Egypt's Shameful Response to Peaceful Assembly

The Egyptian military has finally made good on its longstanding threats to crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood’s predominantly peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo and across the country. The crackdowns are a disgraceful display of a government that rose to power by staging a coup against another unpopular, repressive regime. The violent suppression of peaceful protests should undermine any international legitimacy of the military regime, especially for the U.S., which spends millions of dollars a year on the Egyptian military.

The Egyptian army threatened to obstruct Egyptians’ right of assembly on August 11, shortly after Eid Al-Fitr, an Islamic holy day. However, it seemed to have postponed its crackdown due to diplomatic efforts from various parties such as the U.S. and the European Union.

Nonetheless, the military seems to have run out of patience. On August 13, thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Nadha Sqaure encampment made their way to the office of the Interior Ministry to demonstrate against the appointment of military officers as provincial governors, further consolidating the military’s control over Egypt’s democratically elected government. Naturally the army forced them back from the government complex, which led to clashes throughout the day and prompted the army to forgo the postponement. This instigated Wednesday's attacks on the protesters.

The crackdown began when the army deployed armored bulldozers to break past the protesters’ barricades and bulldoze through the demonstrators into the heart of the Nahda Square and Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque encampments. Eyewitnesses described the scene as a war zone as clashes predictably spread throughout the city of Cairo and all of Egypt.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood claims to never carry weapons, it acknowledged eyewitness accounts of individual protesters stockpiling weapons including moltov cocktails and live ammunition. Those uncomfortable with Islamism will likely take this as confirmation of the military’s trite, inaccurate, Mubarak-era characterization of the Islamist demonstrators as terrorists inciting violence. However, since the protesters have long expected a military crackdown, it is reasonable that those fearful for their lives would want to defend themselves from the military’s extensive arms stockpile.

The military maintains it has only used tear gas canisters to disperse the protests. It denies using live ammunition, even as it reports that armed protesters fired back at it. Nonetheless, the Egyptian army has a history of using live ammunition to suppress protesters and then denying it. In addition to the post-coup months of 2013, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) used live ammunition to break up both Islamist and secularist protesters. As live ammunition is a staple of the military’s modus operandi, there is no reason to doubt its prominent role in the August 14 crackdowns.

There are also discrepancies about the death toll. The government insists that only 56 people are dead and 526 injured. The Muslim Brotherhood maintains that hundreds have died in Cairo alone. The Health Ministry counts six police officers among the dead. In addition, the brother of Asmaa Al-Beltagy, the 17-year old daughter of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, reports she was among the dead, with bullet holes in her back and chest.  

So far, the EU, Turkey, and Qatar have all condemned the army’s blatant abuse of power. The U.S. has yet to issue a statement on the violence. Condemnations aside, the coddling attitudes of the EU and U.S. towards the Egyptian military enable its behavior.

The U.S. sends over $1 billion in aid directly to Egypt’s military each year and has a responsibility to hold the army accountable for its actions. However, it has done the exact opposite. Although the military’s ouster of Morsi was an unequivocal coup, the circumstances behind it were largely unconventional as millions of Egyptians publicly expressed discontent with Morsi’s oppressive rule.

Nonetheless, this did not give Secretary of State John Kerry license to assert that Morsi’s ouster was not a coup, and that the army was “restoring democracy.” A regime that breaks up thousands of peaceably assembling citizens while killing hundreds in the process is hardly “restoring democracy.”

Although the Obama administration took a lot of flack in the media for its equivocation as to whether Morsi’s ouster qualified as a coup, it was ultimately a good strategy to leverage the government's respect of basic human rights and put Egypt on a democratic path. A continuation of this equivocation would have allowed the U.S. to keep the army on a tight leash by threatening an end to military aid if the military engaged in further excesses. Publicly stating that the military did not conduct a coup undermined a previously strong position of negotiation by allowing the unrestricted continuation of wasteful aid to the Egyptian military, ultimately giving a green light to incidents like Wednesday's crackdown.