Letter from Cairo — From the August 2014 issue

Return of the Strongman

How did Egypt revert to dictatorship?

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From the beginning, there was an enormous gap between how the foreign press and the local media reported Morsi’s ouster and Sisi’s ascent. Foreign pundits, writing in such publications as the New York Times and the Guardian, spoke of “counterrevolution,” “coup,” and the return of the “strongmen” — in this case, the Egyptian army. In their view, Egypt’s brief flirtation with democracy had come to a painful end and Sisi would join the pantheon of Middle Eastern military despots, from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Qaddafi. The Egyptian media, on the other hand, welcomed the strongmen enthusiastically. After all, they had saved Egypt from a madman at the center of the Muslim Brotherhood — the same shadowy organization, some pointed out, that had historical ties to Al Qaeda.

These two views duplicated, in a way, the debate within Egypt itself, where the language used to talk about the situation remains fraught. In most non-Islamist circles, to utter the word “coup” inspires accusations of all sorts — of softie leftist naïveté about the threat the Brotherhood poses, or of being part of a global conspiracy to facilitate the organization’s rise. To partisans of this view — and they reflect the mainstream in Egypt now — what happened in the summer of 2013 was not a coup d’état but a popular revolution in which a Muslim-majority country overthrew an Islamist regime.

A protester sits amid rubble during the clearing of one of two pro-Morsi sit-ins, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, August 14, 2013 © Mosa’ab Elshamy/Getty Images

A protester sits amid rubble during the clearing of one of two pro-Morsi sit-ins, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, August 14, 2013 © Mosa’ab Elshamy/Getty Images

Sympathetic to this line of thinking, the Egyptian media either willfully ignored the pro-Morsi sit-ins — they lasted six weeks — or presented them as a sort of Woodstock for terrorists. At its peak, Rabaa, the larger of the two, began to look and feel like a miniature city, complete with a barber, a pharmacy, restaurants, and kiosks selling all manner of products, as well as a media center stocked with iPads and equipped with high-speed Internet. Yet it was difficult not to think of Rabaa — thanks to its association with gruff bearded men, Islam, and extremism — as the poorer, less photogenic cousin of Tahrir Square: Egyptian coverage involved gossipy depictions of Morsi supporters as bin Ladenists or witless lambs in thrall to terrorist leaders. The camp, which would swell during the demonstrations to a population of as many as 85,000, was described as teeming and unhygienic. The women, the state newspapers said, were there only to give sexual pleasure to the jihadis in their midst. There were few photographers present from the mainstream Egyptian press, and few uplifting images of bravery in the face of adversity emerged. After the sit-ins were broken up — as a result of which around 900 protesters died — Egyptians didn’t memorize the names of Rabaa’s dead, nor did they commemorate them with posters, murals, syrupy music videos, and decorative air fresheners. According to Mosa’ab Elshamy, a young photographer who exhaustively documented the sit-in, the Egyptian newspapers warped the story. “One or two newspapers might have sent photographers, but as far as I know they never printed any images of the raid.” His own work, which ended up on the front page of the New York Times, had no life in the local press.

The pictures that do exist — you can dig up material on Google and YouTube — reveal police descending on the stubborn encampment on the morning of August 14 with tear gas and bulldozers. Female members of the sit-in read aloud from the Koran, oblivious to the helicopters flying overhead and the soldiers with bullhorns calling for the camp to disperse. Children struggle to breathe in a fog of tear gas, and an endless stream of bodies and blood flows toward a makeshift hospital on the edge of the encampment. Footage inside the hospital itself reveals human forms with bullet wounds and collapsed skulls, and rows of white body bags in overcrowded rooms, arms folded over chests to form a sea of awkward humps.

As with any war of images, the pro-military camp, backed by the official media, has its own stash of videos uploaded to YouTube. For every clip of soldiers stamping out an ostensibly peaceful protest, there is another put out by the pro-military faction that features menacing-looking members of the sit-ins bearing arms. In one such video, snipers can be seen firing at troops from a nearby building. Another, since removed, showed a coffin the police claimed to have found filled with ammunition. “The history of what happened at Rabaa,” Elshamy said of the media blitz, “is being rewritten.”

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