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In a harsh crackdown on pro-Islamist sit-ins in Cairo, Egyptian security forces Wednesday killed dozens of protesters and the interim government declared a state of emergency. Since the military takeover in June, the U.S. has walked a fine line, keeping lines of communication open to both sides, which has fueled anti-American rhetoric on the ground. We get the latest on the rapidly changing situation.
- Manal Omar Associate Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. Institute of Peace
- Maria Habib Middle East Correspondent, Wall Street Journal
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. And later in the broadcast, a film festival coming to D.C. this week focuses on the African diaspora around the world. But first, the death toll now stands at more than 500 in a harsh crackdown on pro-Islamist sit-ins in Cairo. Yesterday, Egyptian security forces swept through two main squares where protesters had camped for weeks in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the main Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe interim government declared a month-long state of emergency yesterday. President Obama spoke this morning and canceled joint military exercises with Egypt scheduled for next week. Since the military takeover in June, the U.S. has walked a fine line, keeping lines of communication open to both sides, a position that seems untenable as violence escalates. Joining us to discuss this by phone from Cairo is Maria Habib. She is a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Maria Habib, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARIA HABIBThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMaria, the situation is obviously changing rapidly on the ground. Where are you now, and what's happening there?
HABIBWell, right now, I am back in Cairo. I did go out today, though, to do some reporting in a small town just outside of the capital, and the situation is pretty intense, I have to say. On one side, you have strange, you know, kind of more tourism happening in Rabaa, which is the sit-in that was cleared yesterday by the police, with, you know, Egyptians going there to take a look at the charred remains of the sit-in and the mosque and the medical center and, you know, snap photos and pose with their children and slap, you know, police, soldiers on their back.
HABIBYou know, very nearby you have the mosque, which has basically become a morgue for those that were killed in Rabaa, the Brotherhood supporters that were killed in Rabaa. And you have, you know, huge slabs of ice that are trying to chill the bodies that are, you know, melting with the hot summer weather of Cairo in August.
HABIBAnd it's just, you know, piles of dead bodies that are all arranged on the floors of this mosque with, you know, their loved ones trying to identify, you know, if their son -- you know, one body is their son or their brother or whatever. So it's a very sad and very, you know, polarized situation in the capital.
NNAMDIMaria, the supporters of ousted President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have called for more protest. Have those protests materialized?
HABIBWell, the group outside of the main mosque Brotherhood told the protesters to go to, you know, it is increasing. You have more and more Egyptians coming to the mosque. We're waiting to see whether or not it's going to spiral down into, you know, more violence because the police curfew is going to be in effect in about an hour. And as we've seen for -- the mingling of police and angry Brotherhood supporters has not mixed very well.
HABIBBut there have been other, you know, pro-Brotherhood rallies in other towns, like the town that I went to outside of Cairo today, and they've taken on a very sectarian tone. The supporters Kerdasa, which is the town that we went to today, you know, they were swearing at the Coptic Christian pope, and actually this town has seen one of their churches burnt down just yesterday. So -- and as well as one of their police stations.
HABIBSo it's very -- you know, today is not looking good, but we're all waiting really for tomorrow because tomorrow is Friday prayers, and that is when, you know, many Egyptians go to the mosque to -- with their families to pray. And, of course, the congregations are large and emotions run high and people feel very emboldened after some of these sermons. And usually, as we've seen over the, you know, course of the Arab Spring, this is where the big clashes happen after Friday prayers.
NNAMDIIs there any way that you can characterize the reaction to this escalating violence and bloodshed on the part of non-Muslim Brotherhood supporters?
HABIBWell, non-Muslim Brotherhood supporters have joined in to reinforce the police against Brotherhood supporters. And a lot of them -- I mean, they just feel like they're fighting for the soul of Egypt. They feel like this is a pivotal moment in Egypt's history to see whether or not the country will become -- you know, embrace secularism or embrace an Islamic faith.
