Egyptian capital becomes battle zone amid crisis
CAIRO – Soldiers fired their rifles in the air to keep a crowd from attacking supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi as they were being taken, one by one, out of the Al-Fath mosque in Cairo where they had been besieged by security forces overnight.
One man in the crowd, however, was able to reach over the soldiers and strike a detained protester with a stick. Others chanted against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
The scene encapsulated the venomous mood in Cairo.
The streets of Egypt’s capital have become a deadly battleground between Morsi’s supporters and backers of the military that overthrew him. The crisis has severed friendships and, in some cases, turned neighbor against neighbor in the city of more than 18 million people.
More than 450 people have been killed in Cairo over the past four days, just over half the country’s nationwide death toll during the week of violence. Hundreds of those victims died when Egyptian security forces attacked two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on Wednesday.
How events play out in Cairo could largely determine whether Egypt can step back from the brink of chaos.
Over the weekend, street battles raged throughout the metropolis, once a stable corner of the Middle East. Armed civilians and security forces fought armed Morsi supporters and protesters. People openly fired automatic rifles and pistols at one another on main overpasses and roads. Most residents cowered in their homes, many staying clear of windows and balconies.
Metro stations near protest sites are closed, and military tanks enforce an army-imposed state of emergency that grants security forces broad powers to make arrests. Residents have locked entrances to their apartment buildings, and police stations and prisons have come under attack.
The city, normally bustling at all hours of the day and night, now slips into an eerie quiet interrupted at times by gunfire during an 11-hour curfew that starts at 7 p.m. The usually gridlocked streets are devoid of nighttime traffic.
Vigilantes and police dressed in civilian clothes stand at makeshift roadblocks, frisking people without identifying themselves. Many brandish guns. The Interior Ministry warned civilians Sunday against breaking the curfew to man checkpoints.
Some grocery stores are running low on merchandise, with bread cleared from the shelves and residents stocking up on water and canned food. Banks opened for just three hours Sunday after being closed for four days. Others cannot see friends and family who live on opposite ends of the city because marches and protests have made road conditions unpredictable.
For taxi driver Ahmed Hosni, the blocked roads, violence and curfew have choked his income. He spends his nights instead at a civilian checkpoint in the poor neighborhood of Basateen.
Hosni had voted for Morsi, but a year later joined the calls for his ouster. He also took part in mass protests last month in support of military action against “potential terrorism” by the Brotherhood. He said he was upset by the bloodshed that followed.
“We are living off what we have in the coming days,” said the 31-year-old, who provides for his mother and siblings. “God is with us all these coming days.”
Along major roads of the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen, apartment buildings are riddled with bullet holes, the sidewalks are strewn with broken glass, public benches have been ripped out of the ground and several cars are smashed from last week’s fighting, sparked by anger at police for clearing out the sit-ins. Stores were looted in the mayhem.
Dozens of policemen and tanks stand guard outside a main mosque where the Brotherhood’s supporters tried to create another encampment in Mohandiseen.
Mohammed Hamed Abdel-Khairy, who owns 20 area stores that sell men’s suits, stood outside one of his shops to monitor employees as they reinforced iron bars on the door and taped newspapers to the glass to keep thieves from peering in. He said three stores around him were robbed Wednesday during the clashes on El-Batal Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Street.
“This will definitely affect my business. … I don’t believe we will sell at all this month,” he said.
Abdel-Khairy said that he carries a licensed gun and that his employees have truncheons in the stores for safety.
He defended the clearing of the two pro-Morsi sit-ins by security forces. Riot police, backed by bulldozers, armored cars and snipers, killed more than 378 people in the raids on the encampments.
“There was no other way,” he said. “How can we eat and live if protests are cutting off roads?”
He said that mistakes were made by security forces when unarmed protesters were killed alongside some brandishing weapons, but he brushed it off as God’s will. He reiterated a familiar refrain sounded by many Egyptians, government officials and local media: “You are dealing with a highly trained terrorist group.”
That hardened sentiment is echoed elsewhere in Cairo.
Brotherhood figure Salah Soltan told Al-Jazeera that he was stopped by armed men at a makeshift checkpoint who recognized him from his television appearances. The men, who he suspects were state security officials in civilian clothes, forced him and a sheik with him out of the car and took their phones and identification cards.
He said the two were then threatened with violence and forced to walk through narrow alleyways where residents angry with the Brotherhood tried to attack them. He said a local sheik held the residents off with his pleas.
“One group wanted to kill us, one group wanted to hand us over to the army,” he said.
An influential local resident intervened after neighbors pulled weapons on one another in arguments over how to deal with Soltan, who is wanted by police on charges of inciting violence. Soltan said the local leader helped sneak the two away.
A little more than two years ago, the scene in Cairo was starkly different. While there was some looting and a curfew that was less strictly enforced, Egypt was largely united in its bid to overthrow autocratic President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years. There was hope the revolution’s rallying cry of “bread, freedom and social justice” would yield results. Young activists painted sidewalks, planted flowers and cleaned up the streets.
Later, when Morsi was narrowly elected last year, the country’s first freely elected president stood in Tahrir Square, the site of anti-government protests, and opened his suit jacket to show he didn’t need a bulletproof vest or the tight security of his deposed predecessor.
But Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood leader, failed to include other factions in his decision-making and cast his critics as conspirators and Mubarak-era loyalists. Political divisions deepened and the economy tumbled.
A little before curfew over the weekend, men gathered for daily rituals of tea, cigarettes and conversation. A group sitting at the local corner coffee shop in the middle-class neighborhood of Shobra said the decision by the country’s army chief to oust Morsi saved the country from a Syria-like scenario. They criticized Western nations that called it a coup.
Ahmed Ragab sat on a plastic chair underneath a street sign plastered with a rundown sticker that urged people to “Go Down” to the streets June 30 and oust Morsi.
Ragab, a government employee who took part in those protests, said he supports the crackdown on the Brotherhood.
“If you have roaches in the kitchen that are eating away at your food. What do you do? You spray them,” he said. “These are not Islamists. They are terrorists.”