Abdullah Elshamy, an Al Jazeera correspondent, has now been in prison for 175 days and on hunger strike for a little over two weeks.
"I’ve lost a number of pounds. I only rely on liquids. The littlest effort makes me feel dizzy,"he wrote in a letter smuggled out of his prison cell, where he isn’t allowed access to pens or paper. “But it’s what I feel compelled to do in order to raise awareness about the importance of freedom of speech.”
Abdullah—who was arrested during August last year when armed police violently cleared a sit-in by supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi—is one of four Al Jazeera journalists in jail, all held on vague charges while prosecutors prepare formal proceedings. They are among the dozens of reporters in Egypt who have been beaten up or detained over the past six months. Nine more have been killed since the start of the uprising in 2011.
These arrests and many of the deaths are symptomatic of what the country has turned into since the army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Morsi last summer. Egypt’s interim government is doing everything in its power to silence Brotherhood sympathizers, crushing the country’s revolutionary street movements by issuing a law that effectively bans any form of public protest.
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.
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.
I Toured Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood Protest Camps Just Before the Military Crackdown
This morning, the Egyptian Army finally followed through on threats it had been making for days and launched a full-scale assault on Muslim Brotherhood protest camps, including the main one at at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City district. For the past month, thousands of supporters of recently deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi had been holding sit-ins to protest his ouster by the military after widespread protests, and even before this latest incident, there had been clashes between government security forces and protesters that left as many as 130 dead. The Egyptian government claims 13 people have been killed in today’s violence, but that number is probably much too low. Protesters fleeing the sit-ins fought back by throwing stones and bottles and lighting fires, but obviously they are no match for the army’s machine guns, tanks, and tear gas.
In the days leading up to the brutal crackdown, Egypt’s liberals called for the military to act more aggressively on the sit-ins, and the Rabaa camp was accused of being a terrorist camp harboring foreign fighters where immoral sexual activities and child abuse took place. Though some international organizations refuted those claims, Amnesty International found evidence that the Brotherhood was torturing their political opponents. Some protesters decided to push back against these rumors by inviting anyone who was interested to come in and have a look around.
Is Systematic Sexual Assault a Political Tactic in Tahrir Square?
It was almost 11 PM on Friday, November 23, 2012, when from the window of her apartment in downtown Cairo, not far from Tahrir Square, Ghada heard a crowd screaming, “She has a bomb strapped to her stomach!” Ghada (who wishes to be known only by her first name) immediately thought of her children who were outside among those who had gathered. She ran to the balcony to search for them, but her terror shifted into action when she saw a naked woman pinned against the hood of a car, with a circle of men around her. Ghada grabbed her husband and some clothes for the stranger, and they sprinted downstairs to rescue her. They pushed through the crowd and into the circle, pulling the girl to safety.
Earlier that afternoon, Yasmine El Baramawy and her friend Soha (a pseudonym chosen to protect her identity) had made their way to Tahrir Square after hearing about the clashes between anti-Morsi activists and government-backed security forces. Protests against the post-Arab Spring constitution had started in Tahrir Square two days before. Yasmine and Soha hadn’t planned to explicitly join in; they just wanted to watch from a few feet away as protesters cheered against President Morsi.
In the fall of 2012, five months after becoming Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi signed a “constitutional” decree that gave him unlimited authority: he simultaneously appointed himself the chief of police, the chief of the military, and the head of Congress, giving himself the power to appoint or dismiss anyone within the government at only his discretion. He was, in the plainest terms, mad with power when many felt he had run on a platform that styled himself as the antithesis of Hosni Mubarak. Backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was supposed to improve Egypt’s economic well-being and restore political control to the people. Egyptians were angry. Yasmine and Soha were angry.
On June 30, Egypt erupted in civil protests in opposition to President Mohammed Morsi and his aggressive consolidation of power. The military threw its weight behind the grass-roots movement, ultimately forcing Morsi out of office on July 3 and arresting some of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that backed him. The fighting that started between the military and Muslim Brotherhood rapidly turned into divisive clashes between Egyptian citizens. The battles in the streets have left so many dead and wounded that families are having trouble claiming and burrying their loved ones. To get an understanding of what is happening in Cairo, VICE linked up with activist Gigi Ibrahim for a grand tour of the chaos.