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How Singapore became a role model in the fight against Zika

First broadcast on AAM 4 November, 2016. First published PRI’s the World 23 November, 2016

When Singapore became the first country in Southeast Asia to report local transmission of the Zika virus this past August, it’s fair to say the region, and the world at large, was surprised.

While it may not be a shock to learn that someone within the hot and humid environs of Southeast Asia had contracted Zika, Singapore was a surprising place for it to crop up.

After all, the tiny island nation has an established reputation for being clean, rich and organized (as well as autocratic). Compared to the region, it’s quite low on mosquitos.

Thanks to a hugely successful program to control mosquito populations, first launched in the 1960s, densities of the insect in Singapore are but a fraction of those in neighboring countries.

Professor Eng Ong Ooi, the deputy director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program at Singapore’s prestigious National University, says the success of control measures is clear from dengue’s tiny prevalence on the island.

He says only 20 percent of the population under age 20 has had a dengue fever infection. In other nearby cities, the prevalence is much higher.

“If you go to Bangkok, if you go to any other Southeast Asian cities, then that number is probably nearer 80, 90 percent,” Ooi says.

Yet paradoxically, Ooi also thinks the small population of mosquitos in Singapore can exacerbate the potential for outbreaks. “Any introduction of a virus, when it hits the small populations of mosquitos the chance of getting an outbreak is actually much higher than anywhere else.”

Combining this with the city-state’s longstanding role as a hub of international trade and finance, Ooi thinks the potential for a Zika outbreak was more pronounced than many accepted.

Singapore’s first cluster was in a small, residential area demarcated by the roads Aljunied Crescent and Sims Drive. Within a month, 298 separate infections were identified in the area.

Outside a small salon at the center of the hot zone, a woman who asked to be identified as Lee has been meeting up to chat with her friends almost every day for years. She says that while she was aware of the outbreak from newspapers and TV, the reality of a Zika outbreak really hit home when she watched patients flow into the clinic across the street.

“So many patients sick,” Lee says, as she begins to scratch herself and mimic feverish shivers. “Here the doctors know so many people, itchy … with fevers.”

Yet despite the potential for an ever-worsening situation, not even two months later, the neighborhood cluster was cleared.

Ooi explains that much of the mosquito control for Zika followed Singapore’s longstanding policies for dengue. On the streets, fogging and fumigation increased markedly. Flyers and public service announcements reiterated calls to remove potential sources of standing water, under penalty of fines. Volunteers made the rounds to ensure nobody could declare ignorance of the problem.

Chiang Heng Liang, Citizen’s Consultative Committee chairman for the region, spoke of going door to door and providing explanatory leaflets on Zika in four languages, as well as passing out free mosquito repellent.

“[In ] any country … the citizens all have to be ready for an emergency or crisis,” Liang says. “You all have to be ready to spring into action. In order to get that going, you have to be a bit more organized.”

After a short pause, he adds the caveat, “but I don’t think there are that many countries that are as organized as Singapore.”

With just over 5 million residents on a single island, it’s easier for Singapore to reach everyone than it is for a country like Brazil, which has a sprawling population of 200 million.

But the swift and successful response of the Singaporean government and grassroots organizations earned the country praise from the highest echelons of public health. The World Health Organization almost immediately called Singapore a “role model” for its handling of Zika.

Professor Eng Ong Ooi, the deputy director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program at Singapore’s National University.

Credit: Photo by Amanda Mustard / America Abroad.

 

Yet for Ooi, learning from Singapore involves far more than a “copy and paste” of its mosquito control and public health policies.

“I think Singapore is under no illusion that what is done by us can be done by most other countries with dengue or Zika,” he explains, highlighting the small population, hefty legal structures, and a “centralized” government.

“I think the kind of information that is still useful is ‘What works?’ You might have to tweak it, but the strategy is the one to go after.”

For example: “What is clear is that if you go after the larvae and the immature stages of the mosquito that seems to work quite consistently wherever you go.”

