There Are No More Good Guys in Egypt

One thing that makes this crisis so vexing: Each of the country's major groups have done something totally horrible in the past few weeks.
Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi carry an injured demonstrator who was shot during clashes in Cairo. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

CAIRO -- Almost a thousand people dead, dozens of churches burnt, its capital's most affluent districts subjected to raging firefights: Even in a region all too accustomed to conflicts of unrelenting savagery, Egypt's past week has stood out.

It wasn't meant to be like this, of course.

The last time this many foreign journalists decamped to Cairo, they witnessed millions clamoring for the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

But Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolutionaries' efforts, is blocked off now, with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and double coils of rusty barbed wire strung across its approach roads. It's an apt metaphor for Egypt's withered revolution.

Last time, we, the West, rooted passionately for the beleaguered masses battling the brutal police state, cheering their demands for "bread, freedom, and social justice," and interpreting their triumph as evidence of democracy's irresistible allure.

This time, however, we have no one to root for.

The security forces, Muslim Brotherhood, and partisans of both sides have all engaged in the bloodshed while seeking to tar their opponents as inhuman.

In the battle for the country's soul, it's "terrorists" vs. "murderers" in the language of Egypt's bitterly polarized political players.

Amid the carnage, Egyptian society has slowly begun to unravel. Islamist pitted against nationalist, neighbor against neighbor, father against son. Even some traffic accidents are now cast in harshly politicized tones.

When a bearded pedestrian was knocked-down by a taxi while crossing the road a few days ago, he barked "Sisi killer" at the clean-shaven driver (in reference to army chief General al-Sisi).

Popular committees have re-emerged in many neighborhoods for the first time since the revolution. Brandishing sticks and sometimes machetes, they search cars and devote particular attention to interrogating men with long beards.

"I'm scared. There's just so much anger and so much hate," said my downstairs neighbor, an 80-year-old former Deputy Minister of Agriculture who has put off a much-needed doctor's appointment for fear of leaving his apartment.

The security forces dispersal of the two pro-Morsi camps on Wednesday was ferocious and pitiless by any measure. At least 700 died and thousands were wounded across the country, as the police, backed by the military, moved to empty the sit-in protests that had occupied two squares on the fringes of Central Cairo since former president Morsi's overthrow in early July.

Justifying the crackdown, interim government officials insisted these camps were dens of armed insurrection and obstacles to the city's traffic flow.

Certainly, many of these people weren't blameless. An investigation conducted by Amnesty International uncovered evidence of torture by Morsi supporters in the vicinity of the Rabaa al-Adaweya camp on the Western outskirts, and they, too, had guns.

In the upscale Mohandeseen neighborhood, where men evicted from the Nahda camp sought to establish another sit-in protest, a van laden with AK47s pulled up near to the front line where Morsi supporters were battling police and distributed weaponry. The fighting swiftly intensified, with both sides suffering casualties amid the thick black pall of burning tires and blazing police trucks.

The police have been hit hard by the Islamist backlash to the camps' dispersal, with 45 policemen among the dead on Wednesday, including 11 executed and then incinerated in their police station just outside Cairo. Police have now been withdrawn from outside many embassies and confined to barracks for fear that isolated units might be vulnerable to revenge attacks.

Presented by

Peter Schwartzstein

Peter Schwartzstein is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. He has worked for Reuters and the Jerusalem Post.

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