Who shot first?
Yesterday’s New York Times ran an editorial, Bloodshed in Egypt:
It has been all downhill for Egypt since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi last week. On Monday, according to reports in The Times, Egyptian soldiers fired on hundreds of Mr. Morsi’s supporters as they were praying outside the facility where he was believed to be detained. At least 51 civilians were killed and more than 300 were wounded. . The military claimed its soldiers fired in response to an attack by gunmen from an unnamed “terrorist group.” But other evidence — bullet casings with the army stamp, indications that the gunfire came from the top of a nearby building — suggest a military all too willing to use excessive force.
While it places political blame on ex-President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for the events Monday, the violence is blamed on the army.
The editorial linked to the initial report on Monday’s violence as reported by the paper’s Cairo bureau chief, David Kirkpatrick, Army Kills 51, Deepening Crisis in Egypt:
It was by far the deadliest day of violence since the revolt that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Within a few hours around dawn, advancing soldiers and police officers killed at least 51 civilians and wounded more than 400, almost all hit by gunfire, health officials said.
Army and police spokesmen said that one soldier and two policemen had also been killed. But according to witnesses and video footage, one of the policemen appeared to have been shot by soldiers, and the military provided little evidence to back its claim that the fighting had been instigated by the Islamists.
Was there “little evidence” that the fighting had been instigated by the Islamists?
Here’s an eyewitness account reported by the New Yorker.
A doctor who said he preferred not to give his name lives in an apartment building that overlooks the Republican Guard barracks in Cairo. He told me he woke for the dawn prayer before 4 A.M. Shortly afterward, he heard gunfire and went onto his neighbor’s balcony for a better view.
“I saw that the Army retreated about ten metres and began to fire tear-gas cannisters, about ten or fifteen of them,” he said. “I couldn’t see if the other side [the protesters] was shooting, but I heard people through megaphones encouraging jihad. Then I saw four to six motorcycles coming from the direction of the Rabaa intersection to the Republican Guard barracks. Some people were still praying, some were not, because the dawn prayer had finished by then. The men on the motorcycles were all masked, and it was hard to see them through the dark and the tear-gas smoke, but they seemed to be shooting, they were coming from behind the protesters, so they were shooting toward the protesters and the Army. Then the Army started firing. And the protestors were firing. I saw firing from both sides.” As for details, though—what they were firing, whether it was one or two protesters or something more organized—he said that it was dark and that he couldn’t exactly tell.
The Islamists remained adamant that the Army fired on peaceful demonstrators. The Army says that they were provoked. Although many eyewitnesses and video clips corroborate some details—tear gas was fired by the Army at the start; gunfire came from at least some people on both sides, even if the Army did most of the shooting—there’s no clear indication of what sparked the violence. It is clear, however, that the vast majority of fatal injuries were caused by live ammunition, and that most of the dead were protesters. (An Army officer, a policeman, and a soldier were also reported killed.) Over the past two and a half years in Egypt—melee and propaganda and obfuscation—it has always been nearly impossible to separate fact from conspiracy theory and actual conspiracy. Crowds are routinely seeded with paid thugs and provocateurs, guns have become much more prevalent, tensions and emotions are raw and ragged.
Though the New Yorker doesn’t say it explicitly past experience shows that these thugs have been on the side of Muslim Brotherhood.
— Patrick Poole (@pspoole) July 8, 2013
Similarly, though he largely ignores the implication of this account Robert Mackey at the New York Times blog, the Lede, cited another eyewitness.
In her retrospective Facebook account, Ms. Helbawi wrote that she first became aware of trouble in the street below her home shortly after the end of dawn prayers, when the protesters began to loudly bang on the lamp posts and chant “God is great” to warn that the military was beginning to move in. Then, she said, officers fired large amounts of tear gas and many protesters fled while others stood their ground.
“The protesters responded at first with rocks and stones, and then suddenly I heard the sound of gunfire — I could not tell if it was birdshot or live ammunition — and the police and army retreated very quickly to past the gas station and it became clear that these bullets were from the protesters’ side,” Ms. Helbawi wrote. It was when the security forces returned, she said, that the officers began shooting as well.
Two eyewitnesses tell basically the same story, and Kirkpatrick (who tweeted links to both stories) claims that there’s “little evidence” to confirm the army’s account.
But there are more problems with Kirkpatrick’s reporting.
Some who vehemently denounced Mr. Mubarak’s use of brute force to silence critics were far more tepid about criticizing the killings of Mr. Morsi’s supporters, calling only for an inquiry to determine the root cause. The United States, which has conspicuously not condemned Mr. Morsi’s ouster, was also mild, calling on security forces to exercise restraint.
Perhaps the reason that the criticism of the army has been muted, is that Egyptians are well familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics and understand that the army was reacting (or if you prefer, overreacting) to very real provocations. If you pay attention to Kirkpatrick’s timeline you’ll see that he frequently retweets Gehad El-Haddad and Shadi Hamid. The former is a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood; the latter is an apologist for the organization. This suggests that Kirkpatrick’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood is largely sympathetic.
Thus he demands proof of evidence against the Muslim Brotherhood, while accepting its version of events uncritically.
The police, who had never fully accepted Mr. Morsi’s authority, reveled in the day and sought to revise history: a spokesman contended that the Muslim Brotherhood — and not the police — had been responsible for killing protesters during the revolt against Mr. Mubarak. “Policemen never thought that history would speak so quickly to prove the complete innocence of the policemen in the events of the January 2011 revolution,” said the spokesman, Hany Abdel Lateef.
Some also suggested that Mr. Morsi’s supporters might be to blame for the fighting.
“We expect violent actions from the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, and we cannot accept that armed gatherings be labeled as peaceful protests or sit-ins,” Khalid Talima, a representative of the coalition formed around the anti-Morsi protests that preceded his ouster, said at a news conference under the banner “Muslim Brotherhood-American conspiracy against the revolution.”
Note the contrast. The police were revising history – no qualifications – but, on the other side, some “suggested” that the Muslim Brotherhood could be a violent organization.
Seeking to capitalize on the killing to rally supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed that the soldiers had killed women and children. But hospitals and morgues reported no such casualties.
Actually it was worse than that.