Egypt’s Mohamed Mahmoud Anniversary Protests Were Pretty Surreal
The second anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes was a confusing day of demonstration. Hundreds gathered in Cairo Tuesday to pay tribute to protesters killed by riot police during a crackdown on the Egyptian revolution two years ago, but wanting to commemorate those who lost their lives was about as close to an overall common ground as it got. Demonstrators included people who support the army, people who support the Muslim Brotherhood, and people who support neither and don’t want to be ruled by either a military junta or Islamists.
Thankfully, the scenes of November 19, 2011 weren’t repeated, but small scuffles did break out near the Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square as pro-army groups exchanged verbal—and then physical—threats against their opponents. For the most part, it was a peaceful day of demonstrations dominated by the “third square” movement that opposes both the army and the Brotherhood.
In the build up to the day’s events, various groups released statements outlining their plans for the day. The pro-Brotherhood “Anti-Coup Alliance” made it clear that they had no intention of going anywhere near Mohamed Mahmoud Street or Tahrir Square, “so as not to give a chance to the conspirators to fabricate violent incidents and blame them on the [Anti-Coup Alliance].” They kept their word and their protests were mostly confined to areas away from central downtown Cairo.
The Dying Art of Belly Dancing in Conservative Egypt
At the Scheherezade club in Cairo’s downtown district, five paying customers and a dozen staff sat and gawped as the belly dancer shimmied across the stage, amid the peeling paint, chipped murals and dusty faux chandeliers of what used to be a very grand dance hall. The atmosphere is awkward and sad. When a member of the audience threw a handful of Egyptian pounds in the air, the club owner swiftly appeared and scooped it all up. When someone tucked a big bill into the dancer’s dress, she promptly handed it over to the aging pimp-like crooner on stage.
There’s no glitz or glamor in sight, only a tired and depressed-looking dancer doing one of the few things that might earn an uneducated woman a lot of money in Egypt. (Top dancers can earn up to $2000 to perform at a wedding.)
The past three years have been tough in general for most Cairo entertainers.
Yesterday, for the first time in four months, Egypt’s deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi appeared in public. Since his ousting on July 3 the interim government and armed forces have gone to great lengths to keep his whereabouts a secret. The inevitable speculation made for some interesting gossip: was he rotting in jail in Alexandria? Was he effectively being held captive in the Republican Guard HQ? Was he, for whatever reason, in Qatar? Could he even be dead?
If he is found guilty of the charges laid against him, death will become a very real possibility for Morsi. He, along with 14 other high-ranking members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, are accused of a multitude of crimes, including incitement to murder.
On December 5 last year, a march staged by supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood intentionally made its way to an anti-Morsi sit-in outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. Predictably, violence ensued, with 11 people dead—three of them non-Brotherhood. Reports subsequently emerged that Brotherhood members had set up makeshift torture rooms and graphic stories leaked out over the proceeding weeks. The question now is how much Morsi, or Brotherhood leaders, had to do with any of it.
Bloodshed, teargas, and plumes of acrid black smoke are never far from the streets of Cairo these days, and they returned this weekend as police fought with supporters of Egypt’s ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Around 50 people are reported dead after the clashes, which lasted for hours on the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli War.
This Sunday’s protests were part of the weekly and sometimes daily marches that have been taking place since Morsi was deposed by the Egyptian military on July 3. The marches have gradually been intensifying since hundreds of his supporters were massacred at Cairo’s Rabaa mosque on August 14, expanding to include growing numbers of young people and non-Islamist protesters. This latest march was organized with a familiar objective in mind—to demand the end to military rule—and it was met with a familiarly appalling response. Its destination—Tahrir Square—has been a no-go zone for Islamists in the days following the coup and the country’s security forces weren’t keen on the idea of relinquishing their turf.
I went to the Moahndesin district in Cairo in the afternoon, where the much anticipated protests were scheduled to leave El Mahroosa mosque after noon prayers. I’ve been following these marches for the past month but Sunday’s protests seemed like the largest so far. It was led by hundreds of yellow-clad ultras, who banged drums and bellowed loud chants as the crowd made its way along the normal route. When the time came to break off and mark this special occasion with a visit to Tahrir, the anxiety ratcheted up a few gears.
Death, Peace, Power, or Jihad: What Is the Future of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?
After last Monday’s verdict from the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to face a future that mirrors the majority of its past: Once again becoming an illegal organization.
