Groundhog Day in Cairo: A Brutal Video Raises the Political Stakes in Egypt

Anger and outrage grow after a man is videotaped stripped and beaten in front of the besieged presidential palace

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The past few weeks in Egypt have been a period of Groundhog Day–style revolutionary déjà vu. The images are familiar: protesters battling through clouds of tear gas on the outskirts of Tahrir Square and in front of the Information Ministry; a state of emergency declared; the army deployed in three major cities along the Suez Canal; and the embattled President promising to take radical steps to preserve public order. For many of Egypt’s original revolutionaries, it has felt like February 2011 all over again.

But Friday night’s violent and chaotic scene outside the presidential palace brought to mind yet another disturbing memory: the savage December 2011 assault on protesters in Tahrir Square. That attack yielded a virtual mountain of video allegedly showing army and police officers beating helpless protesters — including women — and firing weapons at point-blank range.

This time, there’s only one such piece of evidence — video apparently showing central-security riot police beating the limp body of a naked man before dragging him into one of their vans. But the reaction has sent the administration of President Mohamed Morsi into spasms of spin-doctoring and produced even more bad blood in the country’s seemingly intractable political standoff.

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“It’s too little and too late” for a political solution, says Mohammed Sherdy, a veteran opposition politician and a native of Port Said — the Suez Canal city that served as the epicenter of this latest weeklong outbreak of violence. “Political solutions should have happened a month ago or two months ago.”

Exactly what happened outside the presidential palace last night remains a divisive issue. But according to multiple eyewitnesses and participants, the violence started from the protester side when a small contingent of demonstrators began throwing Molotov cocktails at the palace. That’s something that would prompt just about any government to crack down hard. But the apparent brutality of the videotaped attack raised an unwelcome parallel for Morsi. Under now deposed President Hosni Mubarak, then under the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally under Morsi, the primary constant has been a brutal and bullying Interior Ministry.

The reaction of Morsi’s government on Saturday was either deeply confused or intentionally confusing. Amid widespread condemnation, presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali announced an investigation into the incident, and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim reportedly telephoned the victim, identified as Hamada Saber, personally to express his regrets. But later in the day, a report from the prosecutor’s office claimed that Saber had in fact been beaten and stripped by other protesters and that riot police were merely trying to help him.

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Whatever the realities of the situation, the weekend’s violence seems certain to sabotage the extremely tentative steps taken last week to forge a negotiated solution to the country’s political stalemate. The violence on both sides came just over 24 hours after representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), including Mohamed ElBaradei, held their first public meeting in months and agreed to communally renounce violence.

The chasm between the two camps remains deep, with the NSF demanding nothing less than an extensive rewriting of the constitution and the formation of a unity government — essentially asking Morsi to turn over a healthy portion of his Cabinet to them. Morsi had expressed tentative willingness to at least discuss revising the constitution but has declined to even comment on the unity-government proposal.

And even if the weekend’s events end up adding urgency to prod both sides back to the negotiating table, it has become an open question whether even a comprehensive political deal will tame the streets. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil attempted to pay a visit to Tahrir Square on Saturday morning only to have his convoy attacked with rocks and bottles. “I don’t think the streets will even listen to [the political leaders] anymore,” says Sherdy, the Port Said politician who is a third-generation leader in the opposition Wafd party. “The streets are 10 steps ahead of the opposition and 10 steps ahead of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

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Sherdy says the situation in Port Said has calmed down in the past 48 hours — after clashes that killed nearly 50 residents. But he doesn’t expect things to stay calm for long, and Port Said remains under a state of emergency, along with fellow Suez Canal cities Ismailia and Suez. And even after the physical violence has burned itself out, Sherdy predicts that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood face a political comeuppance in two months when parliamentary elections are scheduled.

Three of Egypt’s top 10 largest cities have now turned against the Brotherhood, Sherdy said. In the last parliamentary election last year, Brotherhood and other Islamist politicians dominated the 20 combined seats from the three cities. Now Sherdy said he expects them to claim maybe three parliamentary seats.

“Politically it will reflect in the elections for sure,” he says. “None of the Islamist politicians will be able to show their faces in the streets.”

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation