Egypt Descends Into Chaos: At Least 53 Killed And More Than 400 Wounded

Egypt Descends Into Chaos (Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2013):

CAIRO—Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood accused the country’s military of massacring dozens of its supporters during dawntime prayers in Cairo on Monday, as Egypt’s deadliest clashes in years between the army and Islamists pushed the country toward armed conflict.

At least 53 people were killed and more than 400 wounded, Egypt’s official media said, in a clash between the military and supporters of Mohammed Morsi, who had gathered near the site where Mr. Morsi has been held under house arrest since he was ousted as president last week.

Egypt’s military denied the allegations of a massacre, saying that soldiers defended themselves after they were attacked with guns and Molotov cocktails, and that 42 protesters, plus a soldier, had been killed.

Monday’s violence demonstrated the peril of the military’s decision to remove Mr. Morsi, the first freely elected president in the history of the Arab world’s largest nation. Despite its relative stability, Egypt is flirting with what several analysts have until now seen as a worst-case scenario—the kind of armed conflicts that have roiled other countries in the so-called Arab Spring of uprisings.

Only last Wednesday, the military said it was responding to popular will by ousting the country’s Brotherhood-backed president. Millions of Egyptians cheered. Standing alongside Egypt’s military chief, leaders representing the country’s Muslims, Coptic Christians and secular opposition promised to form an inclusive interim government.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans in front of army soldiers at Republican Guard headquarters in a Cairo suburb Monday.

Those same leaders, including opposition point man Mohamed ElBaradei and Egypt’s top Sunni sheik, condemned Monday’s killings. Many Egyptians’ hopes for inclusiveness gave way to fears that the young leadership was seeking to rebuild a political system without the Brotherhood, the nation’s most powerful political force, to possibly deadly result.

“I don’t know what the generals were thinking,” said Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer on Middle East politics at Exeter University in the U.K. “They thought that they would topple a president who 12 million people voted for—part of whom are hard-core supporters—and that they would get away with it.”

Mr. Ashour said the situation in Egypt recalls Algeria in 1992, when that country’s military leadership took control just as an Islamist party neared electoral victory. The result was an eight-year-long uprising in some 100,000 Algerians died.

Despite Monday’s violence, Egypt’s military-backed government pressed ahead. Interim President Adly Mansour issued a constitutional declaration late Monday laying out a new timeline for Egypt’s political transition, which envisions a new parliament within about six months and a presidential election sometime after that.

The 33-article document, reported by state media, calls for two appointed committees to make amendments to the constitution drafted by the deposed Islamist government.

The changes would be put to a popular referendum within roughly four months. New parliament elections would follow two months after the referendum. The newly elected parliament would then have a week to set a date for a new presidential vote.

Following Monday morning’s attacks, Egypt’s generals lost the loyalty of the only Islamist group that had supported their coup. The spokesman for the ultraconservative Nour Party, which represents Salafi Islamist politicians, announced on his Facebook page that the group was pulling out of negotiations over a new government in protest over the killings.

“We will not be silent on the massacre at the Republican Guard today,” said Nadar al Bakkar. “We wanted to stop the bloodshed, but now the blood is being shed in rivers. We withdraw from all talks with the new government.”

As Egyptians woke Monday to reports of early morning violence, hopes for a government of national unity took a grave hit.

Accounts diverged widely of the clash near Cairo’s Republican Guard Club, where the Muslim Brotherhood and military leaders say Mr. Morsi is under house arrest, with both sides seeking to portray themselves as the victims of aggression.

According to witnesses and survivors, state security forces attacked Brotherhood supporters as they finished morning prayers.

In statements issued immediately afterward, the Muslim Brotherhood said soldiers had opened fire with live ammunition. The Brotherhood emailed links to YouTube videos that it alleged showed civilian victims being carried away from the scene of the shooting in the predawn darkness.

A military spokesman said gunmen had opened fire on the troops, some from neighboring rooftops, eliciting a response from the military. Egyptian state television ran footage that it said showed civilians firing handguns at soldiers and police officers.

Commentators on state television, some of whom are members of the security services, said the soldiers had acted in self-defense.

In an emotional joint news conference on Monday afternoon, the military and police sought to portray themselves as defenders of the Egyptian state that had come under fire from a “terrorist” group.

“There are limits for patience,” said Ahmed Ali, a spokesman for the armed forces. “We hope that our message would reach many of the Egyptian people: We won’t allow any tampering with Egyptian national security.”

The 84-year-old Brotherhood disavowed violence in the 1970s, but Egyptians can still point to a history of armed Islamist insurgency. Since last week’s coup, the Brotherhood leadership has mixed calls for “intifada,” or uprising, with pleas for calm and peace.

In its statements following the attack, the group called on its followers to launch an “uprising” against “those who stole the revolution”—a thinly veiled reference to Egypt’s military. Later, two senior officials said the Brotherhood will continue to push for indefinite but peaceful protests, rallying its large network across the country.

A message Monday morning from the Twitter account of Mr. ElBaradei, the leader of Egypt’s opposition who was appointed vice president on Sunday night, read: “Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned. Independent investigation a must. Peaceful transition is only way.”

Mr. Mansour, the interim president, announced that he would form a judicial committee to investigate Monday’s killings, state TV reported.

The head of Al Azhar, one of the world’s oldest universities and a center of Sunni religious learning, called for reconciliation and dialogue, an end to violence and the release of prisoners. Sheik Ahmed Tayyeb warned of an impending civil war, and said he would go into seclusion until the crisis was resolved.

The European Union offered its strongest criticism yet of Egypt’s new authorities, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying in a statement that she “deplores the loss of life this morning at the Republican Guard HQ.”

She called on “all sides, but particularly…the interim presidency and those in a position of authority and influence, to reach out to all political forces, and to move rapidly toward reconciliation.”

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