While Pakistan celebrated its 66 years on Wednesday, August 14, Egypt witnessed the worst mass killing in its modern history. Egypt’s military regime led a brutal assault on protesters, who were encamped in Cairo, demonstrating against the July 3 coup, which had led to the ouster of Mohamed Mursi. As of the night of August 15, the dead numbered 638 and nearly 4,000 people were reported injured. The security forces came at the protesters’ camps on the morning of August 14 without warning, with bulldozers, canisters of tear gas and guns. They killed with chilling precision, shooting civilians in their heads, necks and chests.
Egypt’s tragedy this week goes beyond the hundreds of precious lives lost and the thousands injured. It lies in the regression to a repression worse than in the autocratic Mubarak regime and in the apathy of many pro-military, anti-Mursi Egyptians to the massacre of their fellow citizens. Indeed, there are reports of many Cairo residents calling the military’s attack necessary and justified. True, the military regime, which controls the media, is propagating a violent image of the protesters and many Egyptians do not agree with the protesters’ stance. But despite differences in political affiliations, such a lack of empathy from one citizen for another is tragic for Egypt’s future. So is the lack of grief for the loss of democracy, which is now effectively dead in Egypt.
While the proportion of the military’s attack has been shocking, Egypt’s descent into violence is unsurprising. Because absolutely nothing good could have come out of the military coup on July 3, no matter how dreadful the Mursi regime was proving to be. This was clear at the time of the coup and has become painfully evident today. Western apologists for the coup, those who were ambivalent towards it, who refused to call it by its name, those who termed it a ‘transition’, all must live with the outcome of their decision to go soft on Egypt’s military. The US is guilty of, at least, some of the above, partly because it felt threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. It mollified its guilt by recounting Mursi’s deep unpopularity and insisting on a return to democracy as soon as possible. Notwithstanding Mursi’s policy failures, which truly democratic country’s leaders are ousted based on popularity rankings? Not George W Bush in America and not Asif Zardari in Pakistan. Democracies only vote once every four to five years: popular opinion is not an election and no justification for a coup.
But focusing on the US’s response to the attacks is a futile exercise. And the difference America could have made this week is likely only marginal. America has far less leverage with Egypt’s leaders and in its internal politics than the rest of the world imagines.
On August 15, US President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation week to firmly denounce the attacks by Egyptian security forces and to call for a return to sanity. He cancelled the joint Egypt-US military exercises scheduled for next month. Both steps were the right ones to take. However, he did not cut off $1.3 billion in military aid, which would have been an unambiguous negative message for Egypt’s military rulers.
But focusing on the US’s response to the attacks is a futile exercise. And the difference America could have made this week is likely only marginal. America has far less leverage with Egypt’s leaders and in its internal politics than the rest of the world imagines. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with Egypt to fix itself. And the country’s all-powerful military seems ruthless and unable to think through the absurdity of its actions, unable even to understand the simplest and oldest of adages: violence begets violence.
Pakistan’s government on August 15 expressed “dismay and deep concern” over the violence in Egypt. On August 16, 1,500 Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) protestors demonstrated across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood and against the military’s attack. At first glance, both messages seem like the right ones. But would the JI have protested had the ousted party not been the Brotherhood? And as is par for the course in Pakistan, the JI protesters blamed ‘international powers’ for the chaos, notably America and Israel. Pointing fingers and indulging in senseless conspiracy theories is Pakistan’s special vocation, but let’s be clear: Egypt’s misguided military was solely responsible for this foolhardy violence.