independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent based in Cairo.
Mass violence continues in Egypt amidst the bloodiest period in the country’s modern history. Around 900 people have been killed since state forces attacked Muslim Brotherhood protest encampments five days ago. At least 173 people were killed in a "Day of Rage" protest called by the Brotherhood on Friday, followed by at least 79 deaths on Saturday. Around 90 police officers and soldiers have died in the violence, but Islamist supporters of the Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi account for the bulk of the victims. On Sunday, at least 36 prisoners were killed in Cairo after guards said they tried to escape while being transferred. But the Muslim Brotherhood accused state forces of a "cold-blooded killing" and demanded an international probe. And earlier today at least 24 police officers were reportedly killed in the northern Sinai after coming under attack by militants. "New horrors are brought every day, nightmarish scenes that Egyptians could never have imagined," Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports from Cairo. "It’s not a Cairo that many people recognize. With both sides vowing to escalate, worse days surely lie ahead."
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the crisis in Egypt. At least 850 people have been killed since last Wednesday, when security forces raided protest camps filled with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. It’s been the bloodiest period in the country’s modern history. In the latest development, at least 24 Egyptian policemen were killed earlier today in an ambush in the Sinai Peninsula. It was the deadliest attack on security forces in Sinai in years. After the ambush, Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing that connects the Sinai with the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, there are reports out this morning that former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak could soon be released. His lawyer said he expects Mubarak to be released from jail in the next 48 hours after a prosecutor cleared him in one of his corruption cases.
In other developments over the weekend, the military-run government admitted Sunday 36 prisoners had been killed in detention. The Egyptian Interior Ministry said the prisoners had taken an officer hostage, and suffocated to death after police fired tear gas. The Muslim Brotherhood accused the military of murdering the prisoners.
On Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood organized a "Day of Rage" after Friday prayers to protest the coup and the bloody crackdown on Morsi supporters. But the day ended in bloodshed, as well, with at least 173 people dead.
We’re joined now by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo.
Sharif, can you update us on the developments over the weekend?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, it was another weekend of chaos and bloodshed. It seems new horrors are brought every day, nightmare scenes that Egyptians could never have imagined could take place in this country. We saw on Friday, as you mentioned, widespread clashes happening in Ramses Square, which is a main central square in downtown Cairo, really awful scenes with gunfire, citizens opening fire on each other, people jumping off bridges to avoid the bullets and lying motionless on the ground. There were more attacks on Christian churches across the country, reports of nuns being paraded around as prisoners of war. The death toll is really quite staggering. The decrepit state morgue is so overwhelmed that there are four refrigerated food trucks outside, big large semis, with corpses piled in them to try and stave off the decay. So, it’s a very—it’s a very depressing situation that’s happening in Egypt.
We’re six days into a curfew and a state of emergency. Egyptians were never ones to abide by any military curfew, but now everyone is indoors at night. The night is owned by helicopters and tanks in the streets and bands of men armed with clubs and knives and guns that man these checkpoints. So, it’s not a Cairo that many people recognize. It’s not a country that bodes well. And with both sides vowing to escalate, worse days surely lie ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: On Friday and Saturday, can you talk about what was happening at the mosque where people had taken refuge and then stayed overnight, afraid to come out?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, this happened in the wake of these clashes in Ramses Square where dozens of people were killed. A hundred seventy-three were killed on Friday across the country—very fierce clashes. And right on the edge of the square is al-Fateh mosque, which is a very large mosque, and a lot of people sought refuge in there. And they were basically besieged in there for the entire night with angry mobs outside, as well as police and army soldiers. I was on the scene on Friday, but also on Saturday, as well, when they were still trying to get people out—very chaotic scene, with at one point army soldiers trying to escort out a few of those inside. They came under such fierce attack by the mobs inside, soldiers were firing in the air to try and back off the crowd, and they couldn’t hold them back, so they had to retreat back inside the mosque. At one point, apparently, there was some kind of gunfire from the minaret, or at least there was assumed to be, and we saw police, special forces and army soldiers open up heavy machine gun fire on the minaret of the mosque—a really shocking scene, scenes that we’ve seen in other countries, like Iraq and Syria.
And there was a very fierce attack on journalists that day. Two journalists that I was with, Alastair Beach of the London Independent and Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal, were repeatedly assaulted. Alastair Beach was held inside the mosque. I tried to negotiate him out. We walked out with him, and he got attacked by a mob. Someone hit him very hard on the head with a two-by-four, and he fell to the ground. We eventually got them to military soldiers, who put them inside an APC to keep the crowd away. The military eventually let them go, but at least a dozen journalists were attacked, mostly Western journalists, were attacked across Cairo that day. So, there’s a growing feeling that this vicious rhetoric against the media, especially the Western press, is manifesting itself on the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: People can link at democracynow.org—you can watch and listen to Alastair’s report on Democracy Now! last week. Also, a female McClatchy reporter who attempted to see the carnage inside the Fateh mosque as the Islamists were cleared of the site was confronted by a police officer. Angry, he shouted at the men behind her, "Beat her! She’s an American!" The men happily obliged and manhandled the reporter. As she escaped, men surrounded her, recording her face. Do you know what happened here?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I only know what—that was reported, what you read out.
