- Sharif Abdel Kouddousindependent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent based in Cairo, Egypt.
After being held incommunicado for nearly four weeks, ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was allowed to meet today with European Union envoy Catherine Ashton. Flown by a military helicopter to visit Morsi in an undisclosed location, Ashton described him as “well” and informed about the current crisis. The meeting comes after at least 72 people were killed Saturday when Egyptian police opened fire on a Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo. More than 100 were wounded. Speaking from Cairo, Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous says the bloody crackdown on Morsi supporters has polarized the Egyptian population. “There is a very small, but burgeoning movement that’s calling itself 'The Third Square,' distancing itself from Tahrir — which has become very pro-military in its rhetoric — and distancing itself from the pro-Morsi rallies,” Kouddous reports. “They’re saying we’re against [both] the military and against the Brotherhood, trying to reconstitute what they say are the goals of the January 25th revolution.”
AARON MATÉ: We turn now to the crisis in Egypt. After being held incommunicado for nearly four weeks, ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was allowed to meet today with European envoy Catherine Ashton. Ashton said she was flown by a military helicopter to an undisclosed location to meet Morsi.
CATHERINE ASHTON: He’s well. And we had a friendly and open and very frank discussion for the two hours I saw him. And I saw where he was. I don’t know where he is, but I saw the facilities he has. And we had a warm discussion, because, as you know, I’ve met with him many times before. I sent him good wishes from people here, and he asked me to pass on wishes back. And, of course, I’ve tried to make sure that his family know that he’s well.
AARON MATÉ: European Union envoy Catherine Ashton speaking earlier today shortly after she met with ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Since Sunday, Ashton has been shuttling between Egypt’s new rulers and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to try to pull the country back from more bloodshed just days after at least 72 people were killed when Egyptian police opened fire on a Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo. More than a hundred people were wounded.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the recent developments in Egypt, we go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about these latest developments, from the European envoy meeting with Morsi to the—to the killings that took place this weekend, over 70 members of the Muslim Brotherhood killed.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, as you mentioned, Ashton is the first person to meet with Morsi, who’s been held incommunicado since July 3rd. We haven’t had any confirmation, outside of what the military has said, of his condition, so this is the first confirmation of that. And as you heard also, Ashton was very tight-lipped about what Morsi himself was saying. She had a press conference just at the time of this broadcast with Mohamed ElBaradei, also quite tight-lipped about the content of the conversation.
There have been reports that military intelligence has had sole access to Morsi over this past month, that they’ve questioned him at least once a day, sometimes up to five hours a day, about the inner workings of his presidency, about the Brotherhood. They’ve played recordings of him back to him and asked him about certain things. So they may be looking to build a larger case against the ousted president.
Of course, this meeting of Ashton came on the heels of this massive day of bloodshed on Saturday morning that left—the official count now is up to 80 people dead. They’re not all Muslim Brotherhood members, though they’re all pro-Morsi supporters. More than a thousand people are wounded. I was there right in the aftermath. A lot of the people killed were killed with live ammunition, shots to the head, neck and chest. A lot of people were shot in the back. It was really a very brutal assault and the deadliest incident by security forces since Mubarak’s ouster.
I think it’s important to realize also that this was committed by the police, not the military. And it was overseen by the interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, who was appointed by Morsi himself. And we have to remember, this is the same interior minister who oversaw the killing of—or, you know, was in power in January when police gunned down about 50 civilians in Port Said. And at the time, Morsi’s response was to go on national television and thank the police for their efforts and institute a state of emergency. So, and he’s—this interior minister has been now kept on, you know, in this new interim government. So, about 10 Egyptian human rights groups have issued a joint statement calling on him to resign, the interior minister to resign, to be held accountable for the assault that happened on the outskirts of the sit-in on Saturday, but also to be held accountable for the killings in Port Said earlier this year. They’ve also called on the Muslim Brotherhood to reject political violence and sectarian incitement, and ask members or people who were a part of the sit-in to turn in any weapons that they might have.
So, this is the situation we’re in. And we’re also seeing the security apparatus and the army really exploiting this very large wave of popular disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood, to carve out an equally—or if not even more repressive political order than the one preceded it. And the interior minister, in his press conference after this attack on Saturday, said that they are reconstituting two departments in the Interior Ministry that, you know, combat extremism and oversee political and religious activity. And he used the former name of “state security,” which was supposedly disbanded and renamed “national security.” Now, you know, many argue that these things never really left, but it’s rather that they’re re-legitimizing these political practices, and, you know, they’re entrenching themselves deeper into Egyptian life possibly.
