The Bad And The Ugly : Political Violence In Moqattam

Amid the hours of violent street battles near the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood on Friday, one moment stood out, captured by Shorouk newspaper photographer Sabry Khaled.

In the picture, a young man dressed in blue and black track pants and a blue hooded sweatshirt with a bandana around his face points a hand gun at a bearded man he holds by the shoulder as both run through the street. Other young men who stand nearby, one of whom holds a rock, look uninterested or are not watching at all. The bearded man’s face, though half-turned toward his attacker and away from the camera, grimaces in anticipation.

Moments later, according to Khaled, a shot rang out, and the bearded man’s neck spurted blood “like fire.” The young man in the track pants ran away, and Khaled, originally trained as a maxillofacial surgeon, approached to check the fallen man’s pulse. He appeared dead. Too shocked to take more pictures, Khaled began to cry. Soon after, the man’s comrades - members or supporters of the Brotherhood - arrived and loaded his body into a car.

“With our hands, we’ll take his rights,” they told Khaled.

Many images of brutal violence committed by both sides emerged from the fighting in the capital’s Moqattam district, perched on a plateau overlooking the city from the east, but none so striking as the attack on the bearded man. Never before had someone associated with the anti-Brotherhood opposition been so clearly caught in an act of lopsided aggression.

“When the protester becomes the thug,” read a caption written by activist Ahmad Aggour, one of many who reposted Khaled’s photograph on Facebook.

According to a complaint filed by top Brotherhood lawyer Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud on Sunday that accused 169 "thugs" and political leaders of sparking and participating in the violence, one Brotherhood member died and dozens were wounded in the fight.

Some of the Islamists’ opponents responded to Khaled’s image with disbelief, seizing on claims by others who said they knew the attacker personally and that his gun, with its simplistic design, was a toy. More likely, the weapon was a flare pistol or homemade fard - an illegal single-shot handgun with a widened barrel made by blacksmiths using scrap metal and typically loaded with shotgun cartridges.

Such guns proliferated after the revolution, but their use in and around street protests has escalated in recent months. The trademark boom of the fard, followed by the clattering shower of its pellets, has become the soundtrack to an ongoing political battle that grows more out of control every day. In Muqattam on Friday night, many Brotherhood protesters showed a journalist the bloodied welts where they had been hit by fard pellets.

Brotherhood supporters did assault their opponents in Muqattam, savagely beating many who they captured and holding dozens in the basement of the nearby Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, where some of those detained said they were tortured. But the blatant use of force by those opposed to the Brotherhood has for the first time opened uncomfortable questions for Egypt’s opposition, who belatedly condemned the attacks but blamed President Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood for bringing the violence on themselves.

Beyond forcing the opposition to grapple with the use of violence, the Muqattam clashes have also exposed them to a possible government crackdown that could throw Egypt into even greater chaos. Islamists have accused leading leftists and secularists of providing political cover to criminals, and the prosecutor general on Monday ordered the arrest or questioning of well-known activists and party leaders. Morsi has threatened to use "emergency measures" to "protect" the country, saying he is "president after a revolution, meaning that we can sacrifice a few so the country can move forward. It is absolutely no problem."

Some observers have partially attributed the violence to the rising anti-Islamist radicalization of the urban poor: new opponents who have fewer qualms about the use of force than middle-class revolutionaries and are increasingly furious over the Brotherhood-led government’s failure to improve the collapsing economy - the opening round of the so-called “revolution of the hungry.”

They also pointed to the series of escalations that led to Friday’s events, including the March 16 beating, outside the Brotherhood headquarters, of a small group of protesters and journalists. One Brotherhood supporter was filmed slapping activist Mervat Moussa to the ground, incensing those who saw the widely shared video. The Brothers, including prominent social media users such as Ahmed el-Mogheer, were seen to be goading their opponents, promising death to anyone who tried to storm their headquarters in response.

In a statement released the day before the clashes, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, the leader of the Popular Current to which Moussa belonged, said that her dignity was “higher than the dignity” of the president and the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, and that the Brotherhood would be held accountable for the beatings and “pay the price.”

Whatever the case, Friday was about revenge. Dubbed “The Day of Reclaiming Dignity,” it seemed aimed at a fight from the outset. Brotherhood supporters in the streets leading to the headquarters and vehicles suspected of transporting them were attacked in the first hours after protesters began ascending the main road to the Moqattam plateau.

