A trampled poster of Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi is seen on the ground outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, where supporters of Morsi had a protest camp in Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, August 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Cairo at night has become a city of silence. Once among the world’s most crowded and raucous nocturnal metropolises, it is now home to ghosts, a place haunted by fear and despair. Never ones to abide by past military-imposed curfews, Egyptians stay indoors after sunset. The night is owned by helicopters roaming the skies, fat army tanks sitting heavily in the streets and bands of men wielding knives, clubs and guns at makeshift checkpoints. The occasional crackle of gunfire rings out, a reminder that the violence has only slowed, not stopped.
Most of the killing is done during the day. Over 1,000 dead in three days of carnage. As a reporter covering conflicts over the years, I have seen many dead bodies—but never have I seen so many people dying before my eyes. The last gurgling gasp of air, the eyes turning lifeless, the rising wails of grief.
As Egypt plunges headfirst into a deadly downward spiral with no end in sight, many of its citizens are baying for still more blood. Both sides leading the conflict, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, are playing a zero-sum game, based on a false binary demanding that Egyptians choose one or the other. Both are defined by hierarchy, patriarchy, secrecy, mendacity and a blinding sense of their own superiority. Both are juggernauts in the Egyptian body politic that have heedlessly clawed away at Egypt’s social fabric in their struggle for power, proving time and again that their own political and economic interests trump all.
In meting out violence, the military and security apparatus has an overwhelming advantage, and its forces have done so with unflinching brutality. The storming of the sit-ins supporting deposed president Mohammed Morsi on August 14 marked the bloodiest day in Egypt’s modern history, with more than 800 dead. Cairo was inundated with corpses. In the al-Iman mosque the day after the raids, more than 230 bodies lay on the floor. The smell of death hung heavy in the summer heat, as family members placed blocks of ice on the bloodied shrouds to try to stave off the decay. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition, blackened by the fire that burned down the field hospital and the Rabaa al-Adeweya mosque, the epicenter for Morsi’s supporters over the past six weeks.
Justifying the crackdown, the government and police repeatedly assured Egyptians and the rest of the world that, in fact, they had acted with the utmost self-restraint. “Terrorism” was the word repeatedly used, with Army spokesman Ahmed Ali succinctly summarizing the state’s logic of violence. “When dealing with terrorism,” he said, “the consideration of civil and human rights are not applicable.” The military-backed cabinet, the security establishment and the allied so-called “liberal” elite have vilified an entire swathe of society as violent extremists unfit for political life.
Those who don’t toe the line are demonized. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureate who resigned as vice president of international affairs in protest of the violent storming of the sit-ins, has been subjected to a merciless defamation campaign. One popular cartoon shows him stabbing Egypt, depicted as a woman, in the back. On Sunday, August 18, he boarded a plane to Austria, declining to give interviews about the reasons for his departure.
Any media coverage remotely critical of the crackdown has been met with vicious rhetoric from all sides, manifesting itself on the streets as a rising number of attacks on journalists, particularly foreigners. On August 17, Egypt’s State Information Service released a statement to foreign correspondents, criticizing international coverage as biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and accusing them of conveying “a distorted image that is very far from the facts…. This raises many questions about the neutrality of the media and its goals.”