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Sharif Abdel Kouddous: 3 Years After Revolution, Egypt Faces Deadly Polarization & Growing Militancy

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More than 60 people were killed in Egypt this weekend in clashes surrounding the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of people turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution. But fighting broke out between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and state forces, as well as backers of the military government that ousted the Brotherhood from power last year. Some 1,000 people were detained. In a sign of growing activity by militants, an Egyptian army helicopter was shot down in the Sinai desert, killing all five soldiers on board. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He notes there has been an estimated 21,000 people arrested since Morsi’s ouster.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Egypt. On Saturday, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, announced that presidential elections would be held before parliamentary elections, reversing the timetable agreed after the army deposed the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.

INTERIM PRESIDENT ADLY MANSOUR: [translated] I have taken my decision to amend the road map by which we will hold presidential elections first, followed by parliamentary elections. Today, I will request the High Presidential Elections Committee to open the floor for the candidates in the presidential race and to do so in accordance with clause 230 in the amended constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re still joined in Cairo by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, who writes for The Nation magazine. His latest piece is “Egypt in [Year] Three.” Talk about the significance of the possibility of Sisi running, who the field marshal is, as well as what these elections would mean.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was appointed by Morsi himself in the summer of 2012. He replaced Tantawi as the head of the military. And he was the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces at the time. There wasn’t much known about him. He used to be the head of military intelligence. His star really rose with the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July of 2013. He was seen as, you know, pushing away the threat of the Islamists, who are often described as terrorists. And since then, he’s enjoyed a cult of personality. His picture is emblazoned everywhere. They’re on posters and on cupcakes and so forth.

And there’s been talk that has dominated the news in this country of whether he will run for president, escalating calls for him to run for president. And a few days ago, in what appeared to be a series of carefully choreographed moves, it seemed to set the stage for a likely presidential run. So, he was promoted to field marshal, which is the highest rank in the Egyptian military, and then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made a public announcement to give him the go-ahead to run. And in that statement that they read, they said that Sisi thanked the military generals for the approval and thanked them for giving him the right to respond to the call of duty. What’s significant about this public announcement is that it brings—it makes the military institution as a whole complicit in Sisi’s potential run, so it makes it very difficult for the senior officers to distance themselves from Sisi’s candidacy.

And if he does run, he’s almost guaranteed to win. There’s no other candidate that seems to be able to stand a chance against him. He will have to shoulder then the very deep social and economic problems that Egypt still faces and that have been unresolved since the revolution began three years ago. So, we’ll have to see when he’ll announce. Many are waiting for the candidacy window to open, which should be at some point in mid-February, when he would make the official announcement.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, Morsi’s trial, Egypt, the government, locking him in a soundproof cage in court?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. This was Morsi’s second appearance since he was ousted in July. And the first appearance in November, he appeared in a suit and not in the traditional white outfit of prisoners. And in the cage, he was—shouted down that the court was illegitimate, that he was the legitimate president. He didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the court.

So, in this trial, which is on different charges, he was brought into court. He was wearing the white jumpsuit of prisoners, but was put in a glass soundproof cage, as were the other defendants in the trial. And so, it made it difficult to hear what was happening and made it also—they were able to silence any outbursts by him. At one point, the head of the court did turn on the mic, and you heard the president, the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, say, “Where am I? Who are you?” in an aggressive way. And the head of the court said, “I’m the head of the Cairo Criminal Court,” and then shut his mic down.

So—and in this trial, Morsi and a number of other defendants are accused of breaking out of prison in 2011, and they’re accused of conspiring with Hamas and Hezbollah to make this prison break. But many analysts find these allegations very highly implausible. And some point to the fact that one of the people named—one of the Hamas people named in helping Morsi break out of prison was actually deceased at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened over the weekend, the increasing militancy, the shooting down of an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula that killed five soldiers?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I mean, all these redoubled authoritarian measures that the government has taken—they had three months of a curfew in an emergency law, they have a new protest law, they’re really cracking down on any dissent—it hasn’t—we’ve only seen a rise in militancy, a rise in attacks on security officers, on army soldiers. More than 250 have died, have been killed in recent months in these attacks. On the eve of the third anniversary, four bombings ripped—exploded across the capital. The biggest was a car bomb that targeted the police headquarters in Cairo that left four people dead. And we saw another escalation with a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile being used in Sinai against a military helicopter, that took down this military helicopter.

All of these attacks are being—a group, a Sinai-based militant group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which was formed in 2011, they have claimed responsibility for nearly all of these attacks, including the assassination of a senior intelligence—a senior Interior Ministry official just a few days ago near his home. They have denounced the Muslim Brotherhood in statements. Despite that, the current government and the military, and the press in tow, have often blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for all of these attacks and hold them responsible. And one of the deadliest bombings that Egypt has seen, which took place in December and killed 16 people, targeting the provincial headquarters of the police in the Delta, the day after is when the Cabinet designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. So, we’ve seen this rise in militancy and this cycle of violence continue in Egypt, and currently there’s no end in sight.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, talk about what Tahrir was like on the day of the anniversary, the third anniversary, of the Egyptian revolution.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Tahrir was a very different space than the one it was three years ago when this revolution began. When it began, Tahrir became the epicenter of dissent in Egypt. Three years later, it had been turned into a festival of chauvinistic nationalism and military worship. Gone were the pictures of martyrs, which were often waved and flown in Tahrir to commemorate those who died in the uprising and those who died in this ongoing struggle. They were replaced by pictures of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, you know, with him posing next to a roaring lion and things like this. There was helicopters flying, circling over the cheering crowds in Tahrir, dropping flags to the crowds, and people would run and grab them. There’s a monument in the middle of the square that was built by this new military-backed government.

And then, on—outside of Tahrir, there was clashes happening in Cairo, across the capital and across the country. More than 60 people were killed, one of the deadliest days since summer. And the protests were led by both members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the ousted President Morsi, but also people who reject Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and also reject the military. But the crackdown was equal on both. People were killed with a very heavy-handed response by the security forces. And this also came the day after these bombings that rocked the capital, and so we see this very trigger-happy response by the security forces. So, really, it’s a dark time, I think, for many of the young revolutionaries and activists, who had very high hopes three years ago and have continued in the struggle, and many of whom are in prison now. And it looks like the repressive security state is in ascendancy.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, in your most recent article in The Nation magazine, you quote a letter from the well-known blogger, activist, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, sent to his younger sisters from prison. In it, he writes, quote, “What is adding to the oppression that I feel is that I find that this imprisonment is serving no purpose. It is not resistance, and there is no revolution. The previous imprisonments had meaning, because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for a positive gain.”

We may have just lost Sharif. Sharif, can you hear me in Cairo? Ah, I can hear him speaking on the telephone, so it looks like we just lost the connection. But I want to thank Sharif for joining us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, speaking to us from Cairo. His most recent piece for The Nation magazine, we will link to. It’s called “Egypt in Year Three.”

When we come back, we go to the Ukraine. Stay with us.

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