the Giza governorate building stormed by Morsi supporters on 15 August. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
August 23, 2013
Protesters suffocated in police vans, young men executed in the desert and constant fear are the realities of Egypt today
For several nights after the curfew was declared on 14 August, the streets of Cairo were quieter and darker than I'd ever seen them. As quiet as the morgue, the saying goes, except that our morgue, in Zeinhom, was the busiest place in the city: the dead arriving in scores; giant, refrigerated meat trucks parked in the narrow road to hold the corpses the morgue could not accommodate; relatives and friends, distraught, trying to access bodies; residents burning incense on the street to try to mitigate the smell
The morgue is the point to which our reality keeps returning.
On the streets where the living live, the streets of the City That Never Sleeps, it has been as though we're waiting for an air raid: the lights are switched off, and there are no lights either in windows or balconies. Darkness and silence.
Across the country, though, in tens of locations, there has been light, vivid blazing light, leaping out of windows and licking at walls, catching at the nearby trees. Forty-two churches have been torched, and so have many other buildings: the beautiful 19th-century villa that housed the Giza governorate office on the Pyramids road, the Franciscan girls' school in Beni Sweif south of Cairo, the library of veteran journalist Mohamed Heikal on the Qanater road, and more.
This conflagration was the response to the police breakup of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo, a violent attack that left hundreds dead. Brotherhood spokesmen denied responsibility for the fires, but the local people everywhere say that it was groups of Brothers who attacked the buildings and set them alight. We had all watched the non-stop incitement against Christians, the threats on television. In the runup to 30 June, and after president Mohamed Morsi's deposal, the Brotherhood leadership had one by one taken to the air: "Mohamed Morsi is a red line: if you spray Morsi with water, we'll spray you with blood," they said. "We will blow Egypt apart." I though these were metaphors. But then came more prosaic, detailed descriptions: "There will be blood, there will be booby-trapped cars, there will be remote-control explosions." "This (violence) that's happening in Sinai will stop the second Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declares the reversal of the coup."
General Sisi, commander of the armed forces, did not declare any reversals. In fact, he went out and asked the people for a mandate to "deal with terror", and, on 26 July, the people loudly and joyously mandated him. That night, I came home at two in the morning and found myself having to park in the middle of a street party: music from massive speakers on the back of a pickup and around 400 people laughing, dancing and waving small Egyptian flags and posters of General Sisi. One man a shopkeeper knew me, broke from the crowd and walked with me to my entrance: "The army will rid us of the Brotherhood and leave," he said, "won't they?"
It's impossible to say. One theory is that the army have learned the lesson of 2012 the year they ruled Egypt and turned the people against them that they will protect their interests and their privileged position and return as soon as possible to the director's chair in the shadows. Another is yes they've learned their lesson, so now they're making sure they come back by popular will. Since 30 June, the media have been full-throatedly hymning the military. On Tuesday the first images of General Sisi in civilian clothes started circulating.
Right now, though, the only thing that matters is that the killing should stop. In the last year, the killing has slipped its chain. You used to be pretty certain, when a killing happened, that it was the work of the state, or thugs in the pay of the state. Until 28 January 2011, the interior ministry was the killer. When the police were defeated on the streets of the revolution, the military took over their work. But the military were no good at packaging the killing; making it useful. So the interior ministry slipped back in to help them. In June 2012 we got our first elected president, and, in his first year in office, the state's monopoly on violence was broken. Bands of trained Muslim Brotherhood militias and supporters took on protestors and killed them. In the Ettehadeyya protests in December 2012, the Brotherhood set up an instant torture centre inside the wall of the presidential palace. The interior ministry carried on kidnapping and torturing and killing and the targets of the Brotherhood and the police were predominantly revolutionary activists and protestors: Mohamed Gaber ("Jika"), Mohamed el‑Guindi, Mohamed el-Shafei, Al-Husseini Abu Deif and others. But also non-political, sectarian and vigilante killings started to happen: where the efforts of Mubarak, the interior ministry and Scaf to turn people against each other had failed, the Muslim Brotherhood's rule and discourse were succeeding.
How will we stop the killing? On 3 July this year, the military, in a very popular move, deposed Morsi. And so kicked off the ugly stage we're in. But instead of deposing the president, they should have forced through a referendum on early presidential elections; that would still have protected the country from the unraveling, and it would have preserved the idea of democracy. Nobody I speak to knows why that was not the course taken. I hear dark hints about what Morsi "was about to do", or surmises about the wild support for the army on the street tempting the general to the shorter path. It seems clear that the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters would have lost the referendum; and they would have had to engage in a profound examination of what it was about their vision and their practice that was so unsuited to Egypt. That would have been good for all of us, for the country. Instead we finally have our own "war on terror".
