Nation & World

Egypt government paints opponents as terrorists; US journalists targeted

Egyptian presidential advisor Mustafa Hegazy described them as remnants of “religious fascism” that once governed the nation. The police called them infidels as they cleared a mosque Saturday where they were either hiding or shooting, depending on which side you listened to. Newscasters referred to them as armed gunmen.

And on the streets of Cairo, in front of the latest clashes, nearby residents used the terms animals, barbarians, and terrorists to describe supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

It is why so many shrug at word that at least 1,042 people have been killed since June 26, according to an AFP count. It is why so many Egyptians support the government’s continued deadly crackdown of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency. Over and over again, government officials, the media and now everyday Egyptians repeat the same message: supporters of the ousted regime are enemies of the state, killing security forces in an effort to destroy the nation.

“What are the police supposed to do when armed men are attacking them? Said a reporter covering a government press conference. “They have no choice. They are defending Egypt.”

For those opposed to military rule, dying for the cause of returning their democratic right to govern or in retribution for those killed is an act of Islamic martyrdom. The Brotherhood exploits every death, every clash, portraying themselves as victims.

The result is an Egypt turning into a battleground between willing assassins and willing martyrs. Those against the military believe they are defending Islam and a democratic election they prevailed in a year ago that was undone by the Morsi’s military ouster. Those who support the military believe they are securing the state from armed Islamists.

To be sure, reporters and witnesses have seen Islamists armed with machine guns and Molotov cocktails. And government officials allege that Islamists armed with guns shot at them from the minaret in Cairo’s El-Fateh Mosque Friday, creating a two-day showdown between forces and the Islamists locked inside. But more often, McClatchy reporters have seen Islamists throwing rocks or chanting against the regime when they are met with police gunfire.

According to government officials at least 173 people have died from Friday’s clashes, which extended to Saturday, spurred by Wednesday’s clashes that killed at least 638 according to government figures. Thousands of Islamists and known terrorists have been detained including Mohammed al Zawahiri, brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who was arrested Saturday in the restive Sinai.

All day Friday and Saturday, Egyptian troops and police were stationed around El-Fateh Mosque, trying to clear it of the scores of Islamists locked inside after clashes erupted during their “Day of Rage” Friday.

Police moved into the mosque. A few minutes later gunfire started, however it was not clear who was shooting. Seconds later gunfire was seen coming out of the mosque minaret, then very heavy gunfire started taking place from the security forces.

Outside, residents vowed to mow down Islamists trying to escape. “Sissi! Sissi!” they yelled at the Islamists, referring to Gen. Abdel-Fatah el Sissi, the minster of defense and de facto leader of an Egypt now governed by a military-appointed civilian government. "The people and army are one hand,” they chanted, hoisting a soldier on their shoulders at one point.

Until a month ago, the battle between the two warring factions was largely a political dispute punctuated by relatively peaceful protests. But in late July, el-Sissi urged people to take to the streets and give him the “mandate” to address the then month-long sit in staged by Morsi supporters in the eastern district of Rabaa. They did and the fight over who should govern Egypt became an increasingly deadly street war.

In the streets of Cairo, major roads were peppered with burnt cars and blockades, scars of past street wars. At funerals for killed Morsi supporters, imams and residents called for people to stay on the streets and die to defend Islam. Neighborhoods caught between the two sides were destroyed in the process, filled with burned buildings and debris. In some places, young men armed with machetes and guns set up makeshift checkpoints. A few feet away, civilian dressed policemen surveyed the scene.

To those who support the government, the Brotherhood instigated the deadly clashes by staging a six-week sit demanding Morsi’s return, disregarding the will of the majority who through massive demonstrations decided he lost public support.

Western media now are considered enemies defending the Islamists. Hegazy said Egyptians are "very bitter" about the coverage. Several journalists have been beaten and detained while covering clashes. A female McClatchy reporter who attempted to see the carnage inside 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 is an American!” The men happily obliged and manhandled the reporter. As she escaped, men surrounded her, recording her face.

On state media, a recent program showed a vehicle purported to be foreigner’s handing out weapons and money to Islamists. It turned out to be a CNN vehicle covering the news. State security visited the CNN offices and when told about the broadcast told reporters, “We know. We had to juice it up a bit.”

In the face of mounting criticism from both within and the international community, the government launched a media campaign Saturday. Egyptian Prime Minister Hizam el-Biblawi said the government would not work with anyone “with blood on his hands.”

During a press conference Saturday, Hegazy described what was happening as “not a political dispute” but a “war against attrition.” There are Egyptians who “stand by us” and those “who are against us.” In a statement, the Brotherhood has urged its supporters to stay on the streets until Friday and protest.

To be sure, there is outrage amongst Egyptians, quiet pleas for decency drowned out by an angry, emotional populace.

As the gunfire intensified at Fateh Mosque, a McClatchy reporter sought shelter among other pedestrians in the hallway of an apartment building overlooking the mosque. After almost an hour of heavy gunfire, three police snipers approached the building and asked the people to open the gate. As they entered, a woman in her 40s started yelling once she saw one of them pushing the elevator button and standing with their machine guns.

“Don’t kill them, for God’s sake,” the woman yelled. One of the three police yelled back at her. “If we have to kill every one of them that is what we will do, they are infidels. They are spraying and killing people from the mosque.”

Later, residents of the apartment building debated amongst one another, often coming down with one side.

As they argued, one quietly asked: “Where is our humanity?”

Amina Ismail is a McClatchy Special Correspondent

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