Egypt's Tragedy: Military Dictatorship Takes Shape on Nile

Photo Gallery: Egypt Sinks Deeper into Chaos Photos
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Last Wednesday's massacre marked the beginning of a new phase of repression in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is on the defensive, and the country is threatened by the return of a military dictatorship. It could be the end of the Arab Spring. By SPIEGEL Staff

The paramedics in front of the main Cairo morgue in Sainhum are adamant that the facility cannot handle any more corpses. The cold rooms, the regular rooms and the courtyard, they say, are all full of bodies. There are even bodies on the street outside, making up an eerie queue, lying in rows of three, some shrouded in white sheets or black body bags and others in open coffins.

The dead move forward by half a meter every 15 minutes, pulled and pushed by their relatives. It's 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), but the dead are not in the shade. Instead, they are lying in the middle of the street, surrounded by buzzing flies.

Mohammed Riad, a gym teacher, has brought his cousin to the morgue. He was shot in the head. The cousin supported the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members had pitched their tents on Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which the police and military cleared last Wednesday, probably the bloodiest day in recent Egyptian history. But the family members standing in line outside the morgue have almost no opportunity to mourn the dead -- and that is intentional.

Every funeral march could also transform into a demonstration, which is why the Kafkaesque bureaucracy was doing everything it could last week to delay the release of the bodies. A doctor's report. and then an attestation from the police, is necessary before the body can be brought to the overcrowded Sainhum morgue. A death certificate can only be issued there. An additional document from the police is necessary before the burial can actually take place. The only way to speed up the process, said those waiting outside the morgue, was to declare that suicide was the cause of death.

The result could be seen on Friday: There was a relative paucity of funerals. But there were protests nonetheless. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters congregated on Ramses Square in Cairo. Once again, the security forces fired at the demonstrators, and the clashes left over 170 people dead. After state television had broadcast an appeal to Egyptians to form militias, groups of thugs armed with clubs and machetes appeared in many neighborhoods, lying in wait for Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Early Stages of Civil War?

No one has tried to stop the escalation, not the Muslim Brotherhood, which had called for a "Friday of rage" and has promised additional protests, and not the security forces, which continue to use live ammunition and have pledged to continue pressuring the Islamists. On Sunday, 36 more members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed, allegedly the result of trying to escape from prison. Reports indicate that they may have suffocated in the back of a packed prison van after tear gas was fired inside. And, on Monday, reports emerged that two police minibuses in the Sinai were ambushed by suspected militants, leaving 24 dead.

The events, taken together, make it seem as though Egypt is in the early stages of a civil war, a conflict that started with the Aug. 14 bloodbath. According to official figures, more than 600 demonstrators and 43 members of the security forces were killed. The Muslim Brotherhood claims that more than 2,000 people lost their lives, most of them killed by shots to the head and chest. The actual casualty figures are probably somewhere in between. Some 4,200 people were injured.

In response, Islamists have ransacked and set fire to dozens of churches and Christian-owned buildings. Several police officers have been lynched.

The divisions in Egypt are deep. Whereas reconciliation had seemed possible, though difficult, until last week, there are now two irreconcilable camps facing off against each other: the military and its secular supporters, on one side, and the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, on the other. The young activists and the liberals no longer play a role. One of their representatives, Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, resigned in protest on Wednesday evening. Violence begets violence, he wrote, adding that his words would be remembered. But nobody has listened.

The military is in the process of repeating the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood, arrogantly invoking a supposed "popular mandate" and pushing for a quick victory rather than a compromise. But the army cannot suppress the roughly 30 percent of Egyptians in the Islamist camp without limiting the freedom of all Egyptians. If it adheres to its course, the country could soon be under a military dictatorship.

'Death for the Arab Spring'

In the wake of the July 3 coup and the tragedy of Aug. 14, it seems possible that the military leaders never truly relinquished their hold on power after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago. If that were the case, democracy in the country would be a failure. Yemeni Nobel Peace Price winner Tawakkul Karman makes it clear what this would mean for the Arab world when she says: "The destruction of Egypt's revolution means death for the Arab Spring."

The ecstatic rhetoric about change and a democratic future is gone, and not just in Egypt. Although it is still too early to write off the Arab Spring -- it took centuries for democracy to gain a foothold in the West -- the democratic experiment is clearly in grave danger.

Tunisia, the cradle of the movement, threatens to plunge into chaos after two political murders, and the positions of Islamists and secular Tunisians are also irreconcilable. Despite elections, clan leaders and warlords are still in charge in Libya. The country is also plagued by bombings and has turned into the world's largest openly accessible arms depot. Syria has descended into a civil war that has already claimed 100,000 lives and turned millions into refugees. And Iraq and Lebanon are also on the brink of civil war along religious fault lines.

The Gulf states, which had generally been more liberal, have become more repressive. And it is no accident that undemocratic countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates promised Egypt $12 billion (€9 billion) after the July coup: a bonus to restore the status quo ante.

Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's one year in office seems like an historical accident. He was the only civilian president the country has seen since the overthrow of the king, in 1952. Although Egypt does have a transitional president, Adly Mansour, the chief justice of the supreme constitutional court, he has little power.

