Deadly Rift

11.27.12

Deaths of Gaber Salah, Islam Masoud Signal Egypt’s Dangerous Divisions

A wave of violence has rocked Egypt since a sweeping presidential decree. From Cairo, Alastair Beach reports on two young men killed in the clashes, the march on Tahrir Square to come—and whether Morsi will back down.

If Egyptians are divided in life, this week they were united by death.

While Mohamed Morsi grapples with a growing crisis that threatens to overwhelm his presidency, nothing could better underscore the country’s yawning political divisions than the sobering deaths of two teenagers this week as a result of revolutionary violence.

On Nov. 20, 16-year-old Gaber Salah was left brain dead after being shot at close range with a rubber bullet during clashes with riot police in downtown Cairo. His family kept him on life support for a week, hoping he might recover. He didn’t.

Over the weekend, 15-year-old Islam Masoud was out on the streets when a mob attacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Damanhour, a town close to Alexandria in the Nile Delta region.

The protesters were fighting a decree issued by Morsi on Thursday that granted him immunity from judicial oversight. As a result of their anger, Islam was killed, his head smashed in by a flying rock.

The deaths of Islam and Gaber come on the heels of a nationwide wave of violence in which more than 400 people have been injured during bitter political rioting.

In response to Morsi’s arbitrary decree—which also deflected judicial authority from the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, the body charged with drafting the country’s constitution—protesters torched and attacked several offices of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi is a loyalist.

Clashes also erupted in Alexandria, where thousands of opposing protesters hurled stones and chunks of concrete at each other. There were further outbreaks of violence in the southern Egyptian city of Assiut, while all the cities along the Suez Canal were hit by rioting.

The flare-ups elicited angry condemnation from Brotherhood officials. Speaking to The Daily Beast, senior figure Walid el-Haddad lashed out at the attacks on his organization. “We can’t accept this,” he said. “If people want to express their opinions, they should do it in a peaceful way.”

But if the deaths of Islam and Gaber brought some Egyptians together to contemplate the cost of their insurrection, they were also a worrying reminder about the dangerous political fissures cleaving the country.

As Egypt’s political opposition prepares to rally against Morsi’s “constitutional coup,” many will be hoping that Islam and Gaber were not a portent of things to come.

Gaber Salah was a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, the influential activist group that helped spearhead the 2011 revolution.

On Monday, as his coffin was borne through central Cairo surrounded by several thousand mourners, the procession was joined by the leading lights of Egypt’s liberal opposition. They included former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Hamzawy, a prominent liberal politician.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement saying Islam Masoud had been a member of its organization. The claim remains unconfirmed, though the deputy chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Essam el-Erian, joined other Brotherhood figures in attending the teenager’s funeral in Damanhour on Monday.

With Egyptians mourning the innocent victims of their revolution, Morsi is due to face one of his biggest challenges since coming to power as thousands of his opponents march on Tahrir Square on Tuesday in an attempt to force him into a U-turn on last week’s decree.

Morsi’s opponents have said they will not sit down and talk with him until the declaration is shredded.

Yet such an about-face seems unlikely, at least according to one rank-and-file Brotherhood member. The organization has been aching to move against the judiciary for some time, he said.

“The Muslim Brotherhood wanted Morsi to take aggressive action against people from the old regime,” said 26-year-old Mostafa Gamil. “So when he announced his decree, we agreed with him.

“But the organization won’t support him if he turns back.”

On Monday night the president was engaged in crisis talks with Egypt’s leading judges, many of whom are incensed by the power grab that appears to have usurped much of their authority.

But speaking to the press Monday evening, Morsi’s spokesman said the Egyptian leader had told judges he acted within his rights when he made last week’s announcement.

One reason for the apparent intransigence is no doubt to prevent the hemorrhaging of political support that might result from such a humiliating reversal.

But the Brotherhood also has a score to settle with Egypt’s judiciary, a body that last summer dissolved the Islamist-dominated Parliament and was shaping up to dismiss the constituent assembly next month.

Brotherhood officials are portraying Morsi’s move as a revolutionary triumph—a strike at the heart of an institution riddled with Mubarak-era appointees.

Yet according to Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt’s legal systems, such talk should be taken with caution. “It is clear that there were some key judges who did the old regime’s bidding, but my guess is that their numbers have been exaggerated,” he said.

“To have a narrowly elected president lead the purge in the absence of Parliament is probably not an ideal way to address the issue if what is desired is an independent and respected judiciary,” he added.

As Egypt’s political opposition prepares to rally against what some are calling Morsi’s “constitutional coup,” many will be hoping that Islam and Gaber were not a portent of things to come.