He adds that what “needs to go hand-in-hand with this government-based, top-down control is community engagement. … If you don’t change habits then … this cycle goes on and on.”

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Analysis: Thailand shields tourist trade after blasts

First published with Al Jazeera 16 August, 2016

Bangkok – A series of bomb blasts that killed four people and wounded dozens in tourist towns across Thailand last week shattered the country’s carefully crafted image of laid back beaches and gilded Buddhist temples.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but authorities have been quick to deny any involvement by separatists waging a violent campaign in the country’s far southern provinces.

For some analysts, however, the official rejection of separatist involvement is more about protecting Thailand’s booming tourism sector, which accounts for more than a fifth of the country’s GDP, than adopting a considered approach to the investigation.

“The evidence and the rhetoric are completely disconnected,” Anders Engvall, a research fellow at the Stockholm School of Economics, told Al Jazeera.

Engvall, who has conducted research on the Southern Thailand rebellion for more than a decade, said that regardless of evidence, Thai authorities were likely to deny any link with the violence that has plagued the south of the country for more than a decade.

“Even if you have Thai courts sentencing southern separatists for doing something, [the military] will still say they are not involved,” he said.

The southern region, which the country annexed more than a century ago and which borders neighbouring Malaysia, has been battered by 12 years of violence as Malay Muslim rebels seek greater autonomy in a Buddhist-majority country.

Near daily shootings and roadside bombs in the area have killed more than 6,500 people since 2004, most of them civilians.

Yet, police officials say the bombings and arson attacks that hit some of the country’s best known tourist resorts on Thursday and Friday, including Hua Hin, Phuket, Phang Nga and Surat Thani, were orchestrated by a single perpetrator.

“I can assure you that these current attacks aren’t linked to incidents that have occurred in the Deep South of Thailand,” Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a deputy national police chief, told reporters days after the attacks.

On Monday, assistant national police chief Suchart Theerasawat said that, while the bombs used in the attacks “were related and similar to those found in insurgent attacks in the Deep South”, it was too early to conclude there was any link.

A reflexive exclusion of southern separatist groups from the investigation was also motivated by efforts to contain perceptions of the deadly, yet localised, southern conflict, Engvall said.

“The Thai authorities have been very eager to avoid any type of international involvement in the conflict so they do everything possible to prevent UN or Western nations from getting involved in any way,” he said.

Bloody conflict

In 2004, tension in the so-called Deep South between the majority Malay, Muslim population and their Buddhist countrymen, erupted into bloody conflict.

Bombings, shootings and arson attacks are regular events in the three-most affected provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, as well as parts of Songkhla province.

The violence has mostly been confined to the three provinces, and no attack outside the region of the scale and complexity of August 11-12 has ever been linked to armed groups.

Engvall, however, said a recent vote for a new military-drafted constitution, within the context of floundering peace talks with the separatists in the south, could have acted as a catalyst for more audacious attacks.

“They [the separatists] have gone on for 12 years in isolation with little success. In the first 10 days of August, they did 50 of exactly the same type of attacks in the Deep South and no one cared,” Engvall said.

“They have a motive to go outside and aim further north to achieve their political aims.”

The potential push north comes after military statements that the referendum on the constitution, which gives the army more power in how the country is governed, had passed peacefully.

Other Deep South watchers said similarities in the modus operandi of last week’s attacks with those of the fighters were another reason to consider separatist groups.

Of particular interest to analysts was the use of so-called “double tap” explosions, where two bombs in close proximity explode one after another to target emergency workers responding to the first – an established tactic of Deep South separatists.

Instead, officials are laying blame for the attacks on a vaguely defined network conspiring to commit “local sabotage” – phrasing which seems to focus on enemies of the military government who are likely to be aggrieved by the referendum results.

It also indirectly focuses attention on the country’s “Red Shirt” political movement, and those loyal to popular former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thaksin was removed by a military coup in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister, was removed by the Constitutional Court of Thailand in 2014. The military launched a coup soon after.