Once again, the country's leader is from the military: General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, 58, clean-shaven, usually seen wearing sunglasses and a dress uniform -- not unlike former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Sissi is the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, defense minister and deputy premier. He is also a conservative, religious bureaucrat and a holdover from the old regime. Sissi was the one who defended the "virginity tests" being performed on young female demonstrators with the odd argument that it was to protect soldiers against rape accusations.

The Army Has a Country

On the day after the bloodbath, army supporters went to what was left of the protestors' camp and chanted: "Sissi, Sissi." Many praised his tough stance against the Islamists, and some already see him as the next president. Although the general has said that he does not intend to run for political office, he hasn't truly ruled it out, either. The adoration for Sissi is reminiscent of that for former President Gamal Abdel Nasser -- and it is not unintended. One of Nasser's daughters has already written an open letter to the general, begging him to run and arguing that 30 million Egyptians agree with her. There are posters throughout the country that depict Sissi next to Nasser, and there is even a portrait of Sissi hanging above the former president's grave. There is also an old photo making the rounds that depicts a boy saluting Nasser. The rumor is that the boy is the young Sissi. Although this is most likely nonsense, it reveals the extent of the adoration that is being stirred up by the military.

There is an old saying that many are quoting once again today: Egypt has no army, but the army has a country. No other institution permeates society as much as the military does. Half of the country's 440,000 soldiers are conscripts. Those who manage to advance into the higher ranks gain access to an elite parallel world, complete with its own yacht clubs, amusement centers and hospitals. The military has never had to reveal its budget, and it makes strategic decisions on its own. With its cement and pasta factories, hotels and service stations, the military is also one of Egypt's biggest economic players.

Those who grow up in this world, like General Sissi, truly believe that the army is the "guardian of patriotic responsibility," as he wrote to Morsi during his inauguration. The general often uses terms like pride and nationalism, which is also reminiscent of Nasser, a former colonel who came to power in a military coup. Also like Nasser, Sissi has recently become critical of the West. Although he cannot fully emulate his idol, because he lacks the funds for social programs and the global political support, Sissi is taking advantage of Egypt's yearning for a hero.

But Nasser also brutally repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, laying the foundation for the current conflict. In this respect, too, Sissi seems to be channeling his idol.

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1. Egypt, Israel, US & EU
anthonybellchambers 08/19/2013
Lobbyists force Obama to fund Egyptian junta America must suspend the $1.3 billion (£830 million) it gives Egypt in military aid in the wake of yesterday's massacre of non-violent protesters against the military junta that has seized power in Cairo. Not least because this slush fund is now contrary to America's own legislation. However, central to the violence and instability in Egypt is the state of Israel who is lobbying hard for the US to continue to pay the Egyptian military junta. The United States has effectively bribed the Egyptian government, as it bribed former president, Hosni Mubarak, for many years in order that Egypt continues to subscribe to the agenda of the Israeli lobby in Washington to continue the siege of Gaza that has prevented the movement of essential supplies and still ensures that 1.6 million civilians in Gaza live on the edge of poverty and that Israel can continue its illegal settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There is no doubt that the US congress is complicit in this violation of human rights against the largest indigenous people of the region, the Muslim Arabs of Palestine, by its annual payment of $1.3 billion to the Egyptian government and $6 billion to the Israeli government in aid, gifts, grants and loan guarantees that maintains this odious status quo. US 'aid', as demanded by Israel for both itself and Egypt is an anti-democratic tactic that enforces an American foreign policy strategy in the Middle East that is determined not by the American people but by an unelected lobby acting for a foreign state. There is a compelling case for cancelling both EU and US aid/funding to Egypt and Israel until both comply with international law and the Geneva Convention on Human Rights, and both renounce violence against ethnic minorities. These two states respectively receive $1.3 billion and $6 billion every year from the US in grants, aid, gifts and loan guarantees. Astonishingly there is apparently no requirement that either government account for the use of these massive sums.
2. Egypt defend against Muslim Brotherhood terrorism
tamer-aly 08/19/2013
This is the truth . MBs were given the authority for a complete year and it turned out that they are enemies to Egyptian nation . We have civil president and government and population together with armed forces are fighting against MBs terrorism supported by USA
3. Law & Order
Jim in MD 08/19/2013
Unfortunately, the West did not call the coup what it was. Without evidence of wrongdoing by the Muslim Brotherhood, the army lacks legitimacy. Unfortunately, the recent church attacks demonstrate that the army also cannot provide security to Egypt's minorities. Only the MB can provide security and bread. If they want it, there will be civil war and the army will lose, because only have have the resources to leave Egypt.
4. optional
peskyvera 08/19/2013
If the Muslim Brotherhood hadn't won the elections, none of this would be happening. The same with Hamas in Gaza - we are all in favour of democracy...as long as the winning candidate has the West's approval. The West would do well to start practicing what it preaches.
5. Imposing Democracy
danm 08/19/2013
We should have learned our lessons from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. We cannot impose our beliefs on others. If a country lacks a democratic tradition and the underlying institutions that support a democracy, then it is crazy to think things will go according to plan. Democracy without a plan is irresponsible and the average people of these countries are the ones who will suffer. Do you think the Russian people were better off under Yeltsin than Putin? Really? How is Egypt any different. We do not live in a perfect world and we shouldn't think that ideals are a valid substitute for pragmatic thinking.
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