HABIBAnd so you actually have quite a few secular Egyptians who are acting quite violently with even journalists, actually. I have to say that the Brotherhood supporters are the ones that are a little bit more accommodating and generous to journalists. But a lot of these secularists kind of feel like the world has misunderstood them and that the Brotherhood are nothing but terrorists, which, of course, the Brotherhood says is untrue.
HABIBAnd, you know, why is it that the world isn't, you know, calling them out as terrorists and supporting them in this battle for terror? But, of course, you know, you have Brotherhood supporters who say, look, you know -- and even the Brotherhood leadership -- we renounce violence. You know, many years ago, we realized it did not work for us.
HABIBWe had hoped that with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 that we would have a chance to really implement, you know, our political vision in a nonviolent way by participating through democracy. And by overthrowing our government that Egyptians have voted for, you know, you're not sending a very good message out to regular Egyptians that democracy is the only way to address your grievances.
HABIBAnd actually quite a few Brotherhood leaders are even quite worried that this has become -- this has spiraled out of their control, that their own supporters are so enraged by the fact that the police have cracked down on them and that they are taking matters into their own hands and violently attacking police stations or churches or other government institutions and that, in fact, actually the Brotherhood leadership can't call, you know, these supporters off or (unintelligible) their, you know, their anger.
NNAMDIMaria, given the fact that the Brotherhood leaders cannot control that situation on the one hand and, on the other hand, journalists are being attacked, it seems, in many cases by opponents of the Brotherhood, you and other journalists, some of whom have been killed, are clearly in a very difficult situation there. How are now -- how are you now being able -- or how are you going to be able to continue reporting on the unfolding crisis given that situation?
HABIBThat's a very good question and I think even, you know, a question that even the editors are asking me and we ask ourselves sitting here in Cairo. I mean, I think that it's a real shame that the government has not allowed journalists the access that it promised. It's a real shame that the government police have, you know, decided to fire upon journalists and also, you know, fire at us. I mean, they're firing on unarmed crowds as well.
HABIBI mean, I was part of -- I was among a crowd of pro-Brotherhood supporters who were trying to march on Rabaa, and I did not see them have any arms, although there have been Brotherhood protesters who have been violent. But the crowd that I was with was unarmed, and we were shot at and pinned down. I was hiding behind a car. I was tear gassed. But I was just simply one person in a very large crowd.
HABIBUnfortunately, the police here have, you know, a history of violent, you know, repression, and they definitely don't understand or maybe have even received very limited training on crowd control. So I think it's just about using your best judgment. But at the end of the day, no story is worth dying for. But it's, you know, it's a real shame because Cairo really needs to be covered.
HABIBWhat's happening here is pivotal for the country's future, and we're all trying our best and going out into the streets and trying to figure out, you know, what's safe to cover and what's not. So it's just a matter of having each other's backs and, you know, keeping the information flowing between us to figure out which situations are too violent to cover and which ones are fine.
NNAMDIMaria Habib is a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Maria, thank you so much for joining us. Please, try to be safe.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on what's going on in Egypt. We'll be talking with Manal Omar, associate vice president for Middle East and North Africa for the U.S. Institute of Peace. She has just returned from Egypt. You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. What do you think the U.S. should be doing or should have done regarding the situation in Egypt? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the turmoil in Egypt. We're talking now with Manal Omar, associate vice president for Middle East and North Africa for the U.S. Institute of Peace, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850 if you'd like to offer your opinion about what the U.S. should be doing or should have already done regarding that situation in Egypt.
NNAMDIYou can also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Manal Omar, I said you recently returned from Cairo -- that was just on Sunday -- and you say that this crackdown was not totally unexpected. What about the level of brutality of the security forces? Did ordinary Egyptians find that somewhat surprising?
MS. MANAL OMARI think that people expected that there would be some brutality and some violence against the square. I think one of the challenges with the last two weeks when I was in Egypt, it was during Ramadan where everyone was pointing out this isn't a very convenient division of Muslim Brotherhood in one village and one street versus pro-military in another street. It was very much intertwined within the families. So you had parents who are at one side. You had brothers who are at one side, another brothers and sisters and -- on another side.
MS. MANAL OMARAnd it was creating an incredible tension within the household, within the street, within the neighborhood, and that was a question people were asking, was how violent. I mean literally while we were in Cairo, people were anticipating any day this would happen. The majority of people anticipated immediately after Eid. So yesterday's events weren't completely unexpected. People accepted that there would be a level of violence. I think as the death toll continues to rise that level of acceptance will slowly dissipate.
NNAMDIMaria reported that the police in Egypt do have a history for brutality during crackdowns such as this. When you say you think or some people think it will dissipate over what period of time?
OMARI think that's really what will remain to be seen in terms of the response of the Muslim Brotherhood and their ability to call to the street. I agree with Maria that tomorrow is going to be a very important day to see how many people will respond to the Friday sermons. What will the Friday sermons say? You now have the top tier leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in the military being detained by the military. Will the second tier follow as the first tier did? What will the messaging be? How many people will actually respond?
OMARWhat really surprised me was the high level of tolerance for violence in Egypt. People feel that there is a necessity for the military to return. And the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't been able to really resonate with the mass street in Egypt in terms of their call of protecting the ballot box and protecting the legitimacy of a democratically elected government. Most people want to be able to move forward to the next step in rebuilding Egypt and putting it back on the right track in what they call the Arab Spring.
NNAMDISince the June 30 ouster of President Morsi, the U.S. has attempted to walk a fine line, maintaining communication with both the new government and supporters of the ousted president's party, the Muslim Brotherhood. But that strategy may have backfired, and you think that one of the reasons that strategy may have backfired is because much of what the U.S. has done has been below the radar, deliberately so. Why do you think that's a part of the issue?
OMARI think that there are two primary issues that really puts the U.S. in a difficult position. One is the legal status depending on what we classify what happened on June 30th and afterwards. And that has great implications for our foreign aid, which is a strong basis of what the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Egypt is. On the other hand, Egyptians have been very clear. They don't want international foreign intervention. They don't want the U.S. to be weighing in on what happens in Egypt and what it should look like.
OMARAt the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and, you know, many communities across the world, including Muslim Brotherhoods in other countries, including Jordan, including Turkey, there were protests in Afghanistan, pro-Morsi, are looking to the U.S. to defend democracy, to defend the ballot box and to take a stand against extreme violence. So the U.S. has to find that balance.
OMAROver and over, many of the civil society activists in Egypt were, you know, really cautioning the U.S. in terms of the last thing Egypt needs is someone to take a side. They need a neutral party. They need open channels between the two different political groups, and that's a role that the U.S. should play, focusing on the principles they want to see, not focusing on what it would look like or what the Egyptian decision on how to enforce the principles.
NNAMDIPresident Obama spoke on the situation this morning. He said the U.S. canceled joint military exercises scheduled for next week. Is that in any way significant? Can we take that to mean that the U.S. military aid to Egypt might be on the table, and what effect might that have on the interim government?
OMARI think they will be quick to jump to their conclusion that it might have any effect on direct -- the direct aid that's going to Egypt. I think the reaction from the military, the reaction from the Egyptian people has consistently been that the aid that Egypt has from the U.S. is based on previous negotiations and previous stipulations and trying to enforce new stipulations is unfair to the spirit of the agreement between Egypt and the U.S.
OMARAt the same time, I think that it was an important move from Obama basically signaling that this high level of violence won't be tolerated, I think, is in line with the idea of the principles. One of the strong principles has to be, you know, not having excessive use of force. And, you know, going back to the table of saying that there has to be some way of political negotiations enforced.
OMARI mean, it's never worked in the past. If anything, the excessive force has always led to more counterinsurgencies and more extremists on the ground. And, you know, I think that's a real fear for what could happen as a result in Egypt.