I decided I'd had enough of curfewed nights alone, so I went for a sleepover at my brother's. As I opened my laptop on the dining-room table, the first tweet came in: 38 men killed in an attempt to escape from Abu Za'bal jail. Through the evening, we kept an eye on the news coming in through Twitter, the other on General Sisi delivering a long, calm, reasonable address to a hall full of military and police.
The General insisted that Egypt is not under military rule. He reassured us that the police and the army will "remain the trustees of the people's will" in choosing their rulers. Careful words
We wonder if the audience sat at will, or were told to mingle; the mixing together of the white and khaki uniforms is noteworthy; a visual acting out of what has been pushed on the country since the start of Morsi's presidency: the Army, the Police, One Hand.
Here, with my brother, his wife and their daughters, I can imagine that things aren't that bad, that we'll get through this.
But then the cut‑and-paste stories, put out by the interior ministry about the prison deaths, fell apart, and a version of a truth came out: 38 men, arrested over the last couple of days in the vicinity of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rab'a al-Adawiya Square, and held on remand, were being transferred to jail. They had arrived in Abu Za'bal, but the warden said the jail was full and they'd been left in the police transport vehicle in the courtyard. I've never been locked up in one of these vehicles, but my nephew and various friends have, and I've seen them up close: a big, dark metal box with tiny, high-up barred windows that give such poor ventilation that prisoners have to ask for air to be pumped in and out. They should not hold more than 20 people. Here, today, 38 men were kept in the vehicle for hours, in the August sun in a prison courtyard. By midday they must have been burning. They banged on the walls and a police officer came to speak to them. They grabbed him. Other officers freed him and relocked the transport. The men banged on the walls, shouted that they couldn't breathe, they were dying of heat. An officer suggested tear gas would quieten them down and a gas canister was lobbed into the transport.
In what's left of the night, we imagine the men's last moments the knocking into each other and into the hot metal walls, the blistering skins and the bursting lungs, the incredulous refrain: this is how I'm dying. And as we imagine the young men we individuate them: Sherif Siyam, a resident of the neighbourhood; Mansour Abbas, secretary general of the liberal Ghad el-Thawra party; Mohamed el-Deeb, theatre director and one of the founders of Artists for the Revolution. But as we remind ourselves of their individuality, we catch ourselves thinking that these men were not Brotherhood; they were passers-by, or sympathisers drawn to the sit-in because of the cruel violence it had suffered. Does this thought mean that we might be closer to accepting their deaths if they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood? It's as well to be aware of the beckoning avenues of justification that are drawing in so many of our erstwhile comrades.
The blistering skins and the bursting lungs, the bloody bruises, the blue faces of the corpses photographed by friends and lawyers will these be enough to reawaken people to the state of our murderous police?
Egyptian soldiers carry coffins of their colleagues on 19 August. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA
We wake up to more terrible news: 26 young central security conscripts, returning to their posts in Sinai to collect their demob papers have been taken out of their microbuses by masked men, made to lie down on the ground, and shot.
The country goes into a paroxysm of rage. Twenty-six young men from the most disadvantaged sector of society, they've done their duty by their country, they're about to start to make a life when they're robbed of life. We have to fight terror. Fight terror. Fight terror. All the TV channels show permanent banners: "Egypt Under Attack", "The War on Terror", "Egypt Confronts Terror". It's a sight to gladden Donald Rumsfeld's heart. The relatives of the murdered boys are brought before the cameras; a bereaved father says General Sisi and minister of interior general Mohamed Ibrahim should kill the perpetrators as soon as they catch them. "Don't bother to try them. Cut off the head of the snake," he says. His clip is played again and again. An uncle says he places responsibility on General Sisi: the army should have given his nephew due care and protection. His interview vanishes from the air.
Our nights are curfewed, our days blood-stained. The place we're in is dark. Very, very dark. So dark that it's possible for some to wonder quietly about the timing of the murder of the 26 young men in Sinai, about how it's deflected the country from the 38 men murdered in Abu Za'bal.
These last two catastrophic crimes have totally exposed the media's cynicism. Channel upon channel has used the soldiers; their young faces topped by their military caps, commentators and guests shaking their heads and inviting the viewer to reflect on the vileness of their murderers. (On Wednesday, the army will announce that 15 suspects have been apprehended and four have been killed). We see nothing about the men gassed to death in a police transport.
The level of orchestration that is being achieved is Orwellian. Flicking through channels is like the two minutes of hate. Everyone is using the same hysterical tone. Everyone is outdoing each other in virulence. It's us and them, us and them. Some channels have started speaking in English. There's a huge effort to justify what's going on to the world. It's ill-advised, and it's missing the mark.
State television is showing clips of police kettling, roughing up and shooting protesters all over the world: Wall Street, London, Melbourne, South Africa.
