Egypt: ‘They Cannot Arrest Us All’

Cairo — “If you want to kill us, kill us. Come with tanks, come with aeroplanes, even cannons, we don’t care. We are here for our rights. We say to Sisi, we will live with dignity or die trying.”

These words were spoken two and a half weeks ago by 34 year-old Moataz Musa at the barricades surrounding the protest camp at Cairo’s Rabaa Square. And yesterday, Musa’s message was answered with extreme force.

Although the clearing of the anti-military sit-ins had been announced weeks in advance, no-one was prepared for the shocking violence by the Egyptian security forces that likely killed at least 700 on the streets of Cairo and across the country yesterday.

The crescendo of state violence against supporters of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, following his ouster on 3 July, reached its peak as bulldozers, snipers and helicopters were deployed against the civilians who occupied the protest camps.

Gas, guns and barricades

Rabaa Square, which housed the largest of the 40-day demonstrations, had turned into a small settlement with a population often in the tens of thousands. Yesterday, however, it was sealed off by police barricades and armoured vehicles, and cars were being forced to turn around about a kilometre from the police lines. For those trapped inside, trying to leave the square involved passing through the police lines and running through a hail of shots fired from rooftops. Many were killed in the endeavour.

Protestors who earlier tried to enter the square ran back from the barricades with streams of tears running from their eyes; clouds of teargas could be seen in the distance. Despite the chaotic atmosphere, people were still massing together to confront the police. Chanting and charging, they threw bricks and empty tear gas canisters at the approaching bulldozers sent in to break down their makeshift fortifications. One of the many brick walls raised around Rabaa in the last few weeks was knocked down by the demonstrators who destroyed the paltry defence to use the bricks as ammunition against the security forces.

On the frontline, the teargas dropped constantly, creating waves of panic and sending people trampling over each other. A child fell and lost his gas mask. He received a few strong kicks before receiving any help. Indeed most could do little but look for cover. Several people were shot by the police who fired indiscriminately on those trying to enter the square. Many of the protestors wore flimsy medical masks as their only means of protection. Those worst affected by the teargas were carried away in agony. Ambulances were rushing in and out non-stop as dense toxic clouds drifted into the sky where helicopters were hovering.

As violence spread from the camps across Cairo and then the country, the most recent figures made public by the Ministry of Health said 525, including 43 police officers, were killed and almost 4,000 were wounded. But this number continues to rise as reports from field hospitals and makeshift morgues keep coming in. Estimates by Muslim Brotherhood officials have claimed the deaths of over two thousand.

Prelude to the violence

After the massacre at Rabaa two weeks ago, the protestors had readied themselves to oppose an intervention by the state’s security forces. Nonetheless, the barricades made from paving tiles reinforced with sand bags which formed the main line of defence unsurprisingly proved to be no match for the heavy material brought by the police.

Over the past weeks, the camp’s volunteer security guards have maintained a constant vigil. Armed with sticks and batons, and protected by makeshift shields and colourful helmets, their primary function was to make sure those entering the square did not carry any weapons. Claims have been made by the authorities that protestors were bringing fire-arms into the camps, but camp inhabitants dismiss these claims as propaganda served to slander the mainly peaceful protestors.

“They want people to dislike us, that’s why they call us terrorists”, camp resident Neamat Mohammed told Think Africa Press. “When someone says we’re terrorists, they say kill them like flies.”

While all outsiders could see of the camp was its makeshift barricades occupied by informal security guards, protestors on the inside collectively prepared food for all to share, and in the weeks between the first and the most recent attacks on the camps, some described it as having a festival atmosphere.

‘A population, not a protest’

The anger of the protestors is directed towards the military regime, claiming that the overthrow of Morsi has to be seen as a military coup against a democratically-elected government. “Because I protested against the SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] last year I am here to fight for democracy”, said one protestor who only wanted to be quoted by his nickname ‘Gomaa’.

“We are not afraid of the military”, echoed 20-year-old Hadeel El-Arjory who spent many nights at the Al-Adaweya Mosque which lodged female protestors during the night. “The soldiers are our brothers, sons, they are family. We hate Sisi [head of the armed forces and defence minister] but we can’t hate the soldiers.”

Nadia Shawky, 54, also at the mosque, added: “Sisi is taking us years back. In history, they’ll write about him as a crazy man who led Egypt into a great accident. He is not qualified to lead us.”

Yesterday, reports told that as casualties overflowed from the seven-story central hospital, the mosque accommodated the dead and dying. Taking shelter there as security forces moved in yesterday, Mohammed ‘Kovo’ Essam, 23, who had been staying in the camp for over 40 days explained, “We are hiding inside the mosque. We are stuck inside.” Today the Mosque stands gutted.

A week and a half earlier, just before the end of Ramadan, Kovo, a business student and Brotherhood supporter was breaking his fast in the tent he had occupied for 32 days with a group of actors and musicians. “I am here for my religion,” he said, “I want to change my life. I can’t change it by myself; my friends and my family are here, we are the Egyptian people and we are strong.”

Kovo, who had lived in Tahrir Square for weeks in 2011 while protesting the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, said: “I am not scared of the police; I don’t care. I don’t feel like leaving and I know I could die. I am not a terrorist and I will die in peace. I would be proud to die for Egypt and I have no guns, no knives.

“They cannot arrest us all here”, he continued. “This is not a protest, it is a population. It is like a city.”

Crucial days ahead

Whereas the Egyptian military sided with the demonstrators protesting against the government of Morsi a month and a half ago, they now feel powerful enough to use extreme force against the fragmented population to subdue any voices of dissent. Egyptian society is divided while the military remains as strong. The violent crackdown on largely peaceful sit-ins has incited reciprocal violence with Muslim Brotherhood supporters not only attacking police stations but also Coptic churches, feeding fears of widespread civil unrest in the country. Egypt’s interim government has issued a state of emergency and enforced a curfew across 14 governorates.

But while Egypt is divided, it would be a mistake to view it as just two bitterly opposed camps. Some revolutionaries who welcomed the military’s aid in ousting the former president have turned into resolute critics of the military’s violent turn. As Egypt’s revolutionary dance continues, allies in one struggle have become adversaries in the next.

With the interim prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi offering no apologies for the extreme violence used in dispersing the protests – even going so far as praising the police for its “self-restraint” – and the Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Abdel Rahman Rashadan calling for more protests today and for as long as necessary to bring down the “military coup”, the reaction of the non-aligned groups to this most recent crisis might come to play a pivotal role in curtailing any further violence.

Callum Paton is a journalist working in North Africa with experience writing for British and Egyptian English language publications. He specialises in the politics and current affairs of North Africa and the Middle East. Follow him on twitter via @CallumPaton1. STORY_BIO: Elisa Iannacone is a cinematographer, filmmaker and journalist, based in Cairo, Egypt. She was Chief Editor/Writer for the Toronto newspaper Express Yourself, has published photojournalistic work in the BBC and CBC online, and has worked as Production Coordinator, Cinematographer & Journalist at CineFocus Canada and on the GreenHeroes Campaign.