NNAMDIBut it would appear that promises of more aid from other Arab governments can in this situation cause the U.S. influence to be, well, less than it used to be in these situations, and that even if aid were cut off, that would not necessarily change the strategy of the Egyptian military.
OMARI think that there is very strong confidence within Egypt, and what I've heard over and over from various Egyptian leadership is that they don't feel that the aid with the U.S. is a necessity for Egypt to move forward into its next phase. I feel again that that's premature to make as a final conclusion. I think beyond the actual money and the monetary having U.S. and Egypt on strong terms, Egypt is an incredibly important country to the region.
OMARAnd let's look around. I mean Iraq is going back into severe chaos. You have Syria. You have questions of Iran. The last thing that could happen I think for both sides is to lose any direct relationship and bilateral ties between Egypt and the U.S. It would have incredible consequences for the region.
NNAMDIIn addition to saying that the U.S. has canceled joint military exercises scheduled for next week, the president also said this.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMALet me say that the Egyptian people deserve better than what we've seen over the last several days. And to the Egyptian people, let me say the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop. We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect the universal rights of the people. We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully and condemn the attacks that we've seen by protesters, including on churches.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAWe believe that the state of emergency should be lifted, that a process of national reconciliation should begin, that all parties need to have a voice in Egypt's future, that the rights of women and religious minorities should be respected and that commitments must be kept to pursue transparent reforms to the constitution and democratic elections of a parliament and a president.
NNAMDIManal Omar, how do you think that message will play in Egypt?
OMARI think that, you know, just this morning, I spoke with several people that I had met with in Cairo and asked them that exact question, what was their reaction, especially because a big part of my trip was the messaging coming from the U.S. government. And the reaction was that they felt that it was balanced, that this was the right messaging to be sent and holding both parties accountable for the escalation of violence and demanding that this type of reaction and particularly the resorting to violence be stopped.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Al is Chevy Chase, Md. Al, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALYes. Good afternoon, Kojo. Great show, number one. Number two, there is some issue that I see in this matter that, one, is for our country that we are predicting the democracy all around the world. And we do think -- time to time we do think that we really don't mean that way, such as this Morsi, that he's the Muslim Brotherhood president, that when we do not say anything against the protesting and getting this guy out of the office and just as that I watched this, everybody thinks that, you know, we are against the Muslim people.
ALYou know, we should have say at the beginning that no, this is not right. He's been chosen by the people. Wait until his term is over and then change. Not to just let people do what they wanted to do, get him out of the office, and then as the military comes and every time that the military comes here, they don't have anything better to do, just yelling and shooting.
NNAMDIAl, thank you very much for your call. Clearly, that is the way supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood feel, but there are people like Al, presumably all over the world, who are saying that it is because this is an Islamist movement that the U.S. has been reluctant to declare its overthrow a coup when it's clear that it has all of the characteristics of a coup.
OMARI think that one of the primary things to be cautious of is not to try and tie the Muslim Brotherhood directly to both the Islamists and the political movement, as well as more dangerously to the Muslim communities. A lot of people in Egypt who showed up in June 30 voted for Morsi, saw a lot of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood but by June 30 felt that he was not capable to deliver and are, you know, very strong Muslims, very practicing Muslims.
OMARAnd I think that's one of the roots of frustration in Egypt is that people are labeling, you know, all of Islam and particularly the political activists or political Islam with the Muslim Brotherhood. Let's not forget that there has been Nour party, which is Salafi party, joined with the military, Al-Azhar, which is one of the strong religious institutes, joined in alliance with the military. And so it's very difficult and I think very dangerous for us to continue to classify this as which, you know, secular versus Islam.
OMARI mean, there's a huge amount of secular, and I would agree with (unintelligible) turning to violence, the term being used in Egypt is even secular fundamentalism. But I think it's very important that we provide a more nuisance analysis of the conflict, which has many shades in between the pro-Morsi and pro-military camp.