While not explicitly named, the Red Shirts have rebuffed the implicit accusations, one leader even threatening defamation lawsuits to anyone trying to link them to last week’s attacks.

Addressing the nation on Friday night, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army commander who now rules Thailand, asked for patience and calm in the investigation.

He discouraged speculation about the possible identity of the attackers before speaking of “bad people” who had been taking action against his government since before the August 7 referendum.

The remarks, again, firmly placed last week’s attack in the context of domestic politics and not the southern insurgency.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and director at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said there was a need to wait for more substantial evidence before making any conclusions about the tourist town attacks.

But, he conceded, that “there’s a built-in bias to put it to a domestic political problem”.

“Either way we are likely to see more violence, not less,” he said.

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Bangkok’s Deadly Bomb Blast

First published in Vice News August 17

A bomb blast ripped through the center of Thailand’s capital Monday evening, killing at least 20 people and injuring over 80 others. The bomb exploded by the Erawan shrine, a popular religious site located in the heart of Bangkok’s teeming shopping district.

“Those who have planted this bomb are cruel. They aim to kill because everyone knows that at 7pm the shrine is crowded with Thais and foreigners,” Somyot Pumpanmuang, Thailand’s national police chief, told reporters. “Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of dead people.”

Located at an intersection between two major roads and almost directly underneath Bangkok’s aboveground train system, the shrine is wedged amid several huge shopping centers and a five-star hotel. Thousands of office workers, tourists, and shoppers pass by the immediate vicinity on a daily basis, while hundreds pay their respect at the shrine itself.

First responders and military personnel cordoned off the area shortly after the blast, placing white sheets over the dead. Crime scene investigators and medical staff immediately began scouring the area for evidence and placing markers around suspicious items, while a team of forensic photographers captured every detail of the harrowing scene.

A number of motorbikes were strewn across the street, two almost completely burned by the blast. Chunks of the shrine’s walls littered the intersection, and pools of blood marked with white chalk could be clearly seen from 50 meters away. Body parts were continually being found all around the area, signaled by a rush of police and forensic investigators.

Confusion and chaos still surround the blast, and several medical and military personnel on the scene were unaware of the details and unable to answer questions put to them by VICE News.

“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters shortly after the attack. “The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district.”

Rumors quickly spread on social media claiming the explosion was the result of a car accident, a motorbike bomb, a car bomb, or several bombs in the area. “It was a pipe bomb… placed inside the Erawan shrine,” the national police chief later told reporters, calling the latest official death toll of 16 “unprecedented.”

Near the Erawan shrine, incredulous Thais and unaware tourists peered past the crowd of police, military, and medical officials toward the blast site. One cordon was positioned so close to the shrine that people in the crowd accidentally kicked evidence markers. Nearly three hours after the explosion, investigators discovered a human foot about 40 meters away from the shrine.

A long-running insurgency in Thailand’s “Deep South” escalated in the early 2000s, but the violence has mainly been contained to that region, and attacks in the capital are incredibly rare. The last major bombing attack in Bangkok occurred in 2006, when a series of bombs killed at least three people shortly after a military coup ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Thai government has cautioned against speculation about who is responsible in the immediate aftermath of the attack, though fingers are already being pointed at loyalists of the former prime minister, and at “ethnic insurgents” in the Deep South.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reportedly plans to set up a “war room” to coordinate the country’s response to the attack.

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Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

First Published on Vice January 16th 2014 

Inside one of Egypt’s polling stations. Photos by Amanda Mustard

For the past two days, Egyptians have been taking to the polls to officially pass judgment on thelatest iteration of the country’s constitution. As with most “yes” or “no” questions, there are only two outcomes. A “yes” majority would force interim President Adly Mansour to call for elections (either parliamentary or presidential) within a period of 30 to 90 days from the new constitution coming into effect. But, incredibly, there are no guiding procedures in the event of a “no” majority.

That might seem presumptuous, but, thankfully for the interim government, they have history on their side—there’s never been a “no” majority for any constitutional referendum in Egypt’s modern history.

The new constitution is widely perceived as an improvement on the 2012 version, which was drafted under ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But it’s not really all that different from its predecessor. Instead of starting from scratch, as was originally expected, amendments were made to contentious provisions in a long, drawn out process that finally ended with Mansour’s declaration of the referendum on December 12 of last year.

Despite the increased clarity about discrimination and violence against women, as well as a lengthened list of socio-economic rights, the draft still contains a number of articles that have worried analysts—like the one that could potentially weaken labor rights and freedoms—and maintains provisions that protect the continued use of military tribunals for civilians. Nevertheless, some are absolutely certain that the contents of the constitution are exactly what Egypt needs.

“I’ve read the entire constitution!” one man exclaimed proudly outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Shubra. “This is the constitution for Egypt. God bless Egypt and God bless [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi! I’ve written my favorite bits from the constitution here,” he smiled, showing off a piece of paper covered in writing.

The bomb-damaged front of the courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood

The opposition Anti Coup Alliance immediately declared their intentions to boycott the vote, worried that pushing for a “no” would somehow legitimize the incumbent powers and their new draft constitution. However, nothing resembling a boycott movement managed to work its way into the public consciousness. Instead, the “Vote Yes” campaign snapped up all the attention and advertising space.

By the first day of the vote, almost every lamppost along Cairo’s major bridges was adorned with a “Yes to the constitution!” poster. And giant billboards tenuously connect a “yes” vote to the 2011 revolution and the June 30 uprising that led to the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The message was clear: this isn’t just a vote for a constitution, this is a vote for the revolution and the martyrs.

The first day got off to a bad start, when an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, some two hours before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning.  Although no one was killed in the blast, it prompted an increased security presence—the worry being that there were similar acts planned for throughout this referendum period.

Despite the violent start, voter turnout for the first day was relatively high, with Egypt’s minister of administrative development claiming that 28 percent of the country’s registered voters had cast their ballot that day alone. However, scattered fighting in various governorates turned deadly for some—the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 12 at the close of the first day’s voting, and 250 were arrested.

Crowds outside a Cairo polling station with a poster of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

On state TV, multiple feeds from polling stations all over Egypt showed long lines, with everyone smiling or waiting patiently.

Outside a school in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, a mother and her two teenagers strolled out of the polling station. Their fingers still wet with the voting ink, they responded to a question about how they had cast their votes. “Of course we all voted yes!” exclaimed the mother, Dina, apparently taken aback that there was even a possibility someone might vote no.

“This constitution is better than the one before. I didn’t vote in the referendum last year, but I knew it was my duty this time. It really is much, much better,” explained her son, Abdel Aziz, before she interjected: “There is justice here,” she said. “There is a future!” Her daughter Noor nodded in approval to what her brother and mother were saying. “We want everything to get better and this is the first step to that. No more fighting, a better economy, some stability,” she said.

“Stability” is a promise that seems to come back around during every voting period, and after three years of turmoil, death, coups and changing governments, the offer is more tantalizing now than ever. “The most important thing for Egypt right now is stability,” explained off-duty officer Mohamed Abdelmaher outside an Imbaba polling station. “Political stability, economic stability, social stability. Stability is absolutely the cure for all of Egypt’s problems.”

He held his young daughter’s hand tightly as he talked about the future of his country, repeatedly bringing up the need for stability and security. “I just voted ‘yes’ in the hope that there’s no more of that,” he said, pointing to the damaged facade of the courthouse. “God willing this is what the country needs.”

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The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood

Anti-Muslim Brotherhood graffiti, directed at ousted-president Mohamed Morsi

First Published on Vice, here, on October 2nd 2013

After last Monday’s verdict from the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to face a future that mirrors the majority of its past: Once again becoming an illegal organisation. 

After some deliberation, the presiding judge proclaimed, “The court bans the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-governmental organisation, and all activities that it participates in and any organisation derived from it.” He also ordered the interim government to freeze the Brotherhood’s assets and establish a panel to administer them until any appeal has been heard.

The court didn’t reveal the grounds for the ruling, but it was apparently prompted by the leftist National Progressive Unionist Party – also known as Tagammu – who claim that the Brotherhood have links to terrorists organisations and are guilty of “exploiting religion in political slogans”. Whatever the reason for the verdict, it seems that the spectacular fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is now complete. 

That alleged link to terrorist organisations would have been bolstered in the eyes of the Egyptian public after the recent failed assassination attempt on Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Although Ibrahim escaped unscathed from the apparent suicide bombing, the attack killed one and left at least ten wounded, with voices on the street instantly pinning the blame on the Brotherhood; “Of course it was the Brotherhood – they are terrorists! Who knows what they will do next?” cried a street vendor in downtown Cairo after hearing the news over the radio. Despite the fact that an al-Qaeda-inspired group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has since claimed responsibility for the attack – and the Brotherhood have vehemently denounced it – they still remain guilty in the eyes of many Egyptians.

After weeks of stringent crackdowns that have resulted in the deaths of over a thousand civilians and the arrest of most of their leading members and activists, the political potency of the Muslim Brotherhood has completely dissipated. 


Muslim Brotherhood supporters

At a time when the numbers you can amass in the streets is a signifier of your strength, the latest public display of Brotherhood support only managed to muster around 100 demonstrators. Meanwhile, the interim government and security forces have capitalised on the anti-Brotherhood sentiment and are now capable of drawing tens of thousands to the streets.

“It has been clear since July the 3rd [when Morsi was deposed] that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it,” explains Nathan J Brown, a professor at George Washington University and author of When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics.

State TV and government-controlled media have launched a relentless and effective campaign to demonise the Brotherhood, and the official line effectively leaves no room for avoiding the issue: it’s very much a case of you’re either with us, or against us. Those watching state news channels are also presented with a permanent reminder of the Brotherhood’s wickedness in the corner of the screen: “Egypt Fighting Terrorism.”

However, you could argue that the Brotherhood has faced more cunning attacks in the past and survived. In January of 1954, after they had resisted some of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies, Naser dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood. His military government launched an extremely aggressive press campaign against the the organisation and arrested scores of their members, sending them into disarray. 

Yet, throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has shown tenacity and a will to survive. “It is, by nature, a very cautious organisation,” Professor Brown told me. “Top leaders feel a tremendous responsibility to maintain the health of the organisation and bequeath it to the next generation.”

Throughout their history are countless examples of the Brotherhood bending their ideologies and their principles to further promote their influence on the social and – eventually – political stage. This is most obvious in their quiet seizure of the 2011 revolution, the founding of their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in April of that year and their unabashed decision to field a presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. Now, following the violence against them throughout August and September, their existence has been threatened once again.


Muslim Brotherhood supporters

“This is clearly an attempt to wipe [the Brotherhood’s] existence from the scene – not just the political one, but the civil society network, too,” says Gehad el-Haddad, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood and a senior advisor to the FJP. “Many [Brotherhood] NGOs have been stormed, looted and its heads or trustees arrested.” A few days after we spoke, Mr el-Haddad himself was arrested.

Alison Pargeter, a political analyst of the MENA region, claims that it was precisely this kind of all-encompassing stifling of the Brotherhood during President Nasser’s tenure that proved the catalyst for a number within the organisation to turn to more radical action.

In her 2012 bookThe Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power, she writes, “The movement was effectively stymied during the second half of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s due to the fact that so many [Brotherhood members] had been imprisoned. However, rather than diminishing these more militant elements’ appetite for action, their spell in prison only hardened them and made them even more determined to challenge the Nasser regime.”

On the 26th of October, 1954 – nine months after Nasser had dissolved the Brotherhood – a tinsmith from Imbaba shot at the president eight times and completely missed him with every single shot. To this day, how much the Brotherhood knew about the tinsmith’s plan is unclear, but the fierce response of Nasser’s regime to the Brotherhood following the assassination attempt essentially crushed them. Six Brotherhood men were hanged and thousands of their members imprisoned.

Nasser’s repression also aroused more militant ideologies, the most infamous of which were the ideas declared by Sayyid Qutb, whose book Milestones – written during incarceration under Nasser – inspired generations in the concepts of fighting against the Jahiliyyah (those of a pre-Islamic ignorance) within the framework of Jihad, in both its mental and physical capacities.

The worry of a similar scenario playing out today is the one that abides most stridently in the minds of many Egyptians, especially after the recent rise of Islamist militants in the Sinai. Commentators such as the Washington Institute’s Eric Trager have suggested that the military’s ousting of Morsi could be a pyrrhic victory and lead to “an undisciplined Islamist insurgency“.

Professor Brown disagrees with regards to an insurgency, at least within the near future, saying, “I think that’s unlikely. The top leadership of the Brotherhood has been committed to a different path for a generation; I think it is well internalised.” However, he does concede that the “top leaders may not be in control right now”.

“Our recorded [Brotherhood] members’ arrests have surpassed 6,000, only including leaders and not including many second and third tier leadership killed in [the massacres of Brotherhood supporters by the army in] Rabaa and Nahda,” claims el-Haddad.

So, if the crucial chain of command that is so central to propagating Brotherhood instructions is disrupted, how much control does the organisation maintain over its members and how much does it know of the actions that some of them may take?

Interestingly, el-Haddad believes that the Brotherhood is still capable of leading its members despite the mass arrests and break in their vital hierarchy. He claims the lack of a visible leadership will not lead to splinter groups breaking away as they did under Nasser, saying, “The world is different now than in the 1950s – social media makes it possible to connect to all youth in Egypt and to all [Brotherhood]. [It] keeps the message consistent and creates a parallel peer leadership momentum on the virtual world.”

Despite this, it is still unclear which members would be taking the role of de facto leaders and spreading the Brotherhood’s commands.

The possibility of radicals breaking away and acting of their own free will – but under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood – cannot be completely ruled out, especially as more time passes and frustration increases. The last two components of the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto are “Jihad is our way” and “Death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspiration”. To what degree members adhere to or understand these components is what leads to anxious conjecture, at home and abroad, of a wholesale “insurgency” materialising.

When I spoke to him, before he was arrested, Mr el-Haddad stated that “there are no radicals in the Muslim Brotherhood” and that the only radicals are those that leave, as the Brotherhood is “committed to non-violence by design”. He continues: “That strategy won’t change, regardless of coup attempts to spark violence, brutally killing our members and even our women and their sons and daughters.”

If one thing is certain, the determination to continue protesting remains. “Nothing has changed with these arrests and killings – we are as determined to bring down this coup whether it takes weeks, months or even years,” Mr el-Haddad asserted. “You can’t kill an idea when its time has come.” But the question remains – exactly who will the actors be, and what forms will their actions take?

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Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Day of Anger’ Ends with Scores Dead

Image

An edited version of this story was published on VICE US

After more than 600 people were killed nationwide on Wednesday 14th August, the inevitable “Day of Anger” was called for by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Aggrieved by the massacre of its followers following the crackdown on its 6-week-old sit-ins in Rabba Al Adawiya and Nahda areas, they organised over 20 marches to converge on central Cairo’s Ramses Square as a show of defiance to the military ‘coup’ and its massacres against their supporters.

