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Egypt over the brink

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Everyone knew it was going to happen.  Why, then, were negotiations and diplomacy so secretive and so duplicitous?

According to conservative estimates, the latest death toll from street fighting in Egypt the past few days is over seven hundred dead with thousands more injured.  Many of the dead were murdered in cold blood.  Many of the injured were blocked by the police and military from receiving medical care.

The Twitter accounts of brutality and inhumanity are overwhelming.  Nonetheless, they tell only a portion of this horrific and still unfolding story.

Obviously crowd control and dispersal aren’t high on Egypt’s military’s to do list.  They didn’t try to disguise their actions.  In the aftermath of the onslaught and with new protests happening as I write, the government has upped its challenge.  It’s shoot to kill lest Egypt be overrun by “terrorists” and “traitors.”

Whatever Egypt’s progressives signed up for, the results are in.  With the recent appointment of governors and the massacres that led up to this latest series of assaults, the Mubarak era is back with a vengeance. If Egyptians thought it couldn’t be worse, it is.

On Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama took a few moments from his golf outings to display his disappointment with Egypt’s military. He even went so far as cancelling a previously scheduled American-Egyptian joint military exercise.  The Guardian has it right:  “Responding to the army’s brutal crackdown on protesters, Obama announced the cancellation of joint US military exercises with Egypt in a carefully calibrated rebuke that stopped short of a more significant suspension of aid.”

In political shorthand, Obama did something in order not to do anything.

Yet the President’s comment on the situation made his slap on the wrist look ominous in ways I hope he didn’t intend:  “We appreciate the complexity of the situation. We recognize that change takes time. There are going to be false starts and difficult days. We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years, but sometimes in generations.”

Generations?  Charting change over generations is for historians to research and write about.  The political challenge is now.  Egypt is over the brink. 

Egypt cannot wait for a political situation to work itself out over generations.  What is necessary is a negotiated political compromise that moves Egypt from its self-imposed destructive path.  When President Obama dons his history professor’s hat, he throws in the political towel.  He greenlights more violence.   Is that what he and the American public want?

On his Latin American sojourn, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out of both sides of his Egypt policy mouth.   It was the vintage Kerry – urging caution and asking all parties to step back for a moment and take a deep breath. Kerry then went onto other “caution” and “deep breath” issues. He tried to explain away NSA spying and, of course, Israel’s announcement(s) of massive new settlement housing at the start of peace negotiations.

If Kerry ever spoke the truth no one would believe him.  Would he believe himself?  Obama may have the same problem.  Dancing around the truth can become an addiction. 

Some Egyptian officials are exasperated even by America’s lukewarm condemnation and suggest that Egypt should ditch US aid and go it alone.  After all, various corrupt Middle East kingdoms are coughing up bundles of petrol dollars without human rights and democracy platitude strings attached.  They’re not talking about generations.  They want military repression right now and more of it.

Perhaps we ought to say, good riddance. Militarized Egypt should go it alone or, better, go with those who are on their page. 

Good riddance to Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well?  There is a season to negotiate, to fight, to surrender and a season to just say “no.”  How can we take Israeli and Palestinian political figures seriously when they sit at variously designed peace tables for decades knowing there isn’t anything being negotiated except the ever expanding dimensions of Israeli victory and Palestinian defeat?

Playing the political charade of generational change is one thing. When blood is flowing in the streets of Egypt and beyond, it’s time to speak and act on the truth.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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41 Responses

  1. Justpassingby
    August 16, 2013, 2:59 pm

    Great article Ellis, as usual.

    I wonder where Taxi is, does he still support the military now when they’re flooding the streets with dead bodies?

  2. MHughes976
    August 16, 2013, 3:27 pm

    And we had such hopes of Obama, didn’t we?

  3. gingershot
    August 16, 2013, 4:09 pm

    This violent suppression of Non-Mubarak/Non-Military Control was what the Saudi King, Shimon Peres and the Israelis, and Neocons in the US wanted the first time around when the Arab Spring took Mubarak by surprise a couple of years ago. They’re all on the record openly saying it

    Now Israel, the Saudis, and the Neocons/Israeli Lobby have what they want – they are just a little unsure about how they are going to keep it.

    Israel wants the US to continue paying the Egyptian Military bribes/aid that keeps everything under control.

    • seafoid
      August 17, 2013, 4:26 pm

      “NYT reports that Israel in ‘heavy communication’ with Egyptian army, reassured them that U.S. would not cut off aid.