One Brotherhood supporter was briefly covered in flames by a Molotov cocktail, and at least two vans were burned. Journalists at the scene reported a knifing and beatings, many of which were captured on video. Suspected Brotherhood supporters were besieged in a mosque. After dark, most of the gunfire appeared to come from the opposition’s side.

“Why are you chanting ‘peaceful?’” shouted a young protester quoted by an Egypt Independent reporter earlier in the day. “Have you all forgotten why we’re here?”

The boy’s remark did not herald the arrival of violence on the Egyptian political scene, but rather its return. Though peacefulness has become woven into the fabric of the revolution’s founding mythology, the 2011 uprising was hardly peaceful. Politicians and activists who invoke principles of non-violence when making claims to revolutionary legitimacy gloss over the roughly 900 civilian deaths that preceded the forcible eviction of Hosni Mubarak and his cabal at the hands of the military.

Police who attempted to stamp out protests with tear gas, birdshot and bullets were met with rocks, bodily force and, occasionally, gunfire. Prisons were emptied, police stations burned, and vigilante justice dispensed throughout the country. The Tahrir Square sit in, whose ideology of civil disobedience won international sympathy, was itself necessarily protected with violence.

The brief utopia in the Square obscured a harsher narrative: that the violent defeat of the police and chaos in the streets provided necessary conditions for the military intervention that enabled Mubarak’s ouster.

More than two years later, peaceful aspirations and tactical violence remain unreconciled.

Friday’s events were not endorsed by the usual array of political parties and movements that typically lend their weight to demonstrations, though anonymous online calls for a peaceful “million-man” protest cited support from the liberal Free Egyptians and Sabahi’s Dignity Party, as well as prominent activists including Khaled Ali, Nawara Negm and Alaa Abdel Fattah, who all attended.

The violence seemed to catch the political opposition by surprise. Ali, a lawyer and former presidential candidate, was hospitalized with a dislocated shoulder after he tried to break up a fight. Negm and Nazly Hussein, a well-known human rights campaigner, wrote on Twitter about their failed efforts to save captured Brothers from beatings.

When they tried to help, they were confronted by enraged young men taking revenge for what they saw as a series of regime- and Brotherhood-sponsored murders, including the alleged police killings of activists Mohamed el-Guindy and Gaber Salah and the deadly December street fight at Morsi’s Ittihadeya Palace, where the Brotherhood-led dismantling of a small sit-in sparked hours of gunfire that left more than a dozen people, including several Brotherhood supporters, dead.

“I swear to God I felt bad for them and was going to save them until one of [the protesters] told me, ‘The Brothers at Ittihadeya electrocuted me until I can no longer get married,’” Negm wrote. “So I left him to beat. Put yourself in his place.”

Abdel Fattah, seeking to explain the violence on Saturday, wrote a six-point statement on his Facebook page, arguing that it was hypocritical to accuse the Brotherhood’s opponents of illegal behavior when the Brotherhood itself, even though it was in power, had broken the law through Morsi's November constitutional declaration and other perceived abuses.

“If you think our movements should be peaceful, then you should think about how to pressure the authority that illegitimately suppresses all the movements that pose no real threat to human lives or bodies, including insults, roadblocks, blockading institutions, strikes, sit-ins and graffiti in all places and at all times,” he wrote. “Then we can discuss the legitimacy and morality of violence.”

Egypt's prosecutor general has ordered Abdel Fattah, along with four other activists, arrested in connection with Muqattam battle. He has also summoned Negm and Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the leader of the Social Democratic Party for questioning.

Later on Saturday, political figures began to express their concerns. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former presidential candidate and ex-Brother who leads the Strong Egypt Party, denounced the violence and said it was result of “the failed authority and politicians who aren’t looking to anything but their own narrow interests.”

“What’s happening in Moqattam now is an expression of the chaotic state prevailing in Egypt, chaos of a group of opportunists who are paying Egyptian youth to die because of the attack or defense of a building that has no value compared to one drop of Egyptian blood,” he said.

Amr Moussa, another former presidential candidate, said his Congress Party “rejects violence and cannot accept counter-violence” and that, while the ruling authority was absent and had missed “dozens” of opportunities to reconcile with the opposition, “our role does not stop at just criticizing those who rule.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, the intellectual leader of the liberal opposition, who has ruled out violence many times, shied away from outright condemnation and laid blame squarely on the government. Security forces did not know how to handle “protests,” he argued.