Egyptian Armed Forces prepared for the protests by upping their security presence.  Armoured Personnel Carriers set up positions all around downtown Cairo.  Tahrir Square, the iconic ‘heart’ of the 2011 revolution had no less than two APCs at each of the streets leading into and out of the square – an unthinkable scenario not two months ago.  The day before the protests were due, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim officially permitted the use of live ammunition by Central Security Forces (CSF) were anyone to attack Governmental buildings.

The scene was set for an ineluctable extension of the bloodshed that Egypt has experienced since Mohamed Morsi’s deposition – at the time of writing, at least 100 people have lost their lives from today’s violence alone.

The protest in Ramses remained peaceful for all of an hour – highlighting the tinderbox like make-up of the political divergence.  Generally accepted reports emerged of armed men attacking the nearby Asbakeya Police Station, thus triggering the violence.  Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest members staunchly deny any such act and claim that the police started firing without provocation.

“I have been here since the start, I tell you nobody did anything, they [the police] just attacked us…if anyone is shooting it is either police or counter-revolutionary thugs” claimed Mohamed Ali, a lifelong Muslim Brotherhood member.

The palpable change in atmosphere as one neared Ramses Square brought about a sickening anticipation.  The questionable gunshots of before were now very real and very loud.  A metronomic crack of a rifle rings out every 30 seconds or so, interrupting the drumming of the helicopters circling overhead.  Every now and again, a short burst of heavy automatic fire can be heard.  It’s impossible to know which direction the shooting was coming from, or who was doing it, but a group of men start anxiously pointing to a nearby bridge where a couple of APCs are parked.  Still 200 metres from the Square, people were hugging the walls, crowding together behind the corners of buildings for cover.

“Do you see us?” cried Mohamed Ali, “Do you see any weapons?  We are peaceful and they are killing us, these dogs”.  A man across the streets starts a chant of “The Interior Ministry are thugs” and everyone echoes his sentiment with full voice.

Despite not seeing any firearms myself, weapons were apparent and were being used by some.  Egyptian State TV widely broadcast Brotherhood members firing assault weapons on 15 May bridge during a march towards Ramses Square.  Later, the State TV showed the on-going clashes under the running banner “Egypt Fighting Terrorism” apparently refusing to appreciate the existence of any nuance in the chaos.

Not five minutes after speaking to Mohamed Ali I stumbled across two men on the periphery of the Square who were assembling Molotov cocktails from two leftover crates filled with empty, glass, coke bottles, one carefully placing pre-cut cloth into each of the bottles while the other carefully inspected each one.  They reprimanded me as I tried to take a photo and pointed instead towards the police. “Take a photo of them, they’re the killers”.

The closer you were to the square the faster people moved, shadowing the buildings for cover.  A 63-year-old retired Engineer approached asking to borrow my pen.  On his left forearm he began to write a phone number and above it, his name ‘Wael’.  “It’s my family’s number, just in case I am killed,” he explained to me.  “I am not a supporter of Mohamed Morsi you must understand, I am just anti-army and anti-coup.  I was there in Rabaa when they killed everyone, how can anyone support such a regime after seeing that?”

Just past Al Ahmar hospital, about 50 metres south of Ramses Square the gunshots became so loud they sounded like they were being fired from next to me.  After one such bang, a man some 10 metres in front of me stumbled.  A 50p-sized hole had appeared in his upper left arm, blood squirting out.  After two steps, he fell over and in less than 30 seconds had been scooped up; his wound bandaged and he was placed on a scooter that took him to another hospital.

Immediately, people rushed to the locked gates of the Al Ahmar hospital.  “We are dying here!” They yelled to the doctors standing inside.  One man started shaking the gates so violently others had to restrain him, but not before more gunshots were heard, sending the crowd running for better cover.

Across the country violent clashes had endured, acceding to the age-old maxim that ‘violence begets violence’ and questioning the Armed Forces reasoning, that cracking down on the sit-ins was the first step to stability and security.  With every death, another martyr is made and the divide between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood grows.  At this pace, it is beginning to seem impossible that a peaceful reconciliation can be made anytime soon.

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