      The Times also reported that when U.S. Senator Rand Paul proposed stopping military aid to Egypt, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) told senators in a July 31 letter that cutting aid “could increase instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally.” ”

      The day the Saud family falls from power will be a great day.

  4. American
    August 16, 2013, 4:14 pm

    “We appreciate the complexity of the situation. We recognize that change takes time. There are going to be false starts and difficult days. We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years, but sometimes in generations.” … Obama quote

    Guess we see finally what O is and has been about…..he just wanted to be Prez and now he’s coasting thru his last term until he can pursue spinning some flattering legacy for himself to showcase in his presidential library.
    So pathetic.

    I have seen a few ‘realist argue that O’s inaction on this and other matters is because he is ‘reserving’ or hoarding US power in small matters so as to not lose it or squander it.
    However I dont think that arguement flies in the case of Egypt. Although I dont think we can or should intefer militarly —simply cutting off US aid to Egypt’s military would be a show of strength that would cost us no lose of power or respect– it would in fact show that we have to power to and will abide by our own laws regarding foreign aid and gain us some respect. It would also say that we arent’ going to be black mailed by any ME state threatening to cozy up to Russia or black mailed by Sauds on oil reserves.
    Jesus!..seriously, if there has to be a ”balance of power” controlled by outside states for the ME states to get their shit together, if they ever can, then it ought to be the dual powers of the US and Russia agreeing on how to share and maintain their own and world oil interest in the ME with some human rights guarentees thrown in that they are both obligated to enforce. That would leave a lot less wiggle room for bad actors of all stripes, ruling elites or radicals.

  5. bilal a
    bilal a
    August 16, 2013, 4:42 pm

    Monica Crowley of the Friends of the IDF is joining
    WaPo Rubin and Commentary Tobin in blaming the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood for attacks on Egyptian Coptic churches, echoing Coup State Media. Both Ynet and the Jewish Daily Forward editorialize support for the Egyptian Coup’s military response:

    At the risk of sounding ethnocentric , the current earthquake in Egypt has enormous implications for the well-being of Israel…The Egyptian army fiercely protected the peace treaty with Israel against both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian street.

    The situation seems to parallel Syria where “ISRAELI special forces are operating in Syria as spotters” and churches are being burned:

    “There are strangers who are against the way we used to live together,” said Nancy, 16, who was heading home for her family’s usual Easter feast, …”The only way to split Syria was through sectarianism,” she said. “They want to split the Christians from the other sects.”

    Some commentators affirm the Muslim Brotherhood’s denial and denouncement of the Anti-Christian attacks. Tawakkol Karman. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

    It is only natural for the one who kills thousands and wounds many more to fabricate accusations and come up with justifications to kill and commit more carnage; the protesters had weapons, they burned churches and other stupid accusations. The coupists invented them to justify their massacres, this is what fair observers would say. Any serious and impartial investigation will quickly prove it and that is why they rejected it and resorted to the presser of the Minister of Interior to tell the world about the crimes the victims committed! The crimes that qualified them for such collective punishment and killing according to your logic. We heard your Minister of Interior uttering nonsense for five minutes and then he went out to resume his crimes against humanity. This disregard is a continuation of the coup exercise of force and tyranny as opposed to right justice and equity. To the fascist Nazis, you will fall and you will be brought to justice nationally and internationally.

    • bilal a
      bilal a
      August 17, 2013, 7:31 am

      Those supporting the targeted killing of a politco-religious group inside Egypt must now grapple with its identification as a crime against humanity by several international rights groups:

      Such statements by the interim President, Prime Minister and Interior Minister, as well as by the Head of the Army, show that far from simply having knowledge of the attack, clear orders were given for these attacks on the civilian population.

      Although Egypt is not a party to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, given these circumstances, Alkarama has urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to bring the situation in Egypt to the attention of the UN Security Council which can, in line with article 13 of the Statute, refer “a situation in which one or more of such crimes appears to have been committed […] to the Prosecutor [of the International Criminal Court]”.


      With immediate effect, the legal team will investigate allegations of crimes against humanity committed by members of the military junta since July 3, 2013. On 14 August 2013, the Egyptian military was reported to have killed over 638 people. Some reports put the total number at over 2000. This follows the July 8 killing of 51 civiliansoutside an officer’s club in Cairo and the July 27 murders of of 74 others, many of whom were reported to have been shot in the head and chest.

  6. Keith
    August 16, 2013, 5:38 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “In political shorthand, Obama did something in order not to do anything.”

    Well, at least you understand that Obama’s propagandistic verbiage is not to be taken seriously. He’s one slick lawyer!

    “Some Egyptian officials are exasperated even by America’s lukewarm condemnation and suggest that Egypt should ditch US aid and go it alone.”

    A cleverly scripted performance to create the illusion of no US collusion and Egyptian feisty independence. The notion that Egypt could defy the US and go it alone is ludicrous.

  7. frankier
    August 16, 2013, 6:24 pm

    When Israel will tell the US to cut aid, the US will.. Israel is afraid of a non-secular government taking power that would walk back on the peace agreement with Israel. Until then… what are the lives of 700 (or 7000) for that matter) Egyptians worth to Israel?

  8. just
    August 16, 2013, 7:27 pm

    This massacre is being defended by some. It’s grotesque, and it’s really hard for me to fathom how so many stay so silent.

    It’s good to have you back Professor.

    • just
      August 16, 2013, 7:57 pm

      It’s also difficult to see how anyone can support the military’s brutality and wanton murder of their fellow Egyptians……….

    • yrn
      August 17, 2013, 10:10 am

      This massacre is being defended by some

      Taxi Defends and supports Asad that butchered 100,000 Syrians

      And no one here says a word


  9. ToivoS
    August 16, 2013, 10:14 pm

    Simply watching the last few days developments I have to say that my admiration for the courage of these MB demonstrators increases. What about this guy:

    It is hard to admit this because I happen to be an atheist and find religious fundamentalist inserting themselves into secular politics objectionable. However, it is hard to deny their courage. I had a similar reaction when Hezbollah received the full force of the IDF in 2006 and dealt them a major tactical defeat.

    • Taxi
      August 16, 2013, 11:55 pm

      That’s right, ToivoS, keep loving on the very people who inspired Osama Bin Laden.

      • American
        August 17, 2013, 2:25 am

        Come on Taxi,……everyone sees what has happened and who has been put back in control.
        And OBL was ‘inspired’ by what the US was doing in the ME and our support of Israel, not by the MB in Egypt.
        Only question now is are your revolt ‘heroes’ happy to be back to the old rule?

        Egypt Expert: The Egypt “Old Guard is back in power ”

        “What exactly are the interests of the military?

        ‘The army is a military player and an economic one. It controls important parts of Egypt’s economy. The army people own a lot of property, they run shopping malls and have large investments in the tourist industry. Basically, an escalation of the situation is against the military’s interest. But right now, what’s dominating is the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood, depicting the movement as a threat to national security. –

      • Shingo
        August 17, 2013, 10:23 am

        ‘The army is a military player and an economic one. It controls important parts of Egypt’s economy.

        20% of GDP to be precise.

      • Taxi
        August 19, 2013, 2:30 pm


        Pick up any book on Alquaida and it will state that Osama was inspired by the writings of the Moslem Brotherhood of Egypt, establishing his very own parallel islamist group out of this inspiration, way before USA installed bases in Saudi Arabia. This is a fact.

        I absolutely refuse to align myself with anything to do with religious extremism – but you folks go ahead, knock yourselves out.

      • Shingo
        August 19, 2013, 8:10 pm

        Pick up any book on Alquaida and it will state that Osama was inspired by the writings of the Moslem Brotherhood of Egypt, establishing his very own parallel islamist group out of this inspiration, way before USA installed bases in Saudi Arabia. This is a fact.

        Wrong Taxi, he was insisted by Zawahiri , who broke away from the MB.

        And his fawata against the US was written in 1996.

        I absolutely refuse to align myself with anything to do with religious extremism – but you folks go ahead, knock yourselves out.

        Yes, you’ve opted for fascism, totalitarianism, empire and tyranny. What’s the view like up there from the moral high ground?

      • ToivoS
        August 17, 2013, 3:02 am

        Groan. You have no idea what I am saying. Go ahead and support the military oppression of a democratic government if that is what you prefer. I understand that many people feel more comfortable with fascist military rule than with unruly democracies. If that is your preference then so be it.

      • Justpassingby
        August 17, 2013, 4:23 am

        You are getting pathetic, people in the 1000s are being killed and you keep supporting the regime.

      • Walid
        August 17, 2013, 8:21 am

        Taxi, the Brothers turned out to be bad news for Egypt, which didn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but what the military is now doing to them is much worse; those killed by the military in one day are half of the ones killed during the 3 weeks of Cast Lead and the ones injured are 5000, same as Cast Lead. I’m no fan of the Brothers, but what the military is doing is awful.

      • Shingo
        August 17, 2013, 10:24 am

        those killed by the military in one day are half of the ones killed during the 3 weeks of Cast Lead

        And a lot more killed than in 2011 Tahrir.

      • seafoid
        August 17, 2013, 4:29 pm

        Even if the Brothers were inept the PTB could have come up with a unity Government with some experts drawn in instead of murdering hundreds of Masris .

      • Shingo
        August 17, 2013, 10:22 am

        That’s right, ToivoS, keep loving on the very people who inspired Osama Bin Laden.

        Yeah right Taxi,

        You can get all warm and fuzzy over the worst government massacre since Tianamen Square, but the fact is that with Al Baradei’s resignation, the liberals are out of the game – they know they were duped and used by the Mubarak era thugs.

        And FYI. The people who inspired Osama Bin Laden are Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. Without them, OBL would have had no following.

        Now, thanks to your murderous fascist heroes, the Al Qaeda types are going to flock to Egypt. What a brilliant strategy you guys thought up.

        It boggles the mind that you can justify the massacre of at least 700 Egyptians. You’re sounding more and more like an Israeli apologist every day.

      • Daniel Rich
        Daniel Rich
        August 17, 2013, 9:32 pm

        @ Taxi,

        When you don’t condemn the fact that a man, who tries to carry a bleeding victim to safety and then himself gets shot, you’re no better than a Zionist in defending the indefensible.

        I have no ff-ing clue who’s doing what to whom in this mess, but this guy is a unsung hero in my book. Period.

  10. ToivoS
    August 16, 2013, 10:44 pm

    These tactics that Egyptian snipers are using (in reference to the youtube above) has brought to mind an essay that Uri Avernery wrote at the outbreak of the second intifada. Namely:

    “The second (“al-Aqsa”) intifada started after the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David conference and Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative “visit” to the Temple Mount. The Palestinians held non-violent mass demonstrations. The army responded with selective killings. A sharpshooter accompanied by an officer would take position in the path of the protest, and the officer would point out selected targets – protesters who looked like “ringleaders”. They were killed.

    This was highly effective. Soon the non-violent demonstrations ceased and were replaced by very violent (“terrorist”) actions. With those the army was back on familiar ground.”

    [These are Avernery’s words published in Counterpunch]

    It looks like the Egyptian military are borrowing tactics used by the Israelis. It worked for the Israelis. It turned the second intifada into a bunch of terrorists.

    The propaganda campaign against the MB is following the same script. I cannot believe how stupid so many people can be to somehow accept the Israeli and Egyptian snipers are the cutting edge for “peoples revolution”.

    • American
      August 16, 2013, 11:59 pm

      @ Toivo

      No doubt you are right…..does look like the same tactics.
      Bloody mess.

  11. piotr
    August 17, 2013, 6:56 am

    This is VERY important. Letter to NYT, but referring to Reuters:

    Re “Military Madness in Cairo” (editorial, Aug. 15):

    In analyzing the military’s violence, you write: “The Muslim Brotherhood must also share responsibility. Since the July 3 coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, it has shown too little interest in negotiating a peaceful path out of the crisis. And even before that coup, Mr. Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders had displayed little interest in reaching out to Egyptians of different political and religious persuasions.”

    Yet the same day, Reuters published remarks by Bernardino Leon, the European Union envoy for the Middle East, stating clearly that the United States and the European Union had presented a compromise that would likely have resolved the impasse, which was accepted by the Muslim Brotherhood but rejected by the military. His conclusion was: “All that has happened today was unnecessary.”

    Accounts by your own Cairo correspondents in the immediate aftermath of the July 3 coup also revealed that President Morsi was willing to meet demands by the opposition.

    In the United States it is fashionable to try to blame all sides, but in this case, the facts point to one murderer only.

    Toronto, Aug. 15, 2013

    The writer was a senior adviser to President Morsi.

    • just
      August 17, 2013, 7:00 am

      Sounds about right, piotr. I have little doubt that this is what happened. I also have little doubt that the military ever wanted to give up their “rule”. They wanted to return to the “good old days” under Mubarak or another malleable puppet.

      • bilal a
        bilal a
        August 17, 2013, 10:16 pm

        Secular Military violence isnt unique to Egypt, the Syrian regime is secular, as was Saddam’s Iraq, and unreported massacres have occurred elsewhere:

        “Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, initially estimated that around 40 people lost their lives. A local human rights organisation published a detailed account after having interviewed dozens of protesters and tight-lipped officials, confirming 61 dead. Live video footage from the scene bears witness to the bodies of protesters lying on the streets, some convulsing, while others are seen escaping in panic as they are fired upon. The hospitalised injured gave vivid accounts via camera phones of trucks full of bodies being driven away from the scene of the crime. A taxi driver recorded a policeman bragging about his exploits and estimating a death toll of at least 400. Meanwhile, the government’s spin machine roared into action, aided by a complicit media.”

    • Justpassingby
      August 17, 2013, 8:23 am

      Very important? Yes as important as when Israel try to use propaganda about palestinians.

    • American
      August 17, 2013, 5:22 pm

      imo whether the MB is violent or not violent, or is willing to negotiate or not, is beside the point—it is clear that the new-old powers and the Military wants to and is ‘wiping them out” as any part of politics in Egypt–they will have no representation in Egypt’s government. And they will likely be even more repressed than they were before the first revolution since the powers have pronounced them to be ‘terrorist’ now.
      Thats a large population of ‘terrorist’ to have in a country.

  12. yrn
    August 17, 2013, 10:47 am

    Sheikh al – Krdawoi: “Egyptian army committed a massacre that even Israel never done”

  13. MHughes976
    August 17, 2013, 11:34 am

    The BBC is reporting that the Al-Fateh Mosque has now been ‘cleared’ and several of the occupants arrested. They generally give the impression that the street battle is going against the MB and that the soi-disant government is moving on to ‘ban’ the MB and seize its property.

    • piotr
      August 19, 2013, 9:20 pm

      One van full of people arrested at the Al-Fateh underwent “dehumanization”, 36 or 38 dead. One car with (pro-government) journalists was destroyed for curfew violation. EU does what it does best (deliberates with closed doors).

  14. bilal a
    bilal a
    August 17, 2013, 9:52 pm

    Leslie Gelb on why Democracy requires killing Islamists:

    Let’s get real and tamp down the moral posturing about democracy in Egypt. Freely elected President Morsi and his now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government weren’t practicing democracy. They were co-opting the laws and slowly destroying all possible opposition. Besides, they were aligning with America’s jihadist enemies in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Egypt’s military leaders, no democratic sweethearts either, are aligned with moderates, need Washington more than the Islamists, and back U.S. interests on the Suez Canal and Israel.

    • Shingo
      August 19, 2013, 9:16 pm

      Leslie Gelb on why Democracy requires killing Islamists:

      What a repugnant article. Amazing to hear someone describe those carrying out massacres as moderates.

      Music to Taxis ears no doubt.

    • piotr
      August 19, 2013, 9:23 pm

      I agree with Gelb that MB was despicable. “Co-opting laws” rather then flushing them down the toilet and “slowly destroying all possible opposition” rather then swiftly gunning them down. Now we see how are the things done properly.

  15. Walid
    August 18, 2013, 1:59 am

    It’s reported that over 50 churches have been set on fire by the Brothers. Some surely were because they have been known to do it but how many were actually at the hands of the Brothers in the past few days? Hard to tell since propaganda by the ton is being floated by both sides.

  16. Shingo
    August 19, 2013, 9:42 pm

    More wonderful news.

    Mubarak is going to be released.

    The return to 2011 is all but complete.

    How’s that for a conspiracy Taxi?

    • Taxi
      August 20, 2013, 3:29 am


      Swallowing the propaganda again, and again, and some more of again…..

      How about you talk about this when and IF it becomes a FACT? Or is your conspiracy theory about Mubarak and Shmubarak more important than the facts?

      Till the world actually SEES with their own eyes Mubarak being released, you, dear shingo, are just indulging, for the sake of your ego-maniacal convenience, in the dissemination of propaganda.

      But I’m sure, by the end of the week, being the clever Trevor that you think you are, will be finding another far-fetched conspiracy to bash the revolution with.

      In the meantime, I gotta thank you here for your CNN and FoxNews echo chamber.

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