Egypt looking depressingly like Iraq
August 15th, 2013
09:25 AM ET

Egypt looking depressingly like Iraq

By Erin Evers, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Erin Evers is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.

I awoke at 7 a.m. on Wednesday to a frantic telephone call. A contact inside of Raba’a al-Adaweya, one of the two six-week-old Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that took over two Cairo neighborhoods, was on the line. “It’s starting,” he told me. “We’re surrounded. They’re firing on us from three sides.”

I spent the rest of the day alternately seeking out the injured and trying to avoid becoming one of them. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been killed at Raba’a, at the Cairo University sit-in, and at flashpoints throughout Cairo and the rest of the country.

Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side.  I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police.

Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who  took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.

These scenes in an Egypt that I thought I knew remind me sadly of the place I spent the better part of the last year as a Human Rights Watch researcher: Iraq.

Iraq too is littered with checkpoints, far more numerous and permanent than in Cairo, and with bomb-scarred neighborhoods; radical Jihadist groups and security forces who commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This is what I fear Egypt could become. There, divisions are entrenched: the sides are unable to divorce themselves from past grievances and ultimately choose violence over national reconciliation.  Waking Thursday in Egypt, after a night of fires blazing in Cairo neighborhoods, a death tally over 500 and steadily rising, I fear Egypt has embarked on a similar path.

Wednesday could have been prevented. Since my return to Cairo at the end of June, Egypt’s military commanders and their supporters have employed a zero-sum stance that mimics Iraq’s leadership, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The statements of Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, and others have appeared in the past six weeks to represent a mentality in which political victory is predicated on forcing opponents to submit completely.

More from GPS: Egypt's identity crisis

Rather than addressing crimes that individuals may have committed during the demonstrations – their abuse of suspected informants or use of firearms in clashes with residents – the Egyptian authorities’ strategy has been to demonize the Brotherhood as collectively responsible for “terrorism.” As in Iraq, Egyptian leaders portray themselves as seeking peaceful solutions, only to be forced to confrontation by the other side.

Even if the military and the Brotherhood wish to pull back from the brink at this point, it is not clear they are nimble enough. This is in large part thanks to the use by Egypt’s current rulers – like their Iraqi counterparts – of a framework of “terrorism” to describe non-violent sit-ins, rather than as legitimate peaceful protest, and now to disperse them accordingly. In his now infamous appearance before the Navy and Air Defense Academies on July 24, Gen. Sisi told Egyptians he wanted them to give their support to the army and police, warning that “if violence or terrorism are resorted to, the military and the police are authorized to confront that.” With this call, Sisi cemented the split that has Egypt divided along two poles: those who support army rule and those who oppose it. Egypt’s leaders avoided seeking a resolution to Egypt’s political crisis, instead resorting to brinkmanship with the Muslim Brotherhood’s equally hyperbolic leadership.

In Iraq, a similar discourse by political and military officials has led to an increasingly polarized society, leading the country back into vicious civil conflict, and directly causing many of the most intransigent human rights problems I documented there. This polarization has escalated since December 2012, when a frustrated Sunni population took to the streets to protest what they see as their disenfranchisement from Iraqi political life. Rather than acknowledge the legitimacy underlying their grievances, al-Maliki suggested that “Saddamists, terrorists and Qaida militants” were behind the protests.

Iraq’s approach has nowhere been more evident than in attacks on a protest camp in Hawija at the end of April.

About 1,000 people from the area had been there for more than three months to protest what they characterized as disenfranchisement from Iraq’s political process. Army and police fired on protesters, killing at least 50, claiming that they attacked in response to threats by armed people hiding in the protest.

The Iraqi authorities, when they weren’t justifying the attacks, announced they would investigate and formed several fact-finding committees, but the results have been zero accountability. Ditto for announced investigations into earlier attacks on protesters in Fallujah and Mosul.

More from GPS: In Egypt, it's the economy

In the last several weeks in Egypt, I’ve seen a hauntingly similar scenario: twice, before Wednesday, security forces fired on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi in response to what they claimed was provocation. There is ample evidence that security forces used brutally excessive force both times. In the first attack, army and police reportedly killed 51 people; in the second, central security forces, police, and men in civilian clothes are believed to have killed at least 80. The military said that one soldier and two police were killed in the first attack. No security forces died in the second.