After some deliberation, the presiding judge proclaimed, “The court bans the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-governmental organization, and all activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it.” He also ordered the interim government to freeze the Brotherhood’s assets and establish a panel to administer them until any appeal has been heard.
The court didn’t reveal the grounds for the ruling, but it was apparently prompted by the leftist National Progressive Unionist Party—also known as Tagammu—who claim that the Brotherhood have links to terrorists organizations and are guilty of “exploiting religion in political slogans.” Whatever the reason for the verdict, it seems that the spectacular fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is now complete.
It’s a relief, realizing that you’re not going to burn to death in the back of an Egyptian prison van. However, witnessing an attempted rape moments later brings you straight back to the immediate reality of the situation, which—for me—was being held prisoner in Cairo during the bloodiest fighting in Egypt’s recent history.
Notes from a Cairo Journalist Being Hounded by Spies and Thugs
Four journalists have been shot dead in Egypt this week. Dozens of others have been arrested, and I myself—a relatively young reporter—have received death threats. I am now being followed.
Since last Wednesday, I have seen my closest friends and colleagues beaten and repeatedly arrested as they have struggled to cover a story that the Egyptian government would prefer the world ignored. More than 600 supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were killed on August 14, when the security services moved in to forcibly disperse a protest camp inside Rabaa el Adaweya Square. They came with bulldozers and guns.
The standoff lasted for ten hours; by 3 PM, bodies lined the floors of makeshift field hospitals andeven a mosque. Muslim Brotherhood supporters say this was a “massacre.” According to Human Rights Watch, it was “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” But most journalists could only watch from afar: police and army troops blocked off the site, firing tear gas, birdshot pellets, and live ammunition at anyone who tried to enter.
I spent hours trying to find a safe route in, but every side street was blocked. Instead of doing my job, I could only run from gunfire or crouch behind cars. By the end of the day, three journalists, including veteran Sky News cameraman Mike Dean, had been killed. Another photographer remains in the hospital, suffering internal bleeding and serious kidney damage.
The situation can only get worse. Politically, the country is now so dangerously polarized that coverage on either side of the divide invites attacks. On Sunday, I received a warning that I would be “shot in the back” as a result of my articles examining pro-Islamist protests. Most worryingly, it name-checked people close to me. I am now living out of a rucksack in a different part of town, and have repeatedly been followed by a man who appears to be from state security.
It’s been just over a year since Egyptians, having thrown off the rule of Hosni Mubarak, voted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as their first-ever democratically elected president. At the time, it wasn’t seen as just a victory for politically minded Islamists, but also for the concept of democracy in the Muslim world. Founded in 1928 to agitate against British colonial rule, the Brotherhood had spent most of the intervening decades as a banned, secretive movement, its membership frequently rounded up by the country’s military rulers in mass arrests that often ended in torture and execution. As the expert on jihadist groups, Aaron Y Zelin, notes, the consequences of this conflict are still being felt: “After the military crackdown in 1954, we saw over the next two and a half decades different breakaway factions either attempt coups and assassinations or outright low-level insurgency campaigns. This led to the rise of what we know as jihadism today.”
After 80 years spent operating in the shadows, the Brotherhood’s electoral success seemed to disprove the claims of radical thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, who asserted that Islamism would never be allowed to govern democratically in the Middle East. (This claim is made often, despite the fact that in those few Arab countries that actually hold elections, Islamist parties consistently win the most votes.) Jihadist advocates of armed struggle had always claimed that the concept of democracy was a sham, and that as soon as an Islamist party achieved power, there would be a reoccurrence of the scenario seen in Algeria in 1991—when the newly elected Islamist government was overthrown by a military regime, plunging the country into a vicious civil war of almost unimaginable brutality.
Since the ouster of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by the military on July 3, clashes between pro-Morsi supporters and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) have left the country’s streets stained with blood.
On July 24, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a security mandate that would fight the “violence and terrorism,” and for a 7 PM to 6 AM curfew to be enforced. The situation took a turn for the worse this week when the military opened fire on Morsi supporters and Muslim Brotherhood members near Nasr City. The death toll from the massacre climbed to over 600. The country has completely shut down: businesses remain closed, railways are suspended, and people are terrified to leave their homes. The original revolutionaries who marched for democracy are squeezed out of the equation as the military and Morsi supporters keep fighting and bodies continue to spill out of morgues and into mosques.
We video chatted with Gigi Ibrahim, a prominent activist in the Egyptian revolution, to try to make sense of everything that’s been happening in the country.