On August 12, 2012, President Mohamed Morsi chose Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the youngest member of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) at the time, as his defense minister, bypassing more senior military leadership who had more clout. The president later described his new minister of defense as a man “as precious as gold,” only a few days before protests erupted in June 2013 demanding Morsi’s ouster, supported by none other than Sisi.
Enthusiastic, Morsi reported to the Guidance Bureau that Sisi is “the Muslim Brotherhood man in the Armed Forces,” according to a young Brotherhood leader, who was once in charge of the group’s presence in one of Egypt’s big cities.
“Morsi believed that Sisi had Brotherhood inclinations because he prayed regularly, fasted Mondays and Thursdays, prayed behind him, did not wear a gold marriage ring and read the Quran,” the young leader told me in 2013.
“In our meetings with the leadership, we had always warned that presidential performance had not secured popular approval, especially with the media advocating support for [Morsi’s 2012 presidential elections rival Ahmed] Shafiq since day one. He cannot continue by depending on Sisi’s support and his pledge that the army would never go against an elected president,” the young man continued.
On July 3, 2013, Sisi did in fact go against the elected president, ousting him and appointing an interim government, following widespread protests against both Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The young Muslim Brotherhood leader fled the country.
A few months earlier, Brotherhood leader Essam al-Erian was sitting in his office at the Shura Council, where he served as an MP. He served coffee and chocolates to visiting journalists and public figures, firmly dismissing speculation that the Armed Forces would carry out a coup. “The military’s interests are secure. It has no reason to stage a coup, because its position in the state is stable and they know us well.”
Erian was arrested in October 2013 and has remained imprisoned since on a variety of charges.
“Morsi believed that Sisi had Brotherhood inclinations because he prayed regularly, fasted Mondays and Thursdays, prayed behind him, did not wear a gold marriage ring and read the Quran.”
“I think that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in general failed to understand that the military’s acceptance of Morsi’s win in 2012 did not mean that the they would support the Brotherhood. The Guidance Bureau counted on coordination with the Armed Forces and thus lost a lot. We all lost,” a former member of the Brotherhood told me in 2013.
This member left the group in the weeks following the January revolution, in protest of the Brotherhood–SCAF dialogue, which he felt excluded all of the other groups that made the revolution possible.
Walid was a member of the police force that thwarted the July 8, 2013 attempt by Muslim Brotherhood members to break into the headquarters of the Republican Guards. Morsi was believed to be in custody there, following Sisi’s announcement to oust him. The headquarters were conveniently located near Rabea al-Adaweya Square, where Brotherhood members and sympathizers had been camping since June 21, 2013 to object to calls for Morsi to go (and later the actual ousting of Morsi).
“Today, they tested our patience and received a blow, because they thought that we would only stand by and watch. They have no one to blame but themselves,” Walid said, shortly after the July 8 violence came to a close.
He was bracing for the dispersal of the sit-in. “There is no way the state can disregard this sit-in for long. If they do, this would not be a state and this would not be an army. Our leader is tough. He has a very strong reputation in the army. For years, we have known that he would come into a position of power.”
Walid’s hopes were matched by fears from within the sit-ins.
Tarek was a Brotherhood engineer taking part in the Nahda sit-in, located on the other side of town from Rabea al-Adaweya. He was concerned about an imminent and violent dispersal of both protests by mid-July. “According to what we hear in the sit-in, it seems that the leaders were counting on fast foreign intervention and that everything would return to how it was, maybe with the formation of a national unity government. But the longer we stay, the more one realizes that this will not happen. Now, the media is propagating the idea that the sit-ins are armed. What does that mean, other than that the army intends to disperse these sit-ins?”
“Today, they tested our patience and received a blow, because they thought that we would only stand by and watch. They have no one to blame but themselves.”
For Hanan, one of the young women who searched and accompanied women journalists visiting the Nahda sit-in, the idea that those at the sit-in were armed was overstated. “They say the sit-in is full of weapons. Where are these weapons?” she said. “Is there protection and security for the leadership that visits the sit-in? Of course there is. But does that mean that the sit-in is armed? This is a protest by those who have no resort or strength. We are here, and we don’t know what might happen to us at any moment. But no matter what weapons they bring to secure the leadership, they are not what you would need to defend the thousands of people here.”
“Officials in Egypt do not seek to reach a consensual political solution that takes into consideration that Morsi was elected president for a four-year term, and that his ousting should be based on an extremely transparent and honest referendum, to be followed immediately by early presidential elections,” a European diplomat who worked in the EU delegation in Egypt told me as the sit-ins were growing. “They do not want to cooperate. General Sisi talks a lot about the prestige of the state and the necessity to secure the capital.”
At the same time, a European Union delegation was visiting Cairo. It was headed by diplomat Bernardino Leon, representing EU Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Ashton, who sought to find a political solution for the crisis.