And, finally, we have a very real threat of more impending violence. The interior minister has said that they’re going to forcibly break up these two big, large sit-ins, one in eastern Cairo in Nasr City, which is the one that was near the attack on Saturday, and another very large one in Renaissance Square in Giza. And the prospect of—where thousands of people are camped out and with the police and army being—using these violent tactics that they have for so many years, the prospect of more bloodshed is very real.
AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to go to the city of Ismailia, where clashes erupted on Sunday between the supporters of Morsi and the local police. And this was during a funeral for a Morsi supporter named Ahmed Al-Sayed, who was killed Saturday in Cairo. His mother said he was killed trying to help others.
UM AHMED: [translated] We can’t do anything but leave our fate to God. My son went out in the medical squad, and he died while he was defending it, while he was carrying the people, the body parts. Where is al-Azhar’s sheikh? Where is Sisi? Where are the people? Where are the people that went down on Friday and told Sisi to go down and beat the people? Whoever went down on Friday with Sisi, they are the ones who killed my son. Sisi, al-Azhar’s sheikh, the church and every person in Egypt that said yes to Sisi, they are all the ones that killed my son.
AARON MATÉ: Sharif, so there’s been two mass killings since Morsi was ousted, and both times the police have said that they were acting in self-defense. What’s your assessment of these claims? And also, are these mass killings doing anything to turn public opinion?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I think—well, let’s be clear. The first one, on July 8th, was by the army, and that was outside the Republican Guard headquarters. They absolved themselves of any responsibility. The one on Saturday was by police outside of the Nasr sit-in. So, as has been typical of the security apparatus and forces, they deny any kind of responsibility for these attacks. There may have been, you know, some Morsi supporters firing birdshot. There’s been some video evidence of that, although, by and large, there’s no question that these were—amounted to an excessive use of force by the security forces. And, you know, these are some of the bloodiest days we’ve seen in Egypt.
There’s been, unfortunately, little sympathy among large swaths of the populace for this crackdown, at least the ones that were opposed to Morsi before June 30th. There’s been a very vicious media campaign painting the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist, as a terrorist organization, using this language of a war on terror. And so there’s been kind of a—and also a lot of army worship and, you know, a cult of personality around al-Sisi. And you heard that woman saying, you know, al-Sisi, who is the head of the armed forces, he asked for a mandate from the public last Wednesday in a speech, calling on them to go down into the streets and give him a mandate to confront violence and terrorism. And we saw very large protests that day, and that was—and that night was when the attack happened by the police. So I think that’s important to understand.
However, on the other side, these attacks, I think, are helping the cohesion of the pro-Morsi sit-ins and the pro-Morsi movement and bringing in more Islamists into the fold who are joining these sit-ins, because they fear that, you know, this crackdown could mean that they’re next. We already saw two leaders of al-Wasat party, a very—a smaller Islamist party, arrested the other day. So, you know, I think it creates solidarity within those groups, as well.
And, finally, there is a very small but burgeoning movement that’s calling itself “The Third Square,” so distancing itself from Tahrir, which has become very pro-military in its rhetoric, and distancing itself from the pro-Morsi rallies and saying that “we’re against both of—both al-Sisi and Mohamed Morsi, against the military and against the Brotherhood.” And they’re trying to reconstitute what they say are the goals of the January 25th revolution.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we have to break, but we want to come back to this discussion. We’re speaking with Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He is in Cairo, Egypt. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. On Monday, the White House condemned the crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi, but took no immediate steps to suspend U.S. military assistance to Egypt. This is White House spokesperson Josh Earnest.
JOSH EARNEST: We—the United States strongly condemns the bloodshed and violence in Cairo and Alexandria over the weekend that claimed the lives of scores of Egyptian demonstrators and injured more than a thousand people. Our sympathies are with the families of those who lost their lives, as well as those who were injured. It’s the view of the United States that Egyptian authorities have a moral and legal obligation to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. And violence not only further sets back the process of reconciliation and democratization in Egypt, but it will negatively impact regional stability.
AMY GOODMAN: White House spokesperson Josh Earnest. And Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous with us via Democracy Now! video stream from Cairo. Sharif, I wanted to follow up with reading a paragraph from The New York Times today, an article headlined “U.S. Balancing Act With Egypt Grows Trickier.” And it says, “Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has pleaded in multiple phone calls with the chief of the Egyptian armed forces, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, to change course, while administration lawyers found a legal justification to avoid having to cut off $1.5 billion a year in military aid.”
