Egyptian security forces launched a bloody crackdown against the supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi early Wednesday morning, firing ammunition and razing their sit-in sites with bulldozers in an attack that killed at least 500 people. McClatchy Middle East Bureau Chief Nancy A. Youssef and special correspondent Amina Ismail answer questions about Wednesday’s events and the outlook for the coming days:
Q: What’s the most striking thing you saw on the streets?
A: I have to say, I have never seen so many dead since my days in Iraq. It was heartbreaking. Bodies piled on top of bodies. That was shocking – and saddening. As an American, I am struck by the challenges Egypt is confronting as it tries to go from a dictatorial state to a democratic one.
Q: What’s happening now?
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A: Egypt is under a state of emergency and curfew. Egyptians in 14 of the 27 provinces cannot leave their homes from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. So far, Egypt is adhering to the curfew. The streets are eerily quiet. Earlier today Mohamed ElBaradei, the vice president, stepped down. Overall, I think this will not have a major impact, as Morsi opponents have only one real viable alternative: the military-named government. The nation is divided between those who support the military action and those who believe it carried out wanton violence against innocent demonstrators.
Q: Talk about the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A: The Muslim Brotherhood was founded here 85 years ago as an alternative vision to a secular Middle East. It quickly emerged as Egypt’s largest and most organized group.
When Mubarak fell in 2011, it had the widest grass-roots organization here, and quickly swept the elections. Its members supported the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy in 1952, and were also implicated in President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, just meters away from one of today’s sit-in sites.
While there are no firm estimates, there are thought to be roughly 500,000 Muslim Brotherhood members – out of a nation of roughly 90 million. However, it’s important to note that many of those at the sit-in were supporters or Islamists, but not necessarily members.
Q: Tell us about the attacks on historic Christian churches, many of which were reportedly torched by protesters.
A: There’s a belief among some that the Muslim Brotherhood is targeting Christians, while others say the Muslim Brotherhood is being set up to suggest that it’s stoking sectarian tensions. We hope to head to Alexandria and Minya soon and find out for ourselves. It’s particularly heartbreaking. Some of those churches are centuries old and incredibly beautiful.
Q: How are religion and politics tied together in Egypt?
A: Christians make up only 10 percent of the population and are often more affluent. Many Muslim Egyptians want a more religious state, and they think Egypt became too secular under Mubarak. Their initial support of Morsi during the election last year was more about infusing Islam into post-Mubarak Egypt than it was about supporting the Muslim Brotherhood vision.
Q: Why are Egyptians who rose up against military rule in 2011 now supporting it?
A: Egyptians rose up in 2011 demanding democracy. They got it, and then said they didn’t like whom they’d elected and welcomed a military ouster. The prevailing feeling here is that military rule is better than Muslim Brotherhood rule, at least for now. To put it simply, there are no viable alternatives to those two camps.
Q: What does that mean for the prospect of elections, which are set tentatively for February, and longer term, for democracy in Egypt?
A: That is the key question. We expect elections to occur, but what happens if Egyptians don’t like that leader? Will the military step in again? Or what if the Muslim Brotherhood wins again in February? The events of the past two months have left the entire election process in a state of uncertainty.
Q: What should we watch for in the coming days?
A: The most important development to watch is how the government will deploy the state of emergency. Does it arrest more people? Raid more houses? And how will the Muslim Brotherhood respond? Will we now see protests all over the country? Will we see more violence? The next few days will be tense and impossible to predict. Yet they could determine what will happen in the months ahead in Egypt.