Also around the same time, a leader of the Salafi Nour Party told me that urgent efforts were being made to reach a political agreement that would prevent “the rapid deterioration of the situation to an extent only known by God.” The man, whose superior was among the politicians surrounding Sisi on July 3 when he announced the ousting of Morsi, said: “The situation now depends on the discretion of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Either they decide to admit political failure and protect the blood of their followers, or insist on their stubbornness and seek their usual pursuit of new grievances to hide their failure from their angry constituency.”
In another conversation following the dispersal of the sit-ins, the same Salafi leader said, “Unfortunately, the last week before the dispersal could have seen a peaceful end. The Nour Party, in consensus with non-Islamist political leadership and through talks with the army, agreed that the Brotherhood leadership would announce to protesters that a political agreement that would end the crisis had been reached. Morsi would be released from his detention to a safe place. Protesters would voluntarily leave and return to their homes, waiting for presidential elections to be held within less than a month, wherein the Muslim Brotherhood could participate, albeit with a person other than Morsi. This agreement was discussed with Ashton and Leon, and we received preliminary acceptance from all parties. Details included that the Brotherhood leaders would leave their self-protection arms at the sit-ins and that an official declaration would be made to protesters pledging to drop all legal charges against them.”
“But a few days later, the Brotherhood leadership decided to change its mind, saying it had no reason to trust Sisi again. It appeared that they believed that the situation would change in their favor with the increase in numbers of protesters participating in the two sit-ins, especially in Rabea. There, many had joined, even from among those who oppose the Brotherhood, which would make the dispersal more difficult,” the Salafi leader continued.
“We agreed that the Brotherhood leadership would announce to protesters that a political agreement that would end the crisis was reached. Morsi would be released from his detention to a safe place. Protesters would voluntarily leave and return to their homes …”
“Yes, there is talk about the dispersal of the sit-in,” a minister appointed in the newly-formed cabinet following Morsi’s ouster told me in a quick phone conversation. “Of course, we are talking about a peaceful dispersal, but definitely not before Eid. We hope that ongoing negotiations would lead to its dispersal by the Brotherhood, so that we can move forward and see what is to be done.”
Meanwhile, a politician close to Mohamed ElBaradei, a reform leader and advocate of the revolution, said, “Sisi confirmed to Dr. ElBaradei that there will be no forceful eviction. It is impossible that he would be lying to ElBaradei.”
ElBaradei, who earned the position of deputy prime minister in the new government formed by the military in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, was meant to chair the cabinet, had Interim President Adly Mansour not informed him of a “Salafi veto” to such a move.
On August 14, 2013, the sit-ins would be dispersed, violently. Reports estimate the death toll at 1,000. ElBaradei resigned, while Mostafa Hegazy, a strategic consultant to Mansour, gave a presser at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace on the day of the dispersal. He had one answer to several different questions he received: “Didn’t you see the churches that were burned?”
Reports of church burning following the dispersal of the sit-ins had spread, especially in Minya in Upper Egypt.
“And didn’t the state know that churches might be burned?” a leftist Coptic activist had asked. “Didn’t the sate know that the Brotherhood or their supporters may direct their anger toward Copts and attacking their churches and homes? Why didn’t the state secure us?”
Another young Coptic man, who was a member of the Black Bloc, an opposition group that emerged in January 2013 against the Brotherhood rule, said: “The truth is that the authorities exploited the Christians and their fear. We never knew who was behind these attacks or why the state didn’t effectively work to prevent or stop them. In fact, I don’t think anybody cared about us much after they got rid of Morsi.”
“Didn’t you see the churches that were burned?”
“Before Morsi’s ouster, the leader of the group communicated with security officials to coordinate our activities on the street. After the ouster, nobody cared about communicating with us,” he said, admitting that Black Bloc’s acts against Morsi were at the very least aided by security forces.
The day after the dispersal of the sit-ins, two cleaning vehicles arrived to remove what was left of the protests and the debris around the Rabea area, burned and destroyed. The afternoon of the same day, a driver of one of these vehicles stopped and asked one of the accompanying workers to make sure that there were no bodies in the area he was about to clean. The worker responded: “Come on, just clean and get it done with. Even if there were bodies, it is all dust and all in dust. Clear the place, the smell is unbearable. Let us clean and leave before nightfall.”
By the evening, some of the residents of the area came down to the streets to check the damage done to their cars and home gates. While residents spoke of their relief at the conclusion of the sit-in, which they described as “barbaric,” “dirty,” and “terrifying,” two conscripts came out of the Iman Mosque carrying two charred bodies, one missing fingers and another missing limbs. An elderly woman in her 70s leaned on her walking cane, and happily sang: “Blessed be your hands. Blessed be the army of my country.”
The men carrying the bodies froze. One of the soldier’s faces showed a mix of terror and sorrow.
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla