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Deep Division Persists in Egypt After Deadly Night of Clashes With Police

July 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A march led by supporters of the former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi turned violent when protesters clashed with police. At least seven people were killed and more than 260 were hurt. Ray Suarez talks to GlobalPost editor-at-large Charles Sennott, who witnessed the violence in Cairo while filming for PBS's FRONTLINE.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the volatile situation in Egypt.

After a week of relative peace in the country, violent clashes returned last night.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi poured into Cairo streets last night calling for his return to power. They marched onto one of the capital’s busiest bridges. And that’s where tensions boiled over.

A crew from PBS’s FRONTLINE captured the scene, as police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw rocks, burned tires, and blocked the roadway. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood claimed police fired live ammunition and bird shot. At least seven people were killed, more than 260 were hurt and more than 400 arrested.

This morning, relative calm returned, but Morsi supporters promised it’s not over.

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MAN (through translator): What happened yesterday is part of the military’s plan to play around with people’s nerves. But we would like to send a message to the military that even if they kill hundreds of thousands of people, we will not leave until legitimacy is restored.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, the country’s interim leaders, including newly named Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, insists there’s no going back. Fahmy spoke recently with “Frontline.”

NABIL FAHMY, interim Egyptian foreign minister: The major intervention is an exceptional circumstance, there’s no question. But what are your options?

As I said previously, the ballot box is a license to govern. It’s not a mandate to rule. So you can govern. That means governing your constituency and the other constituencies. It doesn’t give you a right to impose your vision of Egypt on us all.

RAY SUAREZ: The military leader who ousted Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was named deputy prime minister today in a new interim cabinet. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to take any post in the government.

One of the group’s leaders, Essam el-Erian says he blames the United States for what has happened in Egypt. He spoke with GlobalPost’s Charles Sennott, who is working with the “Frontline” team.

ESSAM EL-ERIAN, Muslim Brotherhood: A green light came from Washington to those militants, to the leaders of the army to support this revolution, anti-revolution, the military. And I hope that Americans can understand they lost time and lost power in this region when they are against the will and choice of the people in a democratic process.

RAY SUAREZ: But Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was in Cairo yesterday insisting that the U.S. is not taking sides.

WILLIAM BURNS, U.S. deputy secretary of state: We know that Egyptians must forge their own path to democracy.

We know that this will not mirror our own, and we will not try to impose our model on Egypt. What the United States will do is stand behind certain basic principles, not any particular personalities or parties.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all of this, I spoke to GlobalPost editor at large Charles Sennott a short time ago.

Charles Sennott, welcome.

Since the confrontations that we saw in your footage, Egypt has sworn in a new government. The interim president has installed new cabinet ministers. Is it a calmer day and night in Cairo? 

CHARLES SENNOTT, GlobalPost: It was a bit calmer today.

I would say it felt very much like a Ramadan day, in which people are fasting here for the holy month of Ramadan. I think last night’s clashes were so violent, so intense that today seemed to be a day where everyone was regrouping on some level, maybe reflecting on where this is headed.

RAY SUAREZ: Which are the different factions that are out on the street? With Egyptians taking to the street to say what is on their mind, what are the main divisions?

CHARLES SENNOTT: Well, we were with the Muslim Brotherhood today at the Rab’a mosque, which has become their headquarters.

And there we talked to a lot of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership who said they organized the marches last night on the 6 October Bridge which is the central artery that runs through Cairo. And they say very openly that they are organizing these marches as a way to protest what they see as a military coup.

They say that the elected President Morsi was detained by the military, is kept in an undisclosed location, and that he is the legitimate president, and that they are going to keep up the street demonstrations until his presidency is restored and he is released.

The other side here is harder to define. It’s much broader. And it’s represented by millions of people who took to the streets on June 30 demanding that President Morsi call early elections or resign. That group includes people who used to be with the Muslim Brotherhood, who voted for Morsi, who are sort of a wide collection, mostly of liberals of a sort of more secular side of society.

I think it’s harder to define them. They represent a lot of people. But they came out in force and they spoke. And they believe that it is a good thing that Morsi has been out ousted.

I don’t think all of them would agree that it is a good thing that the military intervene to accomplish this, but I think there is a sense here of two very distinct sides brewing, Muslim Brotherhood one side saying Morsi must be restated, and the other side is a big collection of broad groupings of secular, some religious and others who believe we have to move forward with this democracy, and to do that we need new elections and we need to elect a new president.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned at the outset that it is Ramadan, and in much of the Arab world that means people staying up late, having dinner together late at night.

Does that create a situation where there are more likely to be people out on the street late at night and make it easier to get something going politically?

CHARLES SENNOTT: You know, I think Ramadan cuts both ways.

Ramadan is a time when people are fasting from sunrise to sunset. It’s very hot here. It is a time when people are very quiet during the day. As the sun sets, they have the Iftar. They break the fast, and they gather largely as families.

One of the things we are hearing a lot about are families that are deeply divided on what was the right thing to do here.

Should Morsi have been put down as the president, ousted by the military or not? Did the military do the right thing? Is it upholding sort of the greater democracy here, the sort of public sentiment on the street?

But, at night, yes, definitely, you see this sense that, you know, around 9:00 at night, there is definitely a larger presence on the street, people stay up very late, and then it cuts the other way. You have a lot of young people who are taking to the streets after breaking the fast and we saw that last night.

 

The streets were packed. It was very violent confrontations, as you have seen, and very much a sense from the Muslim Brotherhood that they are going to confront the military on this.

And the question is, where does this end? Will we see this continuing violence? Will it escalate or might it tone down? And right now it’s very difficult to call.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent weeks, back here in the United States, President Obama has been criticized by elected officials for taking something of a hands-off attitude toward Egypt while in Egypt rival factions are complaining that the United States is too involved.

How is that happening?

CHARLES SENNOTT: You know, this is a deeply divided country, Muslim Brotherhood on the one side, the opposition to Morsi on the other.

The one thing you find unity on here is that the United States is at fault. What I mean by that is the Muslim Brotherhood will say the United States gave a green light to the military coup, as they would define it.

On the other side, they say that the United States gave too much deference to Morsi, that they were supportive of his government, even as so many here feel it was failing, it was failing on economy, it was failing on security. It was a grab for power, as so many people here feel by Morsi.

So you get this deep division, yet you get unity on criticism of the United States, a very difficult position for Ambassador Anne Patterson here, very difficult position also for the deputy secretary of state, William Burns, who is now in the country and visiting.

You know, I think most people say the United States should just stay out of it going forward, and I think it’s one of those very, very difficult foreign policy questions for what is the most effective and productive way for United States to play a role here.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Sennott of GlobalPost, your FRONTLINE documentary will be on in the fall.

Thanks for joining us.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.