Like authorities in Iraq after Hawija, Egypt’s current rulers denied responsibility for the killings. In April, the Iraqi defense minister, Saadoun Dulaimi, characterized Hawija protesters as “terrorists” and said, shortly before security forces opened fire, that the government should “let them be killed.” In December 2012, Maliki called protesters terrorists and threatened to “crush” them.

Fast forward to Egypt, July 8, the day of the attack that killed 51. “What excessive force?” said a military spokesman, Ahmed Mohamed Ali. “It would have been excessive force if we killed 300.”

On July 24, two days before the second attack, General al-Sisi called for mass demonstrations to support a crackdown on “terrorism and violence.” On July 27, the day after the attack, Interior Minister Ibrahim preposterously denied that security forces had “ever shot an Egyptian with live fire.” He accused the Brotherhood of exaggerating the death toll, despite ample documentation that most died of bullet wounds to their heads, necks and chests. On July 31, Egypt’s interim cabinet authorized the Interior Ministry to clear the sit-ins as a “threat to national security.”

The brutal disregard for the lives of opposition protesters in Egypt risks having the same effect as in Iraq, where the opposition has become increasingly radicalized. With al Qaeda exploiting Sunni anger in Iraq over the government’s refusal to meet their demands – claiming that the numerous attacks they carried out in the last several months were retribution for the Hawija killings – the gains that the “Awakening” made against the insurgency after 2007 are being undone.

In Egypt, leaders demonized the Brotherhood and incite a population more than willing to take the bait, thanks in part to the abuses Brotherhood leaders committed during their year in power. Some Brotherhood supporters said they see no peaceful way out, and have taken the bait, becoming more desperate and more extreme.

I spoke to numerous men and women at the Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins who had lost friends or relatives in the second attack. Many said it had made them more determined to “martyr” themselves. “Now I will stay here until my last drop of blood is shed,” a 22-year-old accountant told me.

In Egypt the level of political violence so far has not come close to that in Iraq. But the behavior and rhetoric of both sides is deeply worrying. If leaders continue to respond with brutality, the opposition may well become further radicalized. Subgroups already appear to be attacking security installations and churches throughout the country – again, a picture all too familiar to me from Iraq.

Egypt’s leaders can pull out of the vortex of violence by stopping not just the language of “us versus them,” but actions that appear to show limited, if any respect for the basic right to life of opposition supporters, to justify a fight to the death over who owns Egypt. Instead leaders need to convince the opposition they still have a stake in peaceful participation in society and the political process.

Post by:
Topics: Egypt • Iraq • Middle East • Protests

soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. Ramzy

    Another clueless Western media coverage of the real issues in Egypt. It is unfortunate that Western media, CNN included, sees democracy as only ballots and elections. It is as narrow-minded as it can get. In the past, the West was feverishly pushing for "democracy" in the West Bank and when the ballots elected Hamas then the West was in for a shock and immediately Hamas was declared a terrorist organization. It just demonstrates how the Western government are totally clueless about the fabrics of the Middle-East. Now, once more, the West thinks that democracy is ALL about ballots and elections. What about the rights of minorities? What about the direction of the state? does a win at the ballot give the right to the ruling party to take the country down the drain and make it a strict Muslim state like Afghanistan or Pakistan? Shallow US politicians like Senator McCain have no clue what is going on. Does he know that the Muslim Brotherhood supporters were carrying Osama Bin Ladin posters in their "peaceful" demonstration? The Egyptian army saw the danger and intervened before it is too late and it is shocking that the Western media and governments have never picked on that.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  2. Gumdrop

    Well it is really great to see how well King Obama's foreign policy is working. The good Muslim King Obama's true foreign policy is to create a single Muslim world and the elimination of Christians.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Barack Obama a Muslim, Gumdrop? You must be kidding. Don't forget that he keeps on ordering those deadly drones strikes day after day on defenseless people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen who happen to be Muslims. Moreover, he is promoting U.S. expansion in both the Middle East and Central Asia at the very expense of the Muslims for the interests of big business here!!!

      August 19, 2013 at 11:46 am | Reply
      • dylan

        So defenseless means people with IEDs and not having anti aircraft missiles/intercontinental ballistics?

        August 19, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
      • shama

        U got the point , this is true..

        August 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  3. justme

    I think all she is saying is that all parties would be best served to understand they still have a stake in the game. The oddity of the article is that its comparing the atrocities of the majority party in Iraq to those of the minority party in Egypt backed by the Egyptian army. Suffice it to say the middle east is still embattled and will remain so until they learn to sit and talk with one another.

