Foreign Policy: ‘They Struck Us Down Like Animals’

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As Egyptian authorities use brute force to disperse two pro-Morsy sit-ins, protesters vow to resist the crackdown until the bitter end.

 CAIRO — A hail of gunfire crackled in the background as paramedics rushed a young male protester on a blood-spattered stretcher away from the frontline of the Islamist sit-in in Cairo’s Nasr City. The neat bullet wound to his stomach, the medics speculated, was from a rifle round. For a few minutes they tried CPR — but to no avail. Before anyone could learn his name, the man, who appeared to be in his twenties, was dead.

“Most of them are shot in the head or the chest,” said the exhausted looking medic, Ahmed, his green uniform smeared with dried blood. “In my truck alone, four protesters have died.”

This is how it went for most of the day on Wednesday, Aug. 14, as Egyptian security forces’ attempt to clear two sit-ins manned by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy devolved into a bloody, 12-hour long battle that by nightfall in Cairo left more than 250 dead and 800 injured. It marked the single most violent day in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011.

The Interior Ministry, the military, and interim government had promised to peacefully disperse the camps, raising the idea of cutting off their electricity and water to force protesters to go home. But at 6:30 a.m. this morning, it became clear they had decided to take a less subtle approach: Armored cars, police officers, and soldiers marched on the protests in Nasr City and Giza, opening fire with birdshot, tear gas, and live ammunition.

“They didn’t give us a chance. They struck us down like animals, I’ve never seen it like this,” said Ahmed Azazy, a 44-year-old businessman from Banha, who was taking a rest from the front line of the clashes by the main encampment. “I can’t tell you the amount of people who died in front of me. Go to the field hospital, see how many bodies there are.”

The Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, which sits at the center of the Nasr City sit-in, became a makeshift morgue as the casualties from clashes with the police mounted, eyewitnesses toldForeign Policy. The ground was covered in blood, protesters reported, and medics were forced to lay the bodies on the floor. Most were shot dead, they said. One reportedly burned to death after his tent was set on fire.

The field hospital next to the mosque was surrounded by clashes. Protesters on the southern side of the sit-in took turns sprinting through a corridor of live fire to access the building in order to check on the wounded and the dead.

Hours into the onslaught, hundreds of protesters still held their ground, resisting the security forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown over the makeshift barricades of pavement stones. Meanwhile, women and children remained huddled behind sandbags and concrete walls in a southern corner of the Nasr City sit-in. The gunfire, coming from all directions, was bewildering. Bullets rained down from above and zipped past at street level — protesters claimed they had seen snipers shooting down on the encampment from the overlooking buildings. Black columns of smoke mingled with the impenetrable plumes of tear gas, making it difficult to breathe.

“Killers, they’re killers, they slaughtered us like sheep,” shouted one protester on his way back from the frontline, a Quran tied around his neck and a cheap plastic gas mask on his head.

Standing among the weary fighters, a protester took a break from the fighting and started a chant to boost morale. “We are ready to give our blood and our soul for Islam,” he shouted, and hundreds joined in. They climbed the sandbags in defiance of the security forces, who respond with gunfire.

On the side streets of the residential area, security forces shot at anyone attempting to access the sit-in. Residents, journalists, and families of those trapped inside ran from car to car, taking cover from the hail of gunfire. The authorities had promised a safe exit — but all entrances were barricaded in by the security forces or blocked by street battles.

“My son, he’s just 21 years old, he went to help when he heard the gunfire. He cannot get out, we cannot get in, what do we do?” said Mona Salama, 40, a doctor who lives nearby. “There are snipers on the buildings who shot at us as we tried to get in. It’s not safe.”

Eyewitnesses later reported that the security forces raided the medical center, forcing protesters and medics to flee, leaving the dead behind. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement accusing the police of stealing the bodies to cover up the size of the massacre.

The violence was not restricted to the capital. In Upper Egyptpro-Morsy demonstrators attacked local government offices, setting fire to a courthouse in the city of Beni Suef. Some 41 people were killed in the province of Minya, according to Health Ministry officials, as street battles with security forces raged on into the evening.