The state information service is threatening to withhold credentials for foreign journalists. Journalists John Greyson, Tarek Loubani and Abdullah al-Shami have been detained. Tamer Abd el-Raouf, a journalist for the state newspaper, al-Ahram, in Beheira, has been shot and killed at an army checkpoint. The colleague who was with him, Hamed el-Barbari, has testified he was shot as he followed orders to turn back. Barbari has now been arrested and charged with possessing weapons.
I was asked to write a personal piece, a personal account of what these days are like. But what is the personal now? The personal is that I'm away at a conference and my flat is broken into but nothing is taken. We put in extra locks and double-lock them every time we go out. I have iron put into the windows and tell myself they're prettier quite Valencian, really with the white wrought-iron and the white venetian blinds. The personal is the flash images of harm being done to me or mine; my reflexes have become so brilliant that I hardly see the image before I've swatted it away, flattened it. The personal is swallowing my principles and being grateful for a contact in the military rehabilitation centre who will fix the little and ring fingers of my cleaner's 15-year-old son, shot off when he and his mate were messing at home with a gun. The personal is living in a horror movie where people I've respected for decades speak bullyingly of "them" and "us", of with us or against us, of how everyone has to fall in behind "our police" and "our army" and toe the line. The personal is the woman who owns the corner shop raising her voice into the phone as I pass, making sure I hear her as she calls curses down on our heads, the heads of "those who brought us to this; who toppled Mubarak and turned the Brotherhood loose on us".
Everywhere the binary that the revolution so roundly rejects is being restated: the police state or the Islamists. We continue to reject it. I've always written that the police state is the enemy. Now I know that the Brotherhood, too, is the enemy. Their ideology, their world vision as it stands cancels out my existence. They will have it so; they will not make room for anyone else, they will exclude me in every way possible even if it means killing me. They have already excluded me from the kingdom of heaven. You will probably think I'm exaggerating. That's what I used to think when I heard words like these. Till I tried to work with them. Meeting after meeting during 2011 to try to hammer out agreements about the basic shape of the Egyptian constitution meetings that always mysteriously collapsed. I once asked Dr Mohamed el-Beltagy (interviewed in this paper on Wednesday) why people were so wary of the Muslim Brotherhood: "What is it you're planning to do to us when you come to power?" He shrugged, spread out his hands: "As you see, what can we possibly do?" Well, they started by surrounding parliament with militias to beat protesters with belts and sticks. Their year in power was a push to take over and develop Mubarak's hated economic and security policies. They abandoned the revolution and the people and courted their enemy: an unreformed and unrepentant interior ministry. And now they've fallen out with each other. They're killing each other, while the liberals, who have always hated the Muslim Brotherhood, are rehabilitating the police state, are egging it on and providing it with a justifying discourse.
The revolution the revolution of 25 January 2011 that we all fell in love with needs to not get caught in the war between its two enemies. The police state and the Brotherhood are both hierarchical, patriarchal, militarised, centralist, dogmatic, conformist, exclusionary organisations. Both are built on obedience. Both hate critical thinking and debate. Their wars are not ours.
And yet the revolution is not, and cannot, be silent in the face of the killings. Our regard for life and dignity cannot be compartmentalised. The personal is also my unending respect for our activist lawyers, our medics, our journalists and writers who continue to act and speak with humanity and professionalism, in the spirit of the revolution, through these terrible times. My respect and solidarity to Ziad Bahaa el-Din, my friend who agreed to his cost to serve as deputy prime minister and is fighting hard to dam the blood-lust; my love, and an arm round the shoulders of the young activists who are lying low, getting on with their day jobs, staring despair in the face and refusing to surrender to it, waiting and working for that moment when the street will come back, when we will give the ideals of freedom and social justice another push forward.
Mubarak's release is a set-back, but it's one more act in the circus of the ex-president. The Saudis have always requested it and the Saudis are now giving us money, but Mubarak has more court cases hanging over him. This will run.
Also not ours is the confrontation between the official Egyptian media and the old, frayed governments of the west; the Britain that arrests Green party MP Caroline Lucas for taking part in an environmental protest, the US that persecutes the journalist Barrett Brown and convicts Bradley Manning have nothing of value for us. The common struggle of young people everywhere is against the elites enforcing a corrupt system that's sending the world to hell. It's just that in some countries, like the UK, there's more of a margin for life, a margin for doing things without getting shot.
Here, we're getting shot and asphyxiated and slaughtered for free. Someone was saying yesterday that perhaps the most useful thing we can do right now while we wait out the monoliths' battle is collect money to expand the morgue at Zeinhom. We're back to the black humour we were so used to in the Mubarak days. But we know it won't last. Our spiralling cycles happen so quickly now. At this moment, the revolution is reduced to banging pots into the dark curfew at 9pm. But, once again, each day our noise grows louder; it's a noise that signals our determination to work for an Egypt for a world that is kinder and fairer to more of its people.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (Bloomsbury).