Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

The Cairo Diary: Sit-in Dispersal Watch

By Laura Dean
Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 7:00 AM

I am back in Cairo after some time out of the country, and there is a lot going on. Here are some notes from the last fews weeks in reverse chronological order. The older ones date back to mid-July, before I left.

Today, Muslim Brotherhood protesters (and most of the Cairo foreign press corps) have been on sit-in-dispersal-watch since yesterday, waiting to see if the interim government will make good on its threats to disperse the sit-ins at Rabaa el Adawiya and el Nahdha Square that have gone on for almost six weeks.

The calculation of when to go in and how---and how much force to use---requires a complicated balancing act that takes into account both domestic and international pressures. So far, the independent and state Egyptian media have given no signs that they would do anything to condemn a crackdown on the Brotherhood supporters. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, an imam famous for preaching in Tahrir Square during the January 2011 uprisings and known to be anti-Brotherhood, has helpfully warned against allowing pro-Morsi demonstrators to leave the protest sites unharmed, according to the State Information Service. (Sheikh Mazhar was suspended for a couple of weeks this April following complaints that he had criticized then-President Mohamed Morsi.)

In this instance, international pressure and attention are very important. Since the domestic press and many opponents of Morsi's opponents don't seem all that phased by the killing of unarmed protesters and some even support outright violence against them, the military and the interim government must be made aware that the world is watching and that they will not be able to kill more unarmed civilians without consequences. The embattled but media-savvy Brotherhood, seem to have realized this and are livestreaming both protests to try to avoid a repeat of earlier confrontations where both sides presented competing versions of the truth, often in the form of dueling YouTube footage of the clashes.

Meanwhile the protesters aren't going anywhere. A playground is set up for children during the Eid (one might ask what children are doing in a place where the government has threatened to enter and possibly use force) and I heard today that two-story structures have been built.

August 11, Some Lighter Fare

Teams from the two sit-ins take part in a soccer match at the el Nahdha soccer pitch to boost morale. El Nahdha beats the Rabaa team, which perhaps is unsurprising since they have a soccer pitch on their camp site where young men play every night during Ramadan after Iftar.

The pitch in question:

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August 2, Is this How Radicalization Begins?

Nour is seventeen. His father has been active in the Muslim Brotherhood for longer than his son has been alive. Under Mubarak, he was arrested six times. A few days after Morsi was removed from office by the army, Nour and his parents were coming back from Umrah, a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Nour tells me that there were people at the airport to arrest his father but that a relative who worked there took them out a back entrance and they escaped.

He is a shy and helpful teenager. For nearly a month he has been camping out at Rabaa el Adaweya. About three weeks ago he tried to go home, he said, but was followed by police. He feared they were following him to find his father, so he went back to the sit in. He is always immaculate. I ask him how he does it. I do my laundry at my sister’s place, which is nearby, he tells me.

“Take care of yourself,” was the last thing he said to me when I left him at Rabaa el Adaweya three weeks ago before leaving the country for a vacation.

On July 27th Nour took four bird shot pellets in his shoulder.

“But thank goodness” he says. And then, “I saw five men die beside me.” At least 72 pro-Morsi supporters were killed that day.

When I see him again this past week, Nour is more reserved than when I had seen him before. When I say I am glad he is alright, he tells me he wishes he had "become a martyr" that day. He says that though he was involved in the protests in 2011, this was the first time he has seen that sort of violence.

The more young people like Nour are exposed to state violence and perhaps, down the line, imprisonment and ill treatment, the less receptive they will become to dialogue and the more vulnerable to more extreme notions of political expression. And it would not be the first time. Many Islamists became radicalized after undergoing torture and violence in Egyptian prisons under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

July 16, The Other Muslim Brotherhood Protest

I go out to Cairo University today, to the pro-Morsi sit in there, because a friend has told me that plumbers had been setting up makeshift bathrooms for protesters in the school gardens. When I arrive, demonstrators tell me that they have supporters from all professions---including plumbers. Sympathetic doctors and nurses staff the field hospital and professional translators work in the media office.

The journey ultimately takes longer than I expect.  When I get off the metro, I ask someone for directions to the university's main gate. A young man explains the route but advises me against going, saying that dangerous things were happening there.