It was not just Morsy supporters who were under attack: By midday, the violence had morphed into sectarian bloodshed. The main Coptic Christian church in Sohag and in Minya was set on fire by Islamist protesters according to local media reports. In the Nile Delta’s governorate of Gharbia, citizens formed human chains around one church in a bid to protect it from an impending assault.

With Egypt in flames, the government moved quickly to try to restore law and order by all means necessary. Interim President Adly Mansour’s office announced that a curfew would be put in place from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m.and that a month-long state of emergency would be implemented. Mansour also called on the military to support the Ministry of Interior and its police force.

But even as Mansour tried to assert control, his administration was showing signs of strain. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been pushing for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, tendered his resignation in a statement that condemned the breakup of the sit-ins.

However, other political forces sympathetic to the government defended the crackdown. Egypt’s main coalition of non-Islamist forces, the National Salvation Front (NSF), defended the actions of the security forces in a statement, calling the day “a victory against all political forces trafficking in the name of religion.” Khaled Daoud, a leading member of the NSF, told Al Jazeera that the Muslim Brotherhood bears “full responsibility” for what happened, as their encampments were not peaceful.

The destruction of the pro-Morsy protesters’ sit-ins, however, seems to have done nothing to dull the opposition’s resolve to keep up the resistance to the military government. Even after 12 hours of bullets and tear gas, they were already preparing for the next round of fighting.

At the back of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where protesters were still battling with lines of police, protesters remained determined to keep the demonstrations going.

“Whatever the police do, we will get Morsy back, he will remain our president,” said Ahmed Alam, a 28-year-old engineer readying himself to go back into the fight. “They have to kill 80 million of us to get the power they so desperately want.”

Unkindest cut: 13-year-old’s death spotlights widespread FGM in Egypt

As a 13-year-old girl dies, Bel Trew reports on why female genital mutilation may be on the rise again in Egypt, where 91 per cent of women are circumcised

 Sohair El-Batea’s story is not uncommon in Egypt: a 13-year-old girl from a Nile Delta village was sent for an illegal circumcision by her parents to the local clinic. Something went wrong and she died en route to hospital.

The autopsy revealed Sohair, whose sisters had been cut by the same doctor, died from “shock trauma”. Staff at the hospital, who tried to revive the teenager, told her mother the doctor drugged Sohair without the supervision of an anaesthesiologist.

Sohair’s father, a farmer, defended his decision, telling local media that neighbours recommended the physician, someone with “a remedy for everything at low prices”. The family was allegedly told by the clinic to say nothing further.

Human rights groups feared that, as usual, nobody would be held accountable for Sohair’s death, and, sure enough, on Wednesday, the doctor responsible was released without charge.

Sohair’s is not the first death to make headlines. In 2010 another 13-year-old, Nermine El-Haddad, bled to death in a hospital, post-operation. Three years before that, two girls of a similar age died, leading parliament to criminalise the practice. One of their mothers told local media she paid just £5.50 for the operation.

Despite the practice being illegal, Egypt has among the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world. In the post Arab Spring upheaval, and with Islamist MPs pushing decriminalisation of the practice in Parliament, activists fear FGM may become more acceptable.

It is estimated that a staggering 91 per cent of women between the ages of 15-49 have been cut, according to the latest survey released in 2008, meaning a cross-section of society, from working-class rural communities to middle-class professionals, put their young daughters under the knife. “It occurs across class boundaries but is of course linked to lack of education and information,” explains Sally Zohney, a feminist working on the issue.

Female circumcision is practised in both Muslim and Christian communities, although Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church and Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic authority, have condemned it. Al-Azhar refuted claims that FGM is sanctioned by Islam.

Cutting, which is rarely practised in other Arab countries, has its roots in African tradition. “There is a strong link between circumcising a girl and protecting her honour, her virginity,” explains Zohney. Many believe removing the clitoris will control women’s “desires” and therefore their behaviour. Although often initiated by female family members, many men will only marry girls who are cut, Zohney adds.

