I awoke at 7 a.m. on Wednesday to a frantic telephone call. A contact inside of Raba’a al-Adaweya, one of the two six-week-old Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that took over two Cairo neighborhoods, was on the line. “It’s starting,” he told me. “We’re surrounded. They’re firing on us from three sides.”
I spent the rest of the day alternately seeking out the injured and trying to avoid becoming one of them. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been killed at Raba’a, at the Cairo University sit-in, and at flashpoints throughout Cairo and the rest of the country.
Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side. I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police.
Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.
These scenes in an Egypt that I thought I knew remind me sadly of the place I spent the better part of the last year as a Human Rights Watch researcher: Iraq.
Iraq too is littered with checkpoints, far more numerous and permanent than in Cairo, and with bomb-scarred neighborhoods; radical Jihadist groups and security forces who commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This is what I fear Egypt could become. There, divisions are entrenched: the sides are unable to divorce themselves from past grievances and ultimately choose violence over national reconciliation. Waking Thursday in Egypt, after a night of fires blazing in Cairo neighborhoods, a death tally over 500 and steadily rising, I fear Egypt has embarked on a similar path.
Wednesday could have been prevented. Since my return to Cairo at the end of June, Egypt’s military commanders and their supporters have employed a zero-sum stance that mimics Iraq’s leadership, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The statements of Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, and others have appeared in the past six weeks to represent a mentality in which political victory is predicated on forcing opponents to submit completely.
Rather than addressing crimes that individuals may have committed during the demonstrations – their abuse of suspected informants or use of firearms in clashes with residents – the Egyptian authorities’ strategy has been to demonize the Brotherhood as collectively responsible for “terrorism.” As in Iraq, Egyptian leaders portray themselves as seeking peaceful solutions, only to be forced to confrontation by the other side.
Even if the military and the Brotherhood wish to pull back from the brink at this point, it is not clear they are nimble enough. This is in large part thanks to the use by Egypt’s current rulers – like their Iraqi counterparts – of a framework of “terrorism” to describe non-violent sit-ins, rather than as legitimate peaceful protest, and now to disperse them accordingly. In his now infamous appearance before the Navy and Air Defense Academies on July 24, Gen. Sisi told Egyptians he wanted them to give their support to the army and police, warning that “if violence or terrorism are resorted to, the military and the police are authorized to confront that.” With this call, Sisi cemented the split that has Egypt divided along two poles: those who support army rule and those who oppose it. Egypt’s leaders avoided seeking a resolution to Egypt’s political crisis, instead resorting to brinkmanship with the Muslim Brotherhood’s equally hyperbolic leadership.
In Iraq, a similar discourse by political and military officials has led to an increasingly polarized society, leading the country back into vicious civil conflict, and directly causing many of the most intransigent human rights problems I documented there. This polarization has escalated since December 2012, when a frustrated Sunni population took to the streets to protest what they see as their disenfranchisement from Iraqi political life. Rather than acknowledge the legitimacy underlying their grievances, al-Maliki suggested that “Saddamists, terrorists and Qaida militants” were behind the protests.
Iraq’s approach has nowhere been more evident than in attacks on a protest camp in Hawija at the end of April.
About 1,000 people from the area had been there for more than three months to protest what they characterized as disenfranchisement from Iraq’s political process. Army and police fired on protesters, killing at least 50, claiming that they attacked in response to threats by armed people hiding in the protest.
The Iraqi authorities, when they weren’t justifying the attacks, announced they would investigate and formed several fact-finding committees, but the results have been zero accountability. Ditto for announced investigations into earlier attacks on protesters in Fallujah and Mosul.
In the last several weeks in Egypt, I’ve seen a hauntingly similar scenario: twice, before Wednesday, security forces fired on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi in response to what they claimed was provocation. There is ample evidence that security forces used brutally excessive force both times. In the first attack, army and police reportedly killed 51 people; in the second, central security forces, police, and men in civilian clothes are believed to have killed at least 80. The military said that one soldier and two police were killed in the first attack. No security forces died in the second.
Like authorities in Iraq after Hawija, Egypt’s current rulers denied responsibility for the killings. In April, the Iraqi defense minister, Saadoun Dulaimi, characterized Hawija protesters as “terrorists” and said, shortly before security forces opened fire, that the government should “let them be killed.” In December 2012, Maliki called protesters terrorists and threatened to “crush” them.
Fast forward to Egypt, July 8, the day of the attack that killed 51. “What excessive force?” said a military spokesman, Ahmed Mohamed Ali. “It would have been excessive force if we killed 300.”
On July 24, two days before the second attack, General al-Sisi called for mass demonstrations to support a crackdown on “terrorism and violence.” On July 27, the day after the attack, Interior Minister Ibrahim preposterously denied that security forces had “ever shot an Egyptian with live fire.” He accused the Brotherhood of exaggerating the death toll, despite ample documentation that most died of bullet wounds to their heads, necks and chests. On July 31, Egypt’s interim cabinet authorized the Interior Ministry to clear the sit-ins as a “threat to national security.”
The brutal disregard for the lives of opposition protesters in Egypt risks having the same effect as in Iraq, where the opposition has become increasingly radicalized. With al Qaeda exploiting Sunni anger in Iraq over the government’s refusal to meet their demands – claiming that the numerous attacks they carried out in the last several months were retribution for the Hawija killings – the gains that the “Awakening” made against the insurgency after 2007 are being undone.
In Egypt, leaders demonized the Brotherhood and incite a population more than willing to take the bait, thanks in part to the abuses Brotherhood leaders committed during their year in power. Some Brotherhood supporters said they see no peaceful way out, and have taken the bait, becoming more desperate and more extreme.
I spoke to numerous men and women at the Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins who had lost friends or relatives in the second attack. Many said it had made them more determined to “martyr” themselves. “Now I will stay here until my last drop of blood is shed,” a 22-year-old accountant told me.
In Egypt the level of political violence so far has not come close to that in Iraq. But the behavior and rhetoric of both sides is deeply worrying. If leaders continue to respond with brutality, the opposition may well become further radicalized. Subgroups already appear to be attacking security installations and churches throughout the country – again, a picture all too familiar to me from Iraq.
Egypt’s leaders can pull out of the vortex of violence by stopping not just the language of “us versus them,” but actions that appear to show limited, if any respect for the basic right to life of opposition supporters, to justify a fight to the death over who owns Egypt. Instead leaders need to convince the opposition they still have a stake in peaceful participation in society and the political process.
Erin Evers is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.