    August 18, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  4. Sam Boston

    Another misleading if not deceiving article by CNN who is deliberately only choosing witnesses from the side of the Muslim Brotherhood. When are you going to report the other side of the story, CNN? What about the violence committed by those so called peaceful protesters? What about the 80 or so churches that were burned to the ground? What about the voices of millions of Egyptian who have been terrorized enough by the brotherhood and who are in full support of the army's fight against them?

    August 18, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Reply
    • Wallyworld

      Not a peep from CNN concerning the targeted killing of Christians and the destruction of Churches. CNN's news censorship of the Christian population being persecuted by the Muslim Brotherhood fascists is obvious.

      August 20, 2013 at 7:36 am | Reply
  5. Ingy Sammakia

    Seems that CNN favours the muslim brotherhood, who is a terrorist group. It also seems to me that you're misleading people by calling Egypt the new's far from that. The Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization and you fully know that, yet your media supports them and forgets about the regular Egyptian Joe or Coptic that gets killed by their hands.

    August 19, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • shama

      Muslim Brotherhood are not terrorist.. most of them are in jail now .. they accused them without a drop of bloodshed.. would you tell me where are there Militias??? do you know the real number of killed people ????
      they are about 5000 killed and may be more .. 15000 injured
      actually he killed innocents and not Muslims only cuz Christians were on board ..
      opponents were killed " this is the real classification"

      August 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  6. dmf

    The ripple effects of 9/11 terrorist attacks continues . The unnecessary Iraq War ( 2003 – 2011 ) , the War on terrorism in Afghanistan ( 2001 – to date ) extended military operations in Tribal Areas of Pakistan , drone attacks in FATA regions of Pakistan in pursuit of terrorists , Somalia , Yemen , Arab Spring Tunisia , Egypt , Bahrain , Libya , Syria and this cycle of terror with increasing innocent deaths and destruction crippling governance and economy in many more of Middle East , North African ,South Asian Arab and Muslim countries countries with no end insight in a long time . There needs to be an international intervention to stop this Civil War .

    August 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  7. Mohamed Saleh

    The the US and its media continues to support the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt will continue to suffer

    August 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  8. glaird

    On the surface, this article is surprisingly objective for a propagandist rag like Ted Turner, aka CNN. But, what is said between the lines?
    1) Islam has 3 primary ways of dealing with non-muslims. Attempt conversion by whatever means. If that fails, attempt subjugation by any means. If that fails, murder.
    2) Cultures, through out the world that do not have any comprehension of respecting minority rights. Or cultures that have no comprehension of the American sense of rights, that human rights are God given and meant to be protected by the government, not granted by the ruling party. Sadly, under this present administration, I am witnessing this same conceptual degeneration in the US. Both here and abroad, the "ruling party" believes they have a mandate to dish out favors and punish dissent with full abandon, rather than embracing the founding fathers concept of plurality.
    3) Mob rule absolves personal responsibility. In the US, we have had our share of shame; lynchings in the south, riots, both sides of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Sadly, this too, is becoming more common place and accepted in both the US and around the world.

    A democracy, or a representative republic as in the US, can not succeed when the majority of individual members of that society hold the above world views. In fact, organized, civilized, or advanced economic societies can not function in such an environment. Welcome to the new dark ages. And because I used that last term, it is obvious that the world has gone to this abyss before.

    August 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  9. ramy bassily

    USA (Obama) and European union supported by the western media are the responsible party for all the people got killed and churches being burnt, you continuous support for Muslim brother hood, and your Criticism for the new Egyptian government

    has encouraged Muslim brotherhood to continue they terrorist

    did you ever mentioned how many police man and security force got killed by the Muslim brother hood
    did you ever mentioned how many churches burnt by the Muslim brother hood

    shame on you

    August 21, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  10. Rick McDaniel

    I think the similarity is simply that Islam is trying to eliminate all other religions.

    In Egypt, there is still a chance to prevent that from happening. In Iraq, that is lost.

    August 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  11. Andy

    Here you can read the truth about the Egyptian riots

    August 21, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  12. Salim kanji

    why are non of the CNN,s hosts not having Colin Powell on their show?

    September 1, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  13. Home Personal Training

    I'm glad to see that the situation in Egypt has calmed a little. That country is so rich in history and culture. I really hope they can figure things out and move ahead.

    April 13, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Reply
1 2

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.