(02/11/12) With elections looming like politicized violence, Egypt seems to have returned to a relative calm and, dare it be said, stability. “Now in Cairo, it’s like all people are back to their daily routine. Every one is going to school and work,” according to one resident of the Egyptian capital, Omar Khaled Marie. “It’s more peaceful now compared with the past four months. From two months ago the military force was all around Egypt and they were in the streets twenty-four hours because they were expecting something to happen from the Muslim Brotherhood.” Now, he noted, both the military and Muslim Brotherhood had a reduced but still obvious presence on the street.
This is a surprising contrast to the past few years. Since early 2010, the country has been embroiled in turmoil after demonstrations erupted across Africa’s most populous country. At first, the protests were aimed at Mubarak, then at Mohammad Morsi, and most recently, against the military coup that depose Morsi. Though many welcomed this removal, what followed was a bloody crackdown on dissidents and Muslim Brotherhood members. This hardly bloodless ‘transition,’ as advocates so mildly phrase it, soon began to draw much international criticism. To question an Egyptian official on these events, I spoke to the country’s Ambassador to Britain, H.E. Mohamed Ashraf El-Kholy.
Seated on crimson leather armchairs inside the tastefully decadent Egyptian embassy in Mayfair, I began to question the ambassador on the obvious starting point, Britain’s relations with Egypt. “The relation with the United Kingdom I think is very well. Of course, since the revolution on the 30th June, it is a little bit affected. The British lawmakers want to be sure that, if there is any military equipment that has been bought or will be bought from the UK, it is not used against demonstrators. They have a very sensitive issue here if this equipment or arms are used against civilians or demonstrators.”
The ambassador rather predictably failed to mention that he was summoned by the British Government regarding the coup so I asked him what exactly Britain was concerned about. At this point, a pattern of rambling ambiguity began to emerge in all his answers. “Lawmakers here and NGO’s like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International keep saying maybe some people can be killed by western weapons. So it is more of a kind of internal policy and they have to take care if these things are used or not but it’s not exactly this but they want to be sure they aren’t misused.”
But it is not just Britain who is concerned. America gives Egypt an annual $1.7bn package, mostly military aid, and after the coup many US officials voiced serious moral and legal concerns about continuing this aid. Of course a suspension of this would not come without repercussions but can America really have another hypocrisy on its conscience? The Ambassador’s answer to a question on how justified these concerns are was noticeably cold. “It is their own decision, we don’t mind if its justified or not. There is a strategic relation between the UK, Egypt, European countries and the United States. And if they don’t want, then it is an open market for Egypt to have whatever they need for their security. So the only problem we care about is it will have an economic effect on both sides.” The Ambassador proceeded to show my videos on his smart phone of armed people in the sit-in camps.
This was hard to argue with but not every single casualty had a gun. The disturbingly high civilian death toll which was the main prompt for Western concerns continued to go unmentioned, so I was forced to. “The death toll on all the events happened in August, it reached one thousand. But the problem is when you measure the death toll and you think it only happens in the sit-ins, this is not true.” But aside from the deaths of soldiers in Sinai and from various killings throughout Egypt, roughly 560 civilians were killed in the removal of the Cairo sit-in camps alone. But why? “The loss of life, even if they are 1 or 2 or 500, we totally feel sorry for it, but the problem is a big amount of people have been staying there, trying to disobey law and order. This group of people is not all peaceful demonstrators, they are carrying rifles and machines guns, of course they will hurt the police and also themselves.” But not every single casualty had a gun, so according to the ambassador, they would have all been killed by stray bullets which have missed their original target. Even with this taken into account, the death toll still seems staggering. This was a point I tried to get across several times but was usually met with denial.
The other concern raised by many Western governments was the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, though apparently I was mistaken in thinking this. “Nobody was arrested because they are Muslim Brotherhood, because many of their leaders are still outside and they have been discussing political settlement with them.” One such leader was Essam El-Erain. He has now been arrested. So I was still a touch incredulous to the rigor and honesty of such arrests. “Everybody has been either tried to incite people for violence, maybe he did something wrong with law and order or national security.” The only crackdown, the Ambassador assured me, was on the secret militia elements of the group, not the Freedom and Justice Party itself. As if removing the military elements from Hamas. Comparing Egypt’s events to those abroad seemed to be a recurring idiosyncrasy from the ambassador.
Islam in the Muslim Brotherhood was another reason for their punishment. “Religion is religion and politics is politics,” the ambassador asserted. Though I’m sure many would sigh with relief at his condemnation of sectarian governance, the arrests of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members still seem politically motivated. Mainly because there have been no internal arrests within the new regime, none charged with things like ‘inciting violence’. Symbolic proof of this point would be the fact that, for technical reasons, Mubarak is now out of prison under house arrest.
Could real democracy be on the horizon? Or is Egypt’s vast military just re-consolidating its power once again? I do not doubt that some pro-Morsi activists used weapons and violence, it just appears that such a crackdown on the organization would suggest that the army isn’t going anywhere soon. It isn’t hard to believe that the remnants of this old regime still exist somewhere in the new government. Worse yet, it is very possible that such elements will still lurk in future democratic governments. Indeed, this is already quite a possibility with the speculation of General el-Sisi’s willingness to run for the new Presidency of Egypt.
I also asked Omar, the Cairo resident, if he feared the military would stay in power and his answer seems to be the prevailing mood in Egypt. “No, no one fears the army because they said several time that they are going to release their grip on power. If they don’t, then we are going to protest again for sure.” Now there is a glimmer of hope for Egypt’s people.