In Egypt, the deaths keep racking up - and few pay any attention
Isra Lutfi was only 15 years old and the men beside the bright blue tent where she died pointed to the bloodstains on the mat with something approaching indifference.
“She was running from the gunfire and that’s where the bullet entered,” one of them said, pointing to the neat little hole in the cheap plastic wall of the tent. Whoever was shooting at the Muslim Brotherhood encampment in Giza at dawn yesterday morning got away, as usual. He – or they – were probably firing from the grounds of Cairo University. Indeed, just opposite the place of Isra’s martyrdom stands the great domed hall where, four years ago, Barack Obama asked the Muslim world to forgive the sins of George W Bush.
Four members of the Brotherhood also found death amid the tents and garbage opposite the university gates yesterday. “But we carried on praying,” the man at Isra’s tent said, as if martyrdom were a way of life. Since violence has become so normalised in Egypt now – since the local papers often fail even to mention the names of the dead – let those who died at Giza here be recorded. Apart from Isra, all were men. One was an engineer, Hossamedin Mohamed. Another was a lawyer, Mohamed Abdul Hamid Abdul Ghani. The Brotherhood did not know the job of Abdul Rahman Mohamed and they knew only the first name of the fifth victim of the morning. Osama. All were shot by high-velocity rounds. Who fired those bullets? Who knows?
In a land where killers go free, they were variously said to be plainclothes policemen, army agents, “Baltagi” – slang for thugs, ex-cops and drug addicts – or local residents sickened by the camp and its graffiti and posters of bloodied martyrs. No one came to investigate the shooting. Egyptian radio claimed nine had died although there wasn’t a bearded man – and the Brotherhood men were all bearded – who could account for the extra four dead. Local flat-dwellers may not like the Brotherhood but they would surely not try to shoot them down. Yet there is a kind of torpor around the camps, both in Giza and in Nasr City, where the wind rips away the posters of the corpses from the massacre on 8 July that left more than 50 dead, where “Morsi President” is lamely spray-painted on the walls while pictures of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Defence Minister and leader of the coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup, has a Star of David painted on his military cap.
In a city which now boasts more conspiracy theories than Beirut, the Israeli “plot” – getting rid of the only Islamist-led state on its border – is now doing the rounds, along with the Morsi “plot”: that the man was dismantling the state of Egypt when the army arrived in the nick of time to save democracy. A subsidiary plot now involves the one soldier the military claim was killed by the Brotherhood during the 8 July massacre. Weirdly, he did not receive a military funeral – as all Egyptian soldiers do, for example, when they are killed in Sinai. The “plot”? He must have been killed by his own officer for refusing to shoot at Brotherhood supporters – and thus forfeited last rites from his army.
The lawlessness now cloaking Egypt is real enough. It’s not just a matter of village lynchings and the shooting of Christian Copts and Brotherhood supporters and widespread theft. A young woman told me of her father’s predicament, a landowner with property 150 miles from Cairo who was visited by an “armed group”. Baltagi, I asked? She didn’t know, but what she did know was that they asked her father to hand over his property. He refused and found that other landlords in the same city were now all paying protection money to the “group” – and when they complained to the police, they found that the cops were themselves also paying protection money to the same “group”.
Some believe they include men freed from state prisons during the 2011 revolution, several of whom are known to live as outlaws in the Sinai desert outside el-Arish. Lawlessness on the Egyptian side of the Israeli frontier existed in Mubarak’s time and now includes al-Qa’ida-inspired gangs who supposedly owe their freedom to Morsi. On average a soldier is killed every day in Sinai but when Lina Attalah – one of the most assiduous of Cairo’s reporters, who goes to Sinai every month – visited el-Arish last week, she found it strangely calm. “It doesn’t feel like a war zone,” she says. “There are ‘jihadi’ groups and a level of militancy exists with some form of organisation. The risk is that they will start operating together but they don’t seem able to grow or recruit. The tribes there like the soldiers. They prefer the army to the police who treat them badly.”
The one thing that the events of the past three weeks has proved, however, is that the Brotherhood does not have a militia. A few guns fired off by angry supporters, perhaps, but no secret army, no armed commandos, no “fedayeen”. Not that you’d believe this from the Cairo press which is now showing a subservience to the army that it once displayed towards Hosni Mubarak before the 2011 revolution, if it was such a thing. Leftist liberals – the Egyptians beloved by all journalists – say that the coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup was in fact a continuation of the revolution, while the Brotherhood believes that the 2011 revolution can only be restored if Mohamed Morsi is put back in power, an event as unlikely as the return of the Pharoahs.
By chance, yesterday was the 61st anniversary of the Egyptian military revolution by General Mohamed Naguib, who toppled King Farouk in 1952 and who was in turn toppled in a coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser a year later. Without any sense of irony, General Sisi – in his new role of first Deputy Prime Minister as well as Defence Minister, head of the army and leader of the coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup – went ahead with a vast military parade in Cairo on Monday to mark the Naguib coup.
The extraordinary thing about the coup-that-isn’t-a-coup is the vast number of the aforesaid intellectuals who support it. Folk who would normally frown at the mere sight of khaki are now even making excuses for the 8 July killings. One old friend of mine – a genuine “analyst” of Egyptian politics – said that the army must have been “badly provoked” on the day of the killings. He spoke of how an army could only “act like an elephant” in such situations – not an idea to commend itself to Gen Sisi, I should imagine – and how the army would never wish to undermine democracy. “You have to understand that Morsi was hijacking our country, he was dismantling the state – in one more year, he would have completely dismantled it. He was following the definition of democracy that [the Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan gave to a journalist when he was governor of Istanbul. Erdogan said that democracy was “like taking a tram – you ride it to your destination and then you get off”. That’s what Morsi thought. He pushed through his wretched constitution. He didn’t plan to have any more “democracy” or any more elections.”
All this can be unsettling when it is repeated, over and over, by otherwise perfectly sensible, reasonable free-thinking Egyptians. How, for example, can an army be in favour of democracy when it has accepted dozens of fake elections for Egyptian dictators – Nasser and then Sadat and then Mubarak – and yet steps in to prevent the winner of the only real presidential election in modern Egyptian history enjoying more than a year of democratically won power? True, Morsi only received 51 per cent of the vote. But that is surely more realistic than the 96 per cent vote of the dictators whom the army always protected. In a perverse logic, the very continuation of the Brotherhood demonstrations now “prove” that its supporters are not democrats; for if they were, they would acknowledge that Morsi cannot return to power now that the people “support” a new interim government chosen by the army.
So how will the Brotherhood demonstrations end? An appeal to do so by Morsi, perhaps? Unlikely, since Morsi – wherever the army has closeted him – has so far clearly refused to make such an appeal. If he was ready to, the army would assuredly have freed him to do just that.
When the Algerian army forbade the last round of elections in 1972 for fear that their Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), would win, it opened vast prison camps in the Algerian deserts to jail thousands of FIS supporters without trial.
Have the Egyptian generals been chatting to their opposite numbers in Algeria? If they have, be sure they won’t be chatting about the civil war that followed the cancelled elections in 1992 – and killed a quarter of a million people.