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.
The Military Dictatorship Returns
It is as though the February 2011 overthrow never happened. Egypt is caught once again in a conflict that has raged for more than 60 years and has dominated the country since those eight bullets were fired on Nasser on Oct. 26, 1954, in a failed, and perhaps staged, coup attempt. At the time, Nasser banned the Brotherhood and imprisoned its leaders. In the ensuing decades, fear of the Islamists was used to justify the military's authoritarian control and the brutal tactics of the security services. In the end, however, the military created precisely what it had claimed it was preventing: even more radical Islamists.
The parallels are difficult to overlook. Once again, the army is arguing that its aim in deposing Morsi and brutally breaking up the Muslim Brotherhood protests is to protect the country from plunging into chaos. But the attacks on the Islamists are only creating more turmoil.
None of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders can currently be reached. They have either gone into hiding or have been arrested or killed. Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad wrote on his Twitter account: "We will push until we bring down this military coup," and "It's not about Morsi anymore. Are we going to accept a new military tyranny in Egypt or not?"
But a return to military dictatorship may not just mean a return to pre-2011 conditions, but in fact a return to even darker times. "Under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed, but the repression was never total. The Brotherhood, as the country's largest opposition force, was allowed room to operate, to contest elections, and to have seats in parliament," writes political scientist Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank. "The current military government is much more ambitious, with its aim to dismantle the Brotherhood and destroy it as a political force." To achieve this, Hamid continues, the generals have "tapped into real, popular anger against the Brotherhood. ... Continuous civil conflict, in turn, will be used to justify permanent war against an array of internal and foreign enemies, both real and imagined."
There are plenty of indications that this is indeed the case. Even before Egypt's bloody Wednesday, dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members were locked up, and former President Morsi has also been held, in an undisclosed location, for the last seven weeks. On the day before the massacre, the government released the names of the new provincial governors. Two-thirds of them are generals. The old state security service is also back in business. And shortly after the massacre, the military announced a state of emergency, claiming that it would only last for one month. But the last time a state of emergency was declared, it lasted 30 years. And under a state of emergency, arbitrary arrests and expedited trials are once again possible.
The media, at any rate, has fallen back into its old propaganda role. On Thursday morning, the state broadcaster announced that the protesters in the tent camps were all terrorists and had shot themselves to death.
But the Muslim Brotherhood is also spreading conspiracy theories, including the claim that 75 percent of pro-army demonstrators in recent weeks were Christians who had only taken to the streets at the behest of the Coptic patriarch. This apparently resonated with Islamists in southern Egypt, as evidenced by the rise in attacks on Christians.
After the Wednesday massacre, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim issued a terse statement saying that the security forces had acted in accordance with international standards and with great self-restraint. There was no word of regret over the many dead. The minister was later shown on state television attending the funerals of dead soldiers and police officers.
But the question remains: What really happened on Aug. 14?
Sainab Mahmoud is sitting next to her husband's body in the Health Insurance Hospital near the Rabaa al-Adawiyah Mosque. "He was coming from the ablution fountains in the morning when the first shots were fired. A bullet struck him next to the ear and emerged through his face. After that, they shot at everything for hours. We just wanted to get out, and so we walked toward the military policy with our hands in the air, but they didn't stop shooting."
Abd al-Maula, a math teacher from Ismailia, is squatting on the floor nearby, next to the body of his 21-year-old son, a third-year engineering student. "I was on my way to the camp when I suddenly heard shots fired," says the father. "One of my son's friends called me, saying (my son) had been hit in the neck. We spent seven hours trying to find a hospital that would treat him, but they all turned us away. Then my son was dead."
Samah Hussein, a swimming instructor, is picking up the body of a friend. "Mohammed called me in the morning and said: They're storming the camp. What should I do? I promised that I would come over, and then we spoke a few more times by phone. 'I'm standing outside,' he said. They were his last words. When I found him, he had a hole in his head."
Molotov Cocktails and Gunfire
There are many stories like these. Eyewitnesses all tell the same account of snipers, who were positioned on the surrounding rooftops, unexpectedly opening fire in the early morning, with gunfire coming from the adjacent military base as well. Security forces claim that they used tear gas at first, but that the Islamists responded with Molotov cocktails and gunfire.
The tragedy was not a complete surprise. There had already been two bloody attacks on Muslim Brotherhood supporters since July 3, with about 150 dead. There were international protests, but they faded away before long. And in Egypt itself, the protests died down. Perhaps the generals believed that they could get away with a bloodbath.
For weeks, Western and Arab diplomats had unsuccessfully tried to mediate between the two sides. But Muslim Brotherhood leaders were likely in talks with the military behind the scenes. Just a day before the massacre, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad announced that his group was willing to negotiate "under certain conditions."
But did Sissi and his officers even want a compromise? Since the coup, the military has felt that most Egyptians supported it -- even more so since the end of July when Sissi called upon the people to support the military with a march of solidarity. Millions heeded the appeal.
In addition, state-owned media reported in July that the Muslim Brotherhood was prepared to resort to weapons to defend itself. The military, it would seem, was already preparing an excuse for clearing the protest camps. Indeed, state television showed firearms and ammunition last Wednesday that had allegedly been confiscated in the camps. But verifying such claims will be difficult. No bullet casings to suggest that the Islamists used firearms were found in one of the camps, which had been quickly flattened with bulldozers on Thursday. There were only piles of stones and blackened marbles that had been hurled with slingshots.
Now everyone is trying to claim the mantle of truth. Army supporters see the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers as terrorists. The latter, in turn, see themselves as victims and martyrs for their elected president -- and even for democracy.
Morsi set the tone in his last hours in office, saying that he would rather die than resign. "We are sacrificing our souls for Morsi," said Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. Martyrdom is the weapon of the underdogs; instead of admitting defeat, they feel an obligation to continue fighting.
Indeed, it now seems inconceivable for the Muslim Brotherhood to be involved in the political process. And why should they, say many Brotherhood supporters, when the whole purpose of the coup was to exclude them from politics?
In Iman Mosque, located in the Nasr City quarter of Cairo, where there were still 204 bodies on Thursday -- cooled with blocks of ice and shrouded in air freshener to mask the odor of decomposition -- a boy named Hussam Nabil Abdullah was sitting in front of his father's body. "It is now a matter of justice for all the dead," he said. "We will not give up!"
In one of his rare interviews, Sissi recently told the Washington Post that he would "restore democracy." But it's a Faustian pact, with a general behaving as if he were a democrat.
How Egypt's strong man feels about democracy is revealed in his thesis at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, where he spent nine months in 2005. As if anticipating the problems his government is now facing, the general wrote: "Simply changing the political systems from autocratic rule to democratic rule will not be enough to build a new democracy." Change, he continued, requires a "reasonable economic situation, educated people and a moderate understanding of religious issues."
Perhaps Morsi should have read his defense minister's thesis. "If a democracy evolves with different constituencies," Sissi wrote, "there is no guarantee that the police and military forces will align with the emerging ruling parties."
BY DIETER BEDNARZ, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, CHRISTOPH REUTER and DANIEL STEINVORTH