A little further down the road, I come across a young art student.  She has come to pick up her exam results at the university, and we  talk for a while. We stroll past two army checkpoints; armored personnel carriers parked at each; coils of barbed wire stretch across the street.  Just before our paths diverge, the student looks at me, a serious expression on her face, and she warns me to "be careful."

"Why?" I ask.

"Because, well, you know, they're the Brotherhood."

The remark strikes me as ominous, and I wonder---for the umpteenth time in the last two weeks---when everyone became so afraid of the group. The Brotherhood always has frightened many Egyptians, at some level. But the current deep hatred and distrust seems incongruous after Morsi won a majority of the vote. And how did the Brotherhood win a strong plurality of the legislative election? It is clear, in any event, that the media campaign against the Brotherhood certainly is stoking more fear.  I thank her all the same.

When I come upon the site of the pro-Morsi demonstration, I find nothing obviously dangerous.  Instead I come upon what has the look of a self-contained, self-sufficient community. There are tents, as at Rabaa el Adaweya, a kitchen where protesters bring items to be shared and cooked for everyone, and a field hospital. I'm told that people sleep here, but many nevertheless continue to go to work during the day.

My Nahdha visit in pictures:

Men at prayer under the baking midday sun:

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A protester-built tap where men do their ablutions before prayer:

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The Brotherhood and the Army

One thing I've noticed in the last few weeks: many Morsi supporters distinguish between the army leadership---chiefly Abudul Fatah al Sisi, the military's head and target of their ire---and the armed forces's rank and file.  As far as the latter group goes, there seems to be just as much army-love amongst the Brotherhood as there is in any other pocket of Egyptian society.  Which is to say that there's a lot of it.

I talk with Hossam el Sharqawi, a 35 year-old interpreter in a multinational company and a spokesman for the pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo University.  He participated in the January 25 revolution against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. For the moment, he's taking vacation from work, though he says he may have to forgo his day job entirely, and continue on with the protesters, should the political stalemate persist.

"Actually the army in Egypt is very special," he tells me. "As for me, my cousin is an officer in the army and my father and also so many relatives are in the army, so it . . . is part of the people."

I ask about his relatives' views on el Sharqawi's participation in the sit-in:

He said that everyone is worried about their safety and is afraid that the sit-in will be attacked by the security services after the killings at the Republican Guard. Many of those close to him have urged him to abandon the demonstrations.  "My father and mother and everyone are talking [to me] daily...[telling] us go back, it has been decided and leave it." But el-Sharqawi says he resolved not to return until the former president does.

Moreover, having as much faith in the soldiers as he does, el Sharqawi is sure that their higher-ups must be deceiving them: "I cannot imagine what they are telling their officers, what they tell the soldiers and the army, how they convinced them that they can kill their own people. I am shocked by this."

One note of unqualified anger toward the armed forces does emerge though in response to some pamphlets dropped by the military over Rabaa el Adaweya and the Cairo University sit-in.

"It is as if they are an attacking colonial army…[dropping pamphlets] from the air, in an airplane."

"This action is used when you attack a foreign country. . . . You don’t throw pamphlets on your own people." In his view the appropriate way to communicate their message---which they have taken as a vague threat of force if they don't disperse---would have been to make an announcement over Egyptian media---television or radio.

The offending pamphlet:

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The back of the pamphlet bears the army seal:

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El Sharqawi suggests the drop is an enormous waste of money---"two million pounds," he guesses, "to make this plane go out and make these papers . . . as if we are the enemies and they are putting these pamphlets on us."

And yet, the Brotherhood is almost as reluctant as anyone else to unabashedly criticize the army outright.

Barricade at one of the entrances to the area:

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One more note on the Army

One of my favorite features of the SCAF period---the post-Mubarak period in which the Army directly ran the country---were these posters. When military popularity was dwindling, a brilliant strategist clearly thought, what better way to improve one's image than to mass produce posters of one of your number, normally thought to be fearsome and gun-toting, holding one of the most vulnerable members of our society. Several people pointed out at the time that the baby was particularly Aryan looking:

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This image looms, ironically, over the pro-Morsi protesters at their encampment at Rabaa el Adawiya.

Meanwhile, the sit-in tent cities become more permanent every day and the waiting continues.