And it also goes on to talk about: “For the Obama administration, the problem is not simply its relationship with the Egyptian military but also with Israel, whose security interests are weighing particularly heavily on administration officials as they try to nurture a new round of [talks].” Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, the U.S. has been walking this tightrope to figure out a way to keep, I think, the aid going, to fulfill its national security objectives, but coming under increasing pressure as the military has conducted these crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters. We saw a small—the first indication of, you know, kind of a modest reprimand by delaying the delivery of four F-16 fighters, but a massive joint military exercise between the Egyptian and the U.S. militaries is still going forward later this year. The aid seems to continue coming. And as you mentioned, as The New York Times mentioned, the Obama administration, by calling it a coup, would have to, by law, suspend the aid, and so they have made this what seems like a hyper-legalized determination that they don’t have to determine whether it’s a coup or not, and thereby just kind of sidestepping that requirement.
AARON MATÉ: Sharif, on the issue of General al-Sisi, can you talk about what some are calling a personality cult that’s growing around him?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, what we’re seeing is his photos everywhere. If you go to—if you went Tahrir on Friday, pictures of him are everywhere. You can buy posters of him and T-shirts, people praising him as the savior of Egypt and doing a lot of, you know, likeness with him and Gamal Abdel Nasser and putting photos of them together. So, you know, I think they’re trying to paint him as some kind of savior of Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s a very dangerous and nationalistic sentiment that is being whipped up by the state media and also by a lot of private media channels. And it’s—you know, it’s helping to usher in, as I mentioned before, this reconstituted security state that is—never really went away, but is looking to really establish itself and re-legitimize itself, with the police and the army having the final say, and this time having popular backing to do so. So, it’s a very dangerous time and has really thrown, I think, the direction or has dismayed a lot of the young revolutionaries who have fought against excessive authoritarian regimes, first against Mubarak, then against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and then against the Brotherhood. And now we seem to be regressing back to something that could be more regressive than what preceded.
AMY GOODMAN: The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who met with Morsi, also met with the Egyptian activist group Tamarod during her visit. The spokesperson, [Mahmoud] Badr, said they had laid out their vision for how to emerge from the political crisis during their talks.
MAHMOUD BADR: [translated] When they asked us about the solution, the solution clearly starts from, number one, admitting that June 30th was a revolution, or a wave of the revolution, and admitting the legitimacy of the roadmap; secondly, presenting all those involved in any shedding of Egyptian blood and those which were issued arrest warrants by the public prosecutor to quick and just trial; thirdly, clearing out all the public squares. Only then will we all start the political process. We will write a constitution that lives up to the Egyptians’ expectations. We will not write another sectarian constitution. The upcoming constitution will not differentiate between a citizen and another citizen according to religion, race, sex or ethnicity.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Tamarod spokesperson Mahmoud Badr. Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the Tamarod movement has really shown itself to side very strongly with the military, not coming out critical of military killing of protesters, of the police killing of protesters. They’ve only been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood side. It has to be said, you know, that pro-Morsi supporters have conducted violence of their own. There’s been multiple allegations of torture and abuse of what they call “infiltrators” at sit-ins. They have marched through neighborhoods and killed people in those—local residents, leaving those neighborhoods seething with rage. But groups like the Tamarod movement and a lot of the what we call non-Islamist opposition to the Brotherhood and Morsi have not held the other side to account at all, the military and the police, for these mass killings that have taken place that mark some of the bloodiest days in Egypt of the last two years. So, it’s this kind of very, very polarized atmosphere that we’re in. And groups like, you know, what I said, The Third Square, or movements that are against both of these kinds of different authoritarian regimes, have found themselves to be in a minority right now and coming under fierce attack, and trying to find what is the direction forward right now, two-and-a-half years after the revolution began.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, finally, Mohamed ElBaradei, the vice president, what is he saying? Is there a division within the military, those who were engaged in the coup?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s difficult to tell. He gave a very tepid comment condemning the violence, but, you know, some people are speculating as to whether he might step down and disassociate himself from this Cabinet, but he hasn’t given any indication of doing so. But I think the longer that this interim government stays in place and does not hold people to account for committing these mass killings, then it further delegitimizes them, I think, in the eyes of the international community, but also here at home.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Sharif, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo. And we’ll link to your articles at TheNation.com.
That does it for our broadcast. Again, today, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time, the decision in the court-martial of Bradley Manning, the verdict, will be handed down. You can go to our website for information at that time, what the verdict is. And, of course, tomorrow we will cover it fully on Democracy Now!