“Violence begets violence, and the tragedy of the nation will not be solved through violence,” he wrote on Twitter. “The regime is responsible for the protection of citizens and dealing with the causes of violence and its consequences.”

On Sunday night, 48 hours after the street battles, the umbrella opposition National Salvation Front, led in part by ElBaradei, issued a statement condemning the “violence and counter-violence” in Moqattam. The group noted its history of rejecting violence, pointing to the previous attacks by the Brotherhood and other groups of the “religious right”.

The Brotherhood’s angry response to the Moqattam events, the NSF argued, “ignores the real reasons for the violence, most prominently the insistence of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to monopolize power, control the mechanisms of the state, and abandon the national cooperation which was promised as a method of rule in his election program.”

The reluctance of the opposition to use the Moqattam violence as a prompt for self-examination reflected their deeply held belief that the root of the country’s problems lies not with them but with the Islamists and, more controversially, that violence may prove to be a means of getting rid of them.

This perspective hinges on the belief, held by many opposition figures, that Egypt remains in a state of revolution, or put another way, that the uprising yielded a second dictator whose toppling by revolutionary means is justified. This view, ludicrous to some but very real to Morsi’s opponents, holds that it is still possible to reset the clock on Egypt’s 25-month transition and start again from the beginning.

“I’d feel comfortable saying I’d like to see a military-led transition,” Naguib Abadir, a founding member of the Free Egyptians, told me earlier this month. “A correct transition with a constitution first, then parliament, then president. This is the dream we all had - transition to a real democracy where religion doesn’t play a role in politics.”

No opposition politician has endorsed violence - it is almost guaranteed that none will - but the prospect has recently come close to surfacing in their public statements, such as when Free Egyptians chief Ahmed Said told The Daily Beast earlier this year that the country was witnessing “the second wave of the revolution” that would oust Morsi either by causing enough chaos for the military to intervene or by pitting citizen against citizen in a dystopian version of the January 2011 uprising.

This revolutionary mindset means that many in the opposition see both principled and tactical reasons not to involve themselves in politics - part of what Steven Cook has labeled their “high art of being feckless” - and consequently have either withdrawn or attempted to boycott Egypt’s two most recent defining political events: the drafting of the constitution and parliamentary elections.

Few in the Salvation Front will give Morsi the benefit of the doubt anymore. In January, Aboul Ghar, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, which has long argued within the Salvation Front for political participation, told me what had happened during negotiations with Morsi before he issued his November declaration.

“We were invited to meet Morsi, all of us … everyone came with two to three possible solutions, which were written … and he was interested and listened very good and finally he said definitely the constitution of Egypt will be secular and modern and progressive and, number two, I will never ever put a constitution to a referendum unless there is acceptance and agreement between all the factions of society. Forty-eight hours later, they asked all these committees to work until the morning to finish, and here was the declaration and all these demonstrations, and Egypt was divided,” Aboul Ghar recalled. “He is a decent man. He is a reasonable man. I think his integrity is OK. But as a Muslim Brother, he is just a number.”

On one hand, in their view, participation would grant legitimacy to a regime that has committed a series of crimes: issuing an unchallengeable executive declaration in November to rush through a faulty constitution, besieging the Supreme Constitutional Court to prevent judges from deciding the legality of how that constitution was drafted, and ordering cadres to attack protesters encamped outside Morsi’s palace in December.

Additionally, non-participation means avoiding any share of the blame if the economy crumbles and attempts to enact austerity reforms are met with unrest that Morsi must combat with a nearly unmanageable police force.

Participation looks like a lose-lose game, so the opposition has decided not to play until the rules are changed.

Prominent parties within the Salvation Front are working on long-term projects - strengthening their internal organizations and paying for vote-winning social services in the governorates - but ceding the field to the Brotherhood in the short-term comes with consequences.

Politically, Aboul Ghar argued in January, “the party who will not participate will vanish for the coming five years.”

“[Boycotting] never produced any good result,” he said. “I mean, even if the elections are rigged, even if the elections are hopeless, by being there you will show the people it is rigged and hopeless and so on.”

But beyond ballot boxes, abdicating responsibility for events to the Brotherhood leaves the door open to further chaos. It is overly simplistic to believe people like ElBaradei or Sabahi could end clashes with a word; the young men fighting on the front lines, like soldiers at war, care more about their wounded or abused friends than directives from political leaders multiple generations removed. But the absence of a meaningful alternative leaves Egypt like the residents of Moqattam on Friday night, fending for themselves as order breaks down around them.