We took a walk after the first massacre. This was August 14, Wednesday, and they had clamped a curfew down on the stunned city. It was midnight, when the streets are usually still teeming, but they were deserted in Agouza, where I live; we were the only people walking along the Nile corniche, and only two or three cars rushed past us, speeding off on urgent and incomprehensible errands. We plodded up vacant Shari’a Wezarat el Zeraa, trying to get to the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, where Twitter said that clashes were still going on. The shops were all shuttered, but there was smashed glass everywhere. By the dark entrance of every building a couple of men sat dourly, delegated by the residents to protect the place. They had no resources but their unprepossessing presence. At almost every block an impromptu barricade, half-hearted as a semicolon, interrupted the empty street: cinderblocks scattered to stop cars, steel bars from a construction site. Suddenly there came a rush of thirty or more men running toward us. Five or six were brandishing revolvers, and one had a Kalashnikov. They passed and ignored us as if they or we were ghosts. A small crowd was pillaging an On the Run (an upscale food shop attached to a gas station), and they wanted to join in. It was impossible to say which side they were on; politics was suspended; one of them shouted “Morsi is President!” but that might have been a feint to blame the looting on the Brotherhood. A kid went by clutching a computer monitor with both arms. We picked up a copy of a glossy business magazine (for investors in Egypt: Dear Guest) in the dust. The men in front of the buildings didn’t move.
Further up the street, young men drifted along in cloudlike bands, bantering stridently but nervously. They wielded boards, sticks, broomhandles. The air almost smelled of testosterone, and you felt a lit match could start an explosion. At Arab League Boulevard, the great wide slash cut through the city, there were more barricades; somebody’d ripped up the steel benches that tried to make the desiccated median strip a park, and strewn them across the asphalt. The tattoo of gunshots recurred not far off to the left, where the mosque was, like somebody drumming his fingers on a sheet of steel. We didn’t go there. Two armored personnel carriers stood at the eastern end of the avenue, ceremonial like the lions on the Qasr el-Nil bridge, guarding nothing. When we got home I bolted the door and only then I heard my heart pounding, louder than the gunfire. The city felt dead, deader than I’d ever seen it, but not dead enough to satisfy itself. It seemed to me its own inhabitants had decided to murder it, and would beat it to death if it moved.
For six weeks I couldn’t write about Egypt, and now I still can’t. I felt that, being here, I ought to express something. More and more happens and there is less and less to say. The latest round of “revolution” started, on June 30, with a great explosion of undifferentiated joy. I filmed Midan Tahrir, filled by ecstatic millions, as if it were a carnival.
There was a people’s party but none of what revolutions are supposed to bring, people’s power. The middle-class revolutionaries of Tamarod who’d started the uprising were happy to hand power to the killers. They gave it to the army like waiters passing a dish: they couldn’t have been more pliant servants. What do you expect the men with guns to do, but kill?
They started promptly, and it’s still going on. Wednesday, more than 600 died. On Friday the toll was more than 170. The numbers finally became an embarrassment; yesterday the Health Ministry, which had been adding up the totals, announced the figures will now be vetted by the Cabinet itself, to ensure conformity with the prevailing lies. But if the government doesn’t like the tabulations, it wants the murders themselves seen widely, pour encourager les autres.
August 16: The army fires on protesters in Ismailia
It kills in broad daylight, in public squares. It lets the Brotherhood practice violence in public too, burning churches with no interference. Killing is a spectacle. It educates as well as entertains. You can barely move around the city now — Friday, fighting closed most of the Nile crossings – but it doesn’t matter, you can get your fill of death, there’s home delivery. Yesterday I stood on the Nile corniche in the midday heat, and watched people being shot on the May 15 bridge, 500 meters from my house. They looked small and jerky, like puppets. Bridges used to connect; now they lead nowhere, you can corner people there, there’s no way out. Downtown, on the October 6 overpass, they jumped 10 meters to the concrete below, to escape the bullets. No exit.
Someone said on Twitter — I can’t find the exact words – that the army’s learning that when you shoot on a crowd it doesn’t go away. It breaks into smaller crowds. It flees into side streets and alleys, it keeps resisting. That’s what happened Wednesday and has been happening since. The Brotherhood has not gone, will not go away; its support only disperses like mercury as the survivors do, to reform in smaller fascicles. It’s also what’s happening to Egypt, though fewer notice. The country is fragmenting, segmented by barricades, each neighborhood shrivelling into itself, patrolled by feral kids with cudgels. Cairo is breaking up. You can’t look at a street now without calculating how it would do as a defensive perimeter.
The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.
Reports come in from Upper Egypt; tale-bearers carry stories from villages like fruits to market: stories of violence spread.
There aren’t any innocents. The Muslim Brotherhood dispatched gangs of strongmen to beat and abuse peaceful anti-Morsi demonstrators outside the Presidential Palace last November. At the protest camp at Rabaa, there was evidence that some Brotherhood opponents who strayed in were tortured brutally — Amnesty reported that “eight bodies have arrived at the morgue in Cairo bearing signs of torture. At least five of these were found near areas where pro-Morsi sit-ins were being held.”
And yesterday, Morsi supporters burned at least a dozen churches across Egypt. At least as many more have been set to the torch since June 30. But these represent neither entirely spontaneous retaliation against Christians, nor a sinister Muslim Brotherhood master plan. For the most part, they reflect sectarian tensions festering for a long time, worsened by the alternating neglect and provocations of successive governments: Mubarak, the previous military junta, Morsi. In the climate of the army’s assaults, these were almost destined to be unleashed. They were entirely predictable, in other words. If the military (whose hands still drip blood from the 2011 Maspero massacre of Copts) had wanted to protect Christians, they could have deployed to defend churches in advance of their own onslaught on the Brotherhood in Cairo. Sisi’s regime relaxed in indifferent inaction, and now mourns in hypocrisy; they did nothing to protect places of worship. They wanted the violence to swell.
The army has unbolted the cage and violence is loose. To the extent they plan, that’s their plan. The excess of force in the incursion on the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo was neither error nor overreaction; it was deliberate. (One sickly amusing thing has been to watch US neoconservatives and Likudnik flacks applaud the Egyptian indifference to “proportionality,” which they rightly see as modeled on Israel’s policy of murderously massive retaliation. Egypt’s nationalists have won the ally they least like.) It’s not so much that Sisi hopes to send a message that resistance is futile. He wants the Brotherhood to resist. The military knows that each murder makes a martyr; each burned Church gouges a new rift in communal relations; a descent into the mindless war of all against all is just their desire. The more the country divides, the more he destabilizes it, the more Sisi will be enthroned as an icon of fraudulent unity. He’s no narcissist; he doesn’t need to delude himself he’s loved. He wants citizens turning to him not in adulation but in desperation. Fear is the best propaganda.
There are no innocents, but there are the guilty. It’s not just those who planned the assault, but those who excused repression, encouraged it, exalted it, continue to applaud it. For weeks after June 30, my Facebook and Twitter feed were full of “liberals” mouthing the government line that the Brotherhood were “terrorists” and deserved what they got. If demonstrators died, the blame lay with them or the Ikhwan leaders who “sacrificed” them — because after all they should have expected the army to massacre them. It ran from the famous (whose names are worth preserving) —
–to the obscure (I conceal them; they may already be ashamed):
Yesterday, when over a hundred Brotherhood supporters died, an Ikhwan announcement of a “Week of Departure” to demand Sisi’s resignation led to secular stand-up comedy:
Rhetoric of eradication has permeated “liberal” discussions of the Brotherhood for weeks now. Liberals suggest, in one version or another: Exterminate all the brutes. The State feeds this with the overblown language of “terrorism,” stolen from the worst excesses of the Bush administration. Not just official media but the progressive channel ONTV demonize Islamists and repeat that “terrorists” are amok, offering open-ended excuses for government terror.
Mohamed El Baradei, the “liberal” hero, finally resigned from the puppet government to protest the Wednesday killings. But he’d called for a coup for months before the generals took over, and after it happened, he justified it to the West with his peculiar brand of counter-prescience: “The military intervention was necessary, precisely so as to avoid a bloody confrontation.” On Wednesday, the National Salvation Front he helped found — supposedly the coalition of “liberal” forces in the country — issued a repellent statement while men and women were dying in Rabaa.
Today, Egypt lifted her head high, announcing to the world her victory … [T]he firm leadership of the armed forces and the collective will of the people demanded the dispersal of the sit-in at the hands of the security forces. The leaders of this group that exploits the innocent – women and children! – for their own protection are now fleeing from the fortifications that they built over the past six weeks and trying to conceal their escape from what they call “sit-ins” at the squares. The Egyptian people will disperse these gatherings themselves before the security forces. … The NSF salutes the police and military forces, and bows its head in tribute and respect for the great people.
Those liberals’ spittle shines the junta’s boots.
I love Egypt, in my outsider’s way; I love Cairo, its sarcasm, its busyness, its laziness, the crowds hurrying past ahawi where people smoke and sip coffee for hours undisturbed. Even these days, traces of that survive. In Agouza, if you weave at 2 AM through neighborhoods where all the lights are down, past barricades of fallen branches, you’ll stumble on a street of cafes resolutely open despite the curfew, shisha-smokers playing backgammon, watching the shootings on TV. But these are phantasmagoric, fragments of a broken city. They’re little shards, glinting after you shatter a globe of glass. The iridescence has nothing to do with what used to be.
What do I do these days? I sit at home. My house is a refuge of sorts for six or seven Egyptian friends. We shop before the curfew, we cook elaborate meals. Yesterday I watched a butcher cut a chicken’s neck for our dinner; “A clean death,” I thought. Yeats runs idly through my head.
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.
And in the last few days I tried to write on Russia. There were crimes there, but they were far away, unlike the gunfire you could occasionally hear. The subject seemed so almost-calm that I felt like the narrator at the end of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: sitting in a quiet hotel as his world dissolved, revising for his own imperfect pleasure a translation of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, in the style of Quevedo.