I think it’s important to realize that there’s a very coordinated campaign that’s happening with the media. On the one side, you have the state and private media, nearly the entire swath of private media, in a very coordinated campaign parroting a government line, the main thrust of which is that all Islamists are terrorists. Private media and state media have a banner in English and Arabic saying things like "Egyptians against terrorism" or "Egyptians fighting terrorism." There’s a lot of dehumanization by the announcers, portraying the Islamists as subhumans, essentially. And we see this manifesting itself on the streets with all these attacks on Muslim Brotherhood members, on any Islamists taking to the streets, vigilantes pulling people with beards out of cars. So, it’s almost like a creeping fascism that’s happening.
And also, a lot of human rights activists, very prominent, that were a main feature on private TV stations during Morsi’s rule, who were rightly critical of Morsi’s government and the abuses that his government was committing, are no longer invited on these stations, because they’re critical of this crackdown. The military, the military-backed Cabinet, the government all want to portray this as a war on terror. And if there’s any deviation from that, then there’s harsh criticism. The foreign minister, other Cabinet members have publicly criticized the Western press. General Sisi himself, the head of the armed forces, in a speech publicly criticized the Western media. There’s been allegations of a foreign agenda and so forth. And so, journalists, especially Western journalists, are seen as enemies, and they’re targeted. There’s an Al Jazeera journalist who has now been detained. Al Jazeera is the only satellite network that’s really been more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. He has been detained, charged with murder and incitement to violence charges, very serious charges. So, this is the state of the media that we find ourselves in, and it’s indicative of a creeping authoritarianism in the country as a whole.
AMY GOODMAN: In his first public comments since last week’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, pledged the military’s support for the people. This is a clip from his televised speech Sunday.
ABDEL FATTAH AL-SISI: [translated] The will of the Egyptian people is free. Their will is free. They can choose whoever they want to rule them. And we are the guardians of this will. The army and the police right now are the guardians of the will of the people. With regard to choosing who their leaders will be, that’s true. I want to tell you that the honor of protecting the will of the people is more valuable to us and to me personally than the honor of ruling Egypt. I swear to God on this. The honor of protecting the will of the people and its freedom for it to choose whatever it wants and to live the way it wants is more important and valuable to me, I swear, than ruling Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Egypt’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the guy in charge right now. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, your response?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, those were Sisi’s first comments since the massacres that happened on August 14th when police and army troops raided the two main sit-ins that were the epicenters of support for the ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Sisi very dangerously said, "Our self-restraint will not continue." Government officials, the police themselves have said that the way that they cleared the sit-ins was an act of self-restraint, and this was—August 14th was the bloodiest day in Egypt’s modern history. The minimum number of people died is somewhere around 600, at—probably about 800 is closer to the actual figure, and it really was, by any means, a massacre. And to call that self-restraint is really quite shocking.
And the way they’re treating these people, the bodies—there’s two—the reason there’s a discrepancy in a lot of the counts—there’s a 200-count discrepancy, and the reason is, is that 200 bodies were transported to the al-Iman mosque the next day. To be in the official state of—Department of Health count, you have to either pass through a hospital or the morgue, and these bodies were left at Rabaa after the police and army stormed in. Many of them were burnt when the mosque and the field hospital were burned down. They didn’t even allow ambulances to go pick these people up, and so family members and loved ones and friends had to use private cars, go to the site of the raid later at that night and take these bodies back to this mosque and just ferry them back and forth. And these bodies lay decaying in this mosque for a day before finally being buried. And so, some organizations, like The New York Times, puts the count at over a thousand now—just days of carnage in Egypt and very, very worrying.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, this latest news, the announcement that Mubarak might be released?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this just came, as we went to air, that Mubarak might be released. It’s coming from his lawyer, Farid el-Deeb. The charges—he’s still facing a number of charges, corruption charges, so it’s unclear if he’s going to be released at this point. I think we have to wait and see. I think if you look at the broader picture, his release—the trial was handled very, very poorly, the one conducted around his responsibility for the deaths of protesters. And, in general, most of the trials of members of the former regime were conducted very poorly by the prosecution. So, he might be let go. At this point, as a political figure, I would argue that he’s largely irrelevant. His release would be symbolic, and symbolic of the re-empowering and reconstitution of the former regime really flexing its muscles, and the fact that the former president, the autocrat for 30 years, is free on the streets is very symbolic of that. But as a political figure which can actually have decision-making authority on the ground, I think Mubarak is finished. It’s Sisi and the army who are in charge now.
AMY GOODMAN: I was just—as we followed your tweets through the weekend, Sharif, one of them was "'Despair is betrayal' is our saying [during] tough times in the revolution. I am trying not to feel like a traitor, but it is very difficult." Talk more about that.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, you know, a lot of—a lot of, I think, revolutionaries who started this revolution, who fought successive authoritarian regimes, fought Mubarak regime, fought the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, fought the Muslim Brotherhood, while political elites were allying with the military at different times for their political goals, they find themselves sitting on the sidelines and pushed out of the discourse and forced to watch this bloodletting continue. And we had this saying that we used to say, that "despair is betrayal." And there’s been a lot of trials and tribulations over these past two-and-a-half years. And to say that, you know, to keep up hope and to keep up the fight, but it’s such a dark, dark moment right now, a creeping fascism in the country, that it’s very hard not to feel like a traitor. And so, that’s why—that’s why I wrote those words.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, Sharif will stay with us, and we’ll also be joined by the acclaimed novelist, Ahdaf Soueif. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, we’ll also link to his piece in The Nation magazine. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with our guests in a moment.