NNAMDIIf that nuisance interpretation is not the interpretation that is being argued by the Muslim Brotherhood, if there are -- the rhetoric is tied, if you will, to all Islamists movements, couldn't that have a destabilizing influence beyond Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood can be saying, look, this is because it's an Islamists government, so here's what's going to happen. If you come to power by Democratic means, they're going to find a way to get rid of you.
OMARIndeed, that is the message you're saying. Whether it's Algeria and its immediate or whether it's Egypt and so for a few years and they're tying it to Hamas and the Palestinian elections, that is indeed the messaging. And I think it is very dangerous because two years ago, with the movement of the Arab spring, a lot of the recruitment slogans for extremists groups was that you can never participate, you can never be officially part of the mainstream government. And the only way was through insurgency and was through violent means to be heard.
OMARAnd youth, two years ago, decided that wasn't necessarily the case. They went to the streets, they protested nonviolently, they went to the ballot box. What's happening today could send the message that they were wrong, that they trusted the wrong system. And that would indeed have a destabilizing force, not only in the region, but across the globe and a lot of countries where youth are the majority of population and feel that they do not have any access to power and access to being heard.
NNAMDIIt would seem surprising that after three decades of military rule under President Hosni Mubarak that people would support a military leadership. But you say, in fact, there is a great deal of trust in the military there. How come?
OMARI think that the military institution was never tied directly to Mubarak even though analysts in every other groups can point out how it was. The military is also seen as the primary people who stepped in, listened to the people and ousted Mubarak. And, you know, they feel that that happened again on June 30, listening to the people, people going to the streets, the military stepped in and ousted Morsi. So a lot of parallels are drawn between the two.
OMARIn fact, that's one of the questions that Egyptians are asking the U.S. government is why was the action by the military against Mubarak not a coup and why is it, you know, not called and the aid wasn't questioned, however it is now. So they see a double standard in terms of what we're calling a coup versus the military stepping in, listening to the people.
OMARAgain, of course, the difference is Morsi has only had one year. Morsi was legitimately through an internationally recognized election process, and again, the call to protect the ballot box, I think, is a legitimate call by the Muslim Brotherhood. So you can see where both sides have a lot more legitimacy in terms of how they view things.
OMARWhat did surprise me again was, you know, a vast majority of the people that I talked to, which was outside of Cairo, as well in Alexandria, I spoke with people from Minya, Beni Suef and Upper Egypt, supported the military quite heavily. And again, I was quite taken aback at the high level of tolerance for the phrase by all means necessary and the support for the military. The question is, how sustainable is that support as the violence continues, as the body count rises?
OMARYou know, the military won't be able to deliver on basic services and any of the economic growth and unemployment which was the primary reason people took to the street on June 30 against Morsi. And, you know, how long will this honeymoon period of the military last as all of the other issues continue to be unable to be fulfilled for the majority of people?
NNAMDIWhat is your own observation about how the situation there is being viewed by the Muslim community here in the U.S. if indeed the Muslim community can be characterized as a whole?
OMARThat's right. It's very hard to speak in one monolithic tone about the Muslim community. I think that you have two very strong communities tied to the U.S. One is the Arab-American community and one is the American-Muslim community. I think that they're almost as polarized as what you're hearing from Egypt.
OMARThere are a lot of people who are feeling that, you know, just because political Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood didn't succeed, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's attack on Islam and it's attack on Muslims and want to see guarantees from the military that there will be protection. It won't go back to the old days of a crackdown on political front, it goes a crackdown on practicing Muslims. So that's one of the debates that exist here that doesn't necessarily translate over.
OMARI think that there's a lot more consensus in America among the Arab-American, American-Muslim community that the excessive force and the use of violence cannot be tolerated and that there has to be a peaceful means through negotiations, through international players to find a peaceful solution.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Manal Omar is the associate vice president for Middle East and North Africa for the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you for joining us.
OMARThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. But when we come back, a conversation about the African Diaspora International Film Festival and some of the surprising films you may be able to find there over the next few days. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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