The corpses lay in neat rows on the floor of al-Iman mosque -- more than 230 of them, wrapped in bloodied white sheets with names scrawled across in felt pen. Clusters of portable electric fans and the occasional spray of air freshener did little to overcome the smell of death that pervaded the summer heat. Family members gathered around the bodies of their relatives. Some stood in silence, others wept openly, their wails of grief rising through the halls of the mosque that had been transformed into a charnel house.
Osama Said, a skinny nineteen-year-old in a T-shirt and track suit bottoms, knelt over the body of his older brother. He gently pulled the shroud aside and stared at his face. A thin line of caked blood ran from his brother's nose to the top of his ear. Abdel Rahman Said, twenty-three, was shot and killed on August 14, taking a bullet to the heart when army soldiers and security forces stormed the encampment at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the epicenter of support for the deposed president Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another large sit-in at Nahda Square was also stormed the same day in a display of brutal force that Human Rights Watch described as "the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history." At least 638 were killed across the country, according to official tallies, though many suspect the toll to be higher.
"There was tear gas and live ammunition being fired everywhere," says Said, who rushed to Rabaa when he awoke to the news of the government attack. "Someone would be standing next you, and the next moment he would fall." He found out only later that morning that his brother had been killed.
Scores of bodies were brought to the nearby al-Iman mosque hours after the raid ended when police allowed people to re-enter the site and retrieve their dead. With no ambulances allowed in, volunteers were forced to ferry the bodies over in their own cars. Many of the corpses were charred beyond recognition, blackened in the fire that burned down the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and adjacent field hospital when the final assault came.
"It can't be that after hundreds die we give up what we began fighting for," Said says. He covers his brother's face with the shroud and places a block of ice on his chest to try and slow the decay. "God willing, we will continue."
Two and half years after millions of Egyptians took to the streets, shaking off the fetters of decades-long autocracy to call for "bread, freedom, and social justice," in a movement that inspired citizens across the globe, Egypt finds itself in the midst of one of its bloodiest episodes in decades, a crisis that has split the country apart and threatens to entrench an even more regressive authoritarian order than the one that preceded it.
More than 1,000 have been killed in a matter of days by security forces and citizen violence. The country is under a month-long state of emergency -- which allows for police to detain and indefinitely hold people without charge -- along with a nighttime curfew that is enforced by army soldiers on the streets backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers. The Interior Ministry has authorized security forces to use live ammunition against anyone who assaults state institutions or the police. Hundreds of Islamists are being rounded up. The top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with its second and third-tier ranks, have been jailed or driven underground in the most severe assault on the group since Gamal Abdel Nasser's rule half a century ago.
The country is now staunchly under the control of the army, headed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who overthrew Morsi in a military coup on July 3 following a popular uprising against his rule. Large swaths of the public have backed him, aided by compliant state and private media outlets that have helped whip up a wave of chauvinistic nationalist sentiment, lionizing the army and police and demonizing the Brotherhood.
The military is conducting the crackdown under the rhetoric of a "war on terror," with a divisive discourse that paints nearly all Islamists as terrorists unfit for political life. Most of the so-called liberal elite, political pundits, and youth groups have jumped on the bandwagon. TV channels broadcast with an on-screen banner proclaiming "Egypt Fighting Terrorism." One privately owned station, ONTV, showed its own sanitized version of the Rabaa dispersal, complete with scenes of orderly security forces coming under attack by armed protesters, and policemen helping women and children leave the sit-in, all set to the theme music of Rocky.
There is little patience for critics that step outside of the official narrative. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate who served as vice president in charge of international affairs in the interim cabinet following Morsi's ouster, resigned in protest of the violent dispersal of the sit-ins and left for Vienna. He was subjected to a merciless defamation campaign in the media that branded him a traitor and a foreign agent. ElBaradei was subsequently charged with "betraying the public trust."
Meanwhile, journalists covering the crackdown on the streets have been beaten by citizen mobs or detained by the police. Senior government officials have publicly scolded Western correspondents in news conferences, with interim presidential adviser Mostafa Hegazy going so far as to say the government is "taking note of who is with it and who is against it." Even Sisi himself criticized the foreign news media for failing to appreciate his "mandate" to fight terrorism.
Morsi's supporters have committed violence of their own, killing civilians as well as scores of security forces. They have sacked and looted police stations, and a low-level insurgency is underway in Sinai. They attacked dozens of Christian churches, monasteries, schools, and facilities in a wave of reprisals that the police and military have been quick to point to as evidence of sectarian Islamist intentions but have done nothing to prevent.
"What's most worrying about the scale of the violence and the arrests, and the discourse of countering terrorism," says Karim Ennarah of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, "is it can allow for the police to crack down once again on the political space."