Egyptian women are typically circumcised between the ages of eight and 12. “They either remove a small piece or the whole clitoris,” explains Hussein Gohar, an Egyptian gynaecologist and vocal critic of the practice. Little attention is paid to hygiene and the operations are often done without anaesthetic.

In extreme cases, Gohar continues, the labia is removed “which leaves just a hole”.

“You run the risk of heavy bleeding, sometimes to death,” he adds. Other possible consequences include infection, cysts and scarring which can make sex excruciating and lead to “uncontrollable tearing” during childbirth.

The rite of passage is extremely traumatic, says Salma [not her real name], who was circumcised at the age of nine in a rundown Islamic Cairo district. “I woke up one morning to find three women dressed in black in my room. They sprayed something cold inside me, one held my arms, one my legs,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why they were restraining me — I tried to push them away. Then they cut me. They said nothing.”

Salma considers herself lucky: her cousin, who bled for days, couldn’t walk for a week.

Girls are not prepared for what happens, nor is the process explained to them. “I had problems with my husband, I am not interested in sex, it damaged my marriage. It’s like a bad dream you can never forget,” says Salma.

The United Nations children’s organisation Unicef reports that despite the ban on FGM, 72 per cent of operations are now performed by doctors. They can make a tidy sum on the side: prices start at £14, with some raking in as  much as £150.

“Hospitals can be blamed and spotted more easily because FGM is illegal,” says Zohney, who adds that private clinics are the preferred venue, where the quality of care and the level of discretion depend on the price.

Magda Naguib, from the Better Life Association, explains that doctors are recommended by word of mouth and compete for business. “Families visit them early in the morning and late at night because it’s criminalised,” says Naguib.

Doctors often know little about the potential danger of FGM. Circumcision, Gohar explains, is barely discussed in the university medical syllabus. “Some professors in gynaecology even advocate FGM,” he adds. Physicians occasionally perform the procedure without the patient’s consent: Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights relates one story of a domestic helper who noticed her wounds were not healing after a difficult birth.

“Her doctor had circumcised her during delivery on the instructions of her husband,” Shahbender says.

Despite all this evidence, politicians last year discussed allowing doctors to perform FGM. “What Sohair’s case highlights is that it is not a safe procedure, even when it happens in a medical setting,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, a children’s rights researcher.

Other rights advocates fear campaigns against the practice will continue to face obstacles. Local media reported in 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood was offering subsidised female circumcision at mobile clinics for the equivalent of £3. Video footage of the clinics circulated on social media, though no one has confirmed the story and the group subsequently denied it.

Nevertheless the Brotherhood continues to make controversial statements. In March 2012 Azza El-Garf, one of the only female MPs from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), described FGM as “beautification surgery” that should be allowed.

During a televised debate last year President Mohamed Morsi was asked about the problem. “His response was basically to say it is a personal issue between mother and daughter,” explained Zohney.

None of the FJP parliamentarians in Daqahlia governorate, where Sohair died, would comment on her death. Some contacted by the Evening Standard hung up when FGM was mentioned.

“We have more pressing issues,” says Saad Aly Abdel-Holougy, Brotherhood MP in Daqahlia. He did add that the FJP is against female circumcision.

Motaparthy fears the law is not being enforced: “We’re seen little attempt to investigate these instances.” There are still 12 pending criminal cases from 2010 where parents and doctors were accused of carrying out FGM, and activists complain that police tasked with enforcing the law probably circumcise their own daughters.

The most prominent figure to criticise FGM before the Arab Spring was Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed president. “When the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots speak of women’s rights legislation they call them Suzanne Mubarak laws intentionally, to give them a bad name,” explains Shahbender.

The association with Mubarak has become so acute that women’s rights activists chant “we are not Suzanne Mubarak’s dogs” during marches.

One year into President Morsi’s rule, activists say Egypt is backtracking on personal rights: groups complain that the newly adopted constitution does not prevent the abuse of children, and orders women to prioritise family life.

“Instead of gaining new laws for women’s rights, we are on the defensive to protect established legislation,” says Zohney, fearing that the number of girls subjected to this brutal practice will not diminish: “We can’t look forward.”