergency – most Egyptians expressed disbelief at the violence and vandalism which broke out today.
One political activist and commentator said today’s events left him with nothing to say. On social media, tweets of condemnation and vitriol were replaced with resignation, prayer, shock at the number of dead among protesters and security forces.
But senior accountant Hussein Taha said that recent events in the country, such as the growing divisiveness between pro and anti-Morsi factions, appeared to indicate that the violence was inevitable.
“I am saddened by the shedding of blood today and I am against the violence which transpired, but the Muslim Brotherhood should not have spread the message that anyone who stands with the army, or who opposes Morsi, should be considered anti-Islamic,” Taha says.
“The government gave them too much time to disperse and leave the protest camps but the Brotherhood refused,” he added.
Film critic Joseph Fahim can’t believe the “absurdity” that has led to such violence and chaos.
“No words can describe the sheer folly of August 14, the bloodiest day Egypt has witnessed since the [ouster] of Mubarak,” Fahim told The BRICS Post.
Swift condemnationNevertheless, Turkey, Qatar, the UK, Iran and the UN condemned the use of violence to disperse protest camps. The EU expressed “extreme worry” while France and Germany urged restraint without appropriating blame.
The South African Foreign Ministry, which had earlier dispatched diplomats as part of an African Union (AU) delegation to Cairo, condemned “the use of violence against demonstrators in Egypt leading to loss of life”.
“We call on authorities to exercise restraint,” Clayson Monyela, a foreign ministry spokesperson in Pretoria, said.
Egyptian Interior Ministry Mohamed Ibrahim said in a televised press conference late Wednesday that he had urged security forces to show restraint even when fired upon from buildings surrounding the protest camps. He also said that arms – including AK-47s and shotguns – and a large cache of bullets were found among protesters in the camps.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called the violence in Egypt “deplorable” and urged all sides to “take a step back”. He also criticised the state of emergency in Egypt.
“The only sustainable path for either side is one towards a political solution,” Kerry said.
Egyptian officials say that channels of negotiation had been open between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and foreign dignitaries trying to mediate a resolution to Egypt’s political standoff on the other.
In the past few weeks, the EU, US and the AU have sent high-level diplomatic delegations – some of whom have met with Morsi and senior Muslim Brotherhood cadres – in a bid to avoid a civil war scenario and formulate a political compromise.
“The [security] plan put in effect today comes after over 46 days of international mediation, domestic political mediation, and repeated calls by the interim government for the Muslim Brotherhood to be part of the new political process,” says an Egyptian security source who spoke to The BRICS Post on the condition of anonymity.
“The response has been more violence, roadblocks, attacks, riots, and arming of both protest camps in Rabaa Al Adaweya and Nahda Square. Can you imagine a ‘peaceful sit-in’ in Washington, DC in the Mall, fully armed with women and children, then going out every day to block Constitution Avenue, Memorial and Roosevelt Bridges and Route 66? What would the US government do?”
While Egyptians remained divided on what course the country should take and who to blame for the bloodshed, most agree that the violence of August 14 will likely be seen as the beginning of a new phase of instability. Many expect reprisal attacks.
In the hours after the police moved against the protest camps, a total of 16 churches were torched in different parts of the country. There were also attacks against security forces; the Kirdassa Police Prefecture In Giza was sacked and all 11 of its officers were killed. A graphic YouTube video allegedly indicates the commanding officer was beheaded. The BRICS Post has been unable to verify the authenticity of the video.
Waguih Boutros, a managing director of a communications company in Cairo, says that he is horrified by the reprisal attacks against churches.
“I’m not surprised that a terrorist religious movement would strike at the most vulnerable, which usually are the minorities,” Boutros says.
“But I am Egyptian prior to being Christian and today I saw in the midst of the sadness the bright face of this country as Muslim Egyptians apologised for the attacks and even offered to rebuild the destroyed churches once the country stabilises. Some even offered to have mosques be used as places of Christian worship in the interim,” he said.
Whether the country stabilises or not depends on the immediate actions and reactions of different factions in the next few days.
Some analysts have warned that forcibly dispersing the protest camps will backfire.
Political writer and commentator Bassem Sabry argued against such government action saying it would be overall a dangerous and counterproductive measure.
“First, if the actual target is indeed to ‘end’ the sit-ins, then experiences in Egypt over the past two-and-a-half years show that using force would do just the opposite. Almost every major sit-in or demonstration that was subjected to force ended up regrouping, growing in size and radicalising. In some cases, the protests even managed to attract wider public sympathy,” he recently wrote.
The use of force to disperse protesters may also fall under the limitations of governance and execution of the law that a democratic – or authoritarian – administration exercises. For example, some political scientists believe that repression of rights and excessive use of force is often used to discipline dissidents in the aftermath of a military coup.
Whether Morsi’s ouster came by way of military coup is now a moot point as Egyptians bury their dead.
But Mohamad Elmasry, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, believes that recent events in Egypt are not surprising if one is looking at the country through the prism of a military coup.
“What we’re seeing unfold on the ground in Egypt – shutting down of media outlets, mass political arrests without due process, and violence – is, then, not terribly surprising,” he says.
Elmasry believes that the military and other political forces who instigated the June 30 coup have needed to re-frame the narrative in Egypt in order to justify massive repression. It is not sufficient that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were incompetent, he says.
“The type of repression we’re seeing cannot be reasonably justified through an incompetence thesis. The Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-coup protesters more generally, have been recast as criminals, terrorists and un-Egyptian. Any instance of violence from the anti-coup side, whether in self-defense or not, is taken as evidence of the corrupt nature of the anti-coup people on the whole, and serves as justification for further repression,” Elmasry told The BRICS Post.
Blame gameAs the streets of Cairo and other cities become bereft of people observing the curfew, many Egyptians are engrossed in arguments at home, with friends, or more dramatically – on social media.
Nadia El-Awady (@NadiaE) writes that “Egyptians now fear sleep for the news we expect to hear once we awake the following morning.”
In other social media interactions, some are blaming the White House for not doing enough to restrain the Egyptian military, while others are pointing to the attacks on churches as evidence that the once ruling Muslim Brotherhood could never be inclusive or tolerant of minorities. Some are reminding others of Morsi’s track record in the year that he held office:
“Those who did not condemn abuses under Morsi have no moral authority to condemn abuses today,” wrote blogger and activist The Big Pharaoh (@thebigpharaoh).
Rasha Abdulla, an associate professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, says she condemns the military/police state for choosing force to disperse protesters but also wonders why the government took no steps to protect property of visible minorities – chiefly, the Coptic Christians.
“If the state wanted to disperse the sit-in by force, and it has taken over a month to plan that, it should’ve at least planned to protect its citizens, particularly the targeted groups such as Christians (churches and homes),” she says.
“My problem with using extreme force is I see it escalating the problem not taking care of it,” she added.
Most Egyptians believe there is plenty of blame to go around. Some blame the lack of vision shown by Egypt’s new and traditional political parties. Others say that the Muslim Brotherhood should have responded to the mediation efforts launched both from within and from overseas.
Film critic Fahim believes that the ruling military, the government and the Muslim Brotherhood are all complicit in the vandalism and bloodshed shown today.
“Add to that Egyptians themselves who, traumatized by the Muslim Brotherhood experience, handed unchecked power to the military. What the Brotherhood and their supporters did today was no more than showing the ugly face of desperate, power-hungry mercenaries that have dragged Egypt into unprecedented bloodshed,” Fahim said.
The road ahead
In Egypt today, facts are difficult commodities to come by. The burgeoning media has been criticised for taking sides, providing inadequate reporting, or in some extreme cases, adding fuel to the fire.
Audiences have to navigate between networks that are clearly Islamist in their leanings, those that are identified as part of State Media – such as the local TV stations, and the newer independent stations which appear to have adopted an anti-Morsi approach.
Repressive tactics and efforts to choke the free press further exacerbate the difficulties of reporting in Egypt, says the Committee to Protect Journalists. During the rule of ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, a slew of laws were used to silence and imprison news editors, journalists and bloggers.
The situation did not improve under Morsi. Recent events appear to indicate a dismal future for the press.
During the August 14 clashes, four journalists were reported killed and several others injured. Bel Trew, a Russia Today correspondent reported early in the day that she and her crew were pinned down by rifle fire while trying to cover the security operation in one of the protest camps.
The intimidation and killing of journalists only thickens the fog of war and could impede Egypt’s efforts to resolve the crisis.
Investigative journalist Abdel-Rahman Hussein, who was himself injured in protests since Mubarak’s ouster, believes the violence and death toll of August 14 will cast a shadow on efforts to rebuild the country – and its morale.
“If the situation was a zero sum game before, now it is mangled possibly beyond repair,” he told The BRICS Post.
“After a horrendous day, with massive violence and bloodshed, it’s difficult to see any resolution good for the country and its people.”
* Death toll has been updated from 281 to 525 since the time of original publication.
By Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post