During the 1990s, the rhetoric of "terrorism" was used to justify a harsh counterinsurgency against Islamists centered in Egypt's southern provinces that all but eliminated the space for political reform. During the 2000s, that space gradually opened up. Large-scale protests first erupted in Egypt around issues of international solidarity with demonstrations in support of the second Palestinian Intifada followed by a massive protest in 2003 in Tahrir Square against the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2005, opposition began to coalesce against the Mubarak regime, and the labor movement engaged in hundreds of wildcat strikes. In the wake of the 2010 parliamentary elections that were marred by violence and fraud, followed by the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt was ripe for revolution in January 2011.
The police state continued following Mubarak's ouster. Under the rule of the first military government, security forces committed systematic abuses. They continued under Morsi. Yet after the revolution, the effect on the ground was not the same. "They couldn't intimidate people anymore," says Ennarah.
Mohamed Ibrahim, the interior minister currently overseeing the brutal police crackdown on the Brotherhood and other Islamists, was appointed by Morsi himself. Ennarah says Morsi tapped him because his predecessor was not cracking down hard enough on political demonstrations. Ibrahim's harsher tactics became quickly apparent when he oversaw a particularly vicious campaign against demonstrators opposed to Morsi's rule. Ibrahim's forces killed protesters on the streets and rounded up and tortured hundreds.
Morsi and Brotherhood leaders encouraged the crackdown. When the police gunned down more than fifty citizens in Port Said in January, Morsi delivered a nationally televised address where he thanked the police and instructed them to respond with "the utmost firmness and strength."
"I worked with the Morsi government on these issues. They wanted a brutal security sector," says Ennarah. "It was a very short-sighted vision and now we are all paying the price for this."
Two days after the brutal dispersal of the Morsi sit-ins, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies called for a "Day of Rage" with marches across the capital converging on Ramses Square, a central area in downtown Cairo. Clashes quickly erupted with civilians on both sides shooting at each other and the security forces soon joining in against the ousted president's supporters. More than 170 people were killed across the country.
The capital was turned into an urban war zone, with crowds crouching behind metal barricades amid hissing canisters of tear gas, rock throwing, and the crackle of gunfire. Hundreds of Morsi supporters sought refuge and medical care in the nearby Fath mosque and ended up being besieged for twenty-four hours with angry mobs waiting on the streets outside.
"They are killing people as if they are in a zoo, less than animals," says Maha Hamdy, a thirty-two-year-old school supervisor as she shielded her eyes from the dust being kicked up by a low-hovering helicopter. "We are sure America is behind this bloody military coup. They are helping and supporting Sisi."
The White House has declined to label the July 3 ouster of Morsi a coup, a move that would legally require it to cut off the $1.5 billion (mostly military) aid it provides to Egypt annually. Instead, the Administration concluded it is not legally required to make a determination at all. "We're going to set aside this decision about whether or not a coup occurred and evaluate our ongoing relationship with Egypt in a way that maximizes the national security interests of the United States of America," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in July.
"U.S. objectives are the development and maintenance of a client state that helps Washington achieve its goals in the region," says Joshua Stacher, assistant professor at Kent State University and author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. Those objectives include open access to the Suez Canal, overflight rights, securing the border with Gaza, and maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. "They are immediate military concerns that don't really have anything to do with Egypt but that do have to do with the security of the Gulf," says Stacher.
As the bloodletting in Egypt begins to settle down, the security state, backed by a coterie of elites, is firmly reconstituting itself. By riding a wave of popular anger at Morsi and framing the assault on the Islamists as a "war on terror," the military and this clique have successfully entrenched themselves as the untouchable rulers of the country, threatening to all but extinguish any hopes of revolutionary change.
The old binary of Islamism or militarism -- one promulgated by Mubarak for decades and inversely repeated by the Brotherhood -- has established itself once again as the political equation of the day.
"There is a polarized narrative in Egypt from long ago," says Aalam Wassef, a forty-two-year-old filmmaker and publisher who has been closely involved in revolutionary activism.
Like many revolutionaries since the July 3 coup, Wassef has been watching the crisis in Egypt from the sidelines, condemning acts of violence, yet not getting involved on the ground.
"This is one of those moments where you just need to wait until people sober up," he says, pointing out that the army enjoyed widespread popularity following Mubarak's ouster only to have masses in the streets chanting against military rule a year later. "The tragedy is that the army and the police have no limit in terms of how much they can damage us, can damage society, just to protect their power. This coming period is going to be tough. Very, very tough."
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a Cairo-based independent journalist. He is a correspondent for Democracy Now! and a fellow at the Nation Institute.