Category: Middle East and North Africa


News of overthrown president’s alleged help in 2011 attacks comes as showdown looms between Muslim Brotherhood and opponents

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for aiding Hamas attacks on Egyptian security facilities during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since the Islamist was forced from office and detained incommunicado by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

The news came as Egypt held its breath for a showdown on Friday between supporters of the army and Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Millions are expected to fill Egypt’s streets on Friday in support of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of Egyptian media has spent the last month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels have suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to back Sisi.

With Sisi enjoying widespread popularity, millions are likely to heed his call on Friday by turning out across Egypt – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to show their backing for his actions. But their demonstrations also coincide with 35 marches across the capital planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the possibility of serious factional fighting. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, heightened tensions further on Thursday by claiming that Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi – following days of mass protests – was a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

According to state media, Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. It is alleged that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures were rescued from jail during the revolution with help from Hamas, and then helped the Palestinians attack Egyptian police facilities during Mubarak’s removal. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals – and that Hamas had no role in the 2011 uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, reacting to the news. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 2011 revolution through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return of Mubarak-era officials and institutions sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to focus their investigations against Morsi on allegations from before his presidency began, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that they may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police, who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under his tenure.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his rule. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June. Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a rally outside a military compound in east Cairo.

In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is seen as an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. Brotherhood leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation of the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi.

Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core albeit perhaps delusional demand – would also cost them significant credibility among supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam.

“They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Deposed president alleged to have helped Palestinian Islamists murder Egyptian police during 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for conspiring with Hamas during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since he was forced from office and detained by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

After the announcement, Morsi was moved from a secret military facility to Cairo’s Tora prison, where his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, is also being held.

The news heightened tensions on a day when supporters of Egypt’s two main factions formed rival mass protests across the country in what was billed as a showdown between people backing the army and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. By the evening, nine people had been killed, most in Alexandria, and at least 200 injured in clashes in five cities, according to the MENA state news agency.

Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The charges allege that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brothers were rescued from jail during the revolution with Hamas’s assistance, and then helped Hamas to attack Egyptian police facilities and murder policemen during the ousting of Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals and that Hamas had no role in the uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 25 January revolution [the 2011 uprising] through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return to influence of Mubarak-era officials and institutions who were sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The police – a target of the 2011 uprising – have seen their popularity rise again following the anti-Morsi protests on 30 June, and they have been quick to capitalise. On Friday, police gave Egyptian flags to pro-army protesters in a show of unity.

The decision by the new government to focus first on allegations relating to events before Morsi’s presidency, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that it may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police – who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under Morsi.

Resurgent support for the police, who publicly backed Morsi’s removal, was apparent among pro-army protesters, even from the most unlikely sources.

“The interior ministry [who run the police] have been purified of the blood of the past,” said 66-year-old Magdy Iskandar Assad, whose son was killed by police officers during protests following Mubarak’s fall. “There’s a reconciliation now between the people and institutions like state security.”

Assad was one of hundreds of thousands demonstrating in support of the army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of the Egyptian media has spent the past month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to go out to support Sisi, and thousands heeded the call – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the atmosphere was of a military pageant.

Many wore photographs of Sisi around their neck. Military helicopters flew overhead to loud cheers from the crowd. Smiling protesters had their pictures taken with the soldiers who were securing the entrances to the square, some of them sitting on large armoured personnel carriers.

“My message to General Sisi is: what you did on 30 June was greater than what Egypt did in the 1973 war [against Israel],” said Walid Hedra, 38, a one-time Islamist who grew disillusioned with Morsi after he used dictatorial powers to force through a controversial new constitution last November.

“The armed forces are reborn again thanks to Sisi, the successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Assad, referring to Egypt’s much-loved dictator during the 50s and 60s. “Sisi is a courageous man who is working for the good of the country.”

Egypt’s pro-Sisi demonstrations also coincided with counter-demonstrations by Morsi’s supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood organised 35 marches across the capital, raising fears of serious factional fighting after nightfall. By the evening, 37 had already been injured in clashes in northern Cairo – but clashes were fiercest in Alexandria, where the health ministry reported at least 100 injured.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, had earlier stoked tensions by calling Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

Many marching in Morsi’s name were afraid of what Sisi’s campaign against terrorism might entail. “It doesn’t make sense for a defence minister to ask people to give him authority to fight terrorism,” said Abdallah Hatem, a 19-year-old student from Cairo. “So his speech was a pretext for something else – a pretext to fight peaceful protesters who want Morsi to come back.”

“None of us here are terrorists,” added Mohamed Mostafa, a street vendor from southern Egypt, struggling nearby under the weight of a Morsi banner. “You can see that for yourself.”

But not everyone on the streets accepted the binary choice of the army or the Brotherhood. A small group of Egyptians, calling themselves the Third Square, gathered in a square in west Cairo to object to the authoritarianism of both groups.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his tenure. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi’s supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June.

Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a protest outside a military compound in east Cairo. In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is considered an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. But the movement’s leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation in the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi. Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core and delusional demand – would also see them lose significant credibility among their supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam. “They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Asked whether he would accept anything less that Morsi’s reinstatement, 19-year-old Morsi-backer Abdallah Hatem said: “It’s impossible.”

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad

Attempts to block Suez Canal as Port Said residents call for independence in protest at perceived persecution from Cairo

Protesters in Port Said tried to block the Suez Canal and deadly riots broke out in Cairo on Saturday after a judge upheld the death sentences for 21 people involved in Egypt’s worst ever football crowd disaster and jailed a further 24.

The unrest follows a month of violence in the northern Egyptian city where more than 50 people have already been killed and hundreds injured in clashes with police.

On Saturday, Port Said residents set loose boats, attempted to block the Suez with ferries, and attacked the city’s stadium after the verdict. In Cairo, hardcore football fans set on fire a police building and two restaurants, and blocked several roads and one of the city’s main bridges. At least two people died during the ensuing clashes with police.

The fighting is part of the fallout from a stadium disaster in February last year, in which more than 70 fans of Cairo club Ahly FC were killed in rioting and crushes after a game against Port Said’s Masry FC. Twenty-one Masry fans were condemned to death in January for their role in that riot – a verdict that sparked a bloodbath in which at least 40 people died, and set in motion a month of civil disobedience. Throughout February, Port Said has been paralysed by strikes, school walkouts and further clashes that have seen government offices set alight and ransacked. Port Said residents have resorted to civil disobedience because they believe that those condemned in January’s verdict were sacrificed in order to placate the restive Ahly fans in Cairo.

That feeling of injustice was exacerbated by Sunday’s verdict, which was met by screams of horror from Port Said residents watching on television in cafes across the city.

Many felt their friends had convicted for nothing. “Twenty-five years for someone helping to carry the dead outside the stadium,” said Mohamed Ataya, a Port Said fan alluding to the case of his friend – jailed on Sunday – who Ataya said was not involved in the violence. “They are sacrificing us to satisfy Cairo.”

Across town, Port Said ultras targeted their own stadium in anger. “Some of them were just throwing rocks – and yet they have been sentenced to death,” said Nader, one of the ultras, who declined to give his surname.

“What we need now is to separate from the rest of the country,” added Ataya, whose feeling of estrangement from the rest of Egypt is matched by many in Port Said.

“Port Said is always targeted, the city and all its people,” said Mona Metwaly at a funeral procession for one of those killed this week. “They don’t count Port Said as part of Egypt.”

Hundreds gathered outside the local government headquarters following the verdict carrying flags that called for the creation of an independent state of Port Said. Residents feel scapegoated by not just the verdict, but also the military curfew enforced in the city since violence erupted in January. Opposite the burnt-out government headquarters, which was badly damaged this week, there hangs a quotation from the Qur’an that sums up Port Said’s feeling of isolation: “A few people can beat the many.”

Others dragged a donkey through the streets daubed with the words “Fuck Ahly”.

But in Cairo, Ahly fans were themselves angered by the verdict. At first they set off fireworks in celebration. But soon sourness set in, as the Cairo fans realised that 28 Port Said supporters had been acquitted, and that only two of the nine police officers on trial had been convicted.

In both Cairo and Port Said, there is a belief that the 2012 stadium massacre was at least partly set up by police – a sentiment compounded by a widespread antipathy for the police. Police brutality was a leading cause of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, and anger at police has prompted much of the violence that has affected Egypt beyond Port Said in recent weeks. Even in Port Said, the ongoing civil unrest stems not just from the recent verdicts, but also from fury at recent police brutality.

“We want revenge on the police, blood by blood, head by head,” said Barakat Mubarak, another protester shot by police this week, who rolled up his trousers to show his wounds.

Anger at police in Port Said is so great that on Saturday police forces retreated into their stations, fearing for their lives.

On Friday, two protesters were buried in back-to-back funerals after allegedly being shot by policemen. There are multiple reports from human rights activists and local campaigners of police firing indiscriminately at Port Said residents over the past few weeks.

But officers holed up in el-Sharq police station, near Port Said’s fish market, were in a state of denial about their role in the violence, blaming the deaths on criminals taking advantage of the chaos. “There are a lot of thugs beside the demonstrators,” said Mohamed el-Adawy, the station’s deputy commander. “Maybe they shot them by accident.”

Others blamed the violence on the dangers of the job. “When people say that we are using force against the protesters, you have to go on the other side and see the situation when thousands are attacking you and shooting us with automatic weapons more advanced than us,” said Ahab Kamel, a sub-officer. “We are cursed in the street. We are under big psychological pressure, both us and our families.”

Residents also blame the new Islamist government – led by Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi – for failing to reform the police, and many see the police and the government as one and the same.

“Mohamed Morsi is beating our children,” claimed Samira Ali Zaghloul, at a funeral for one of those shot dead this week. “He controls the police,” said Barakat Mubarak.

But allies of the president say he has little control of an institution that is still staffed by Mubarak loyalists and that it will take time to reform. “The corruption of the past 60 years is not going to be solved in just one or two or even five years,” said Walid al-Haddad, a spokesman for Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But human rights activists argue that the Muslim Brotherhood has no genuine interest in doing anything about the problem. “They do not intend to reform the police,” said Aida Seif el-Dawla, co-founder of the Egyptian Association Against Torture. “They know that they need the support of the police. They have a choice: to remain in power supported by the people or remain in power supported by institutions like the police.”

But this weekend, such support seems unlikely, as thousands of policemen across Egypt refused to deploy in protest at what they see as political interference from the Muslim Brotherhood.

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