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Lina Attalah: Egyptian Ministry of Interior uses light presence of firearms to justify aggressive military action that killed more than 500 peaceful sit-ins, as Saudi and Qatari power dynamics play out behind the scenes

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The death toll in Egypt has surpassed 500, and it could rise as violence continues between military forces and supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Hundreds of protesters have been killed, along with dozens of security forces, after the military used tear gas and live ammunition to clear two protest encampments housing thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Take a look at some of these pictures of protesters pushing an armed military vehicle off a bridge. There are some really powerful and tragic images coming out of Egypt, and scenes of thousands waiting for medical care as well. And now reports are emerging that medical facilities treating Muslim Brotherhood supporters are being attacked. The international community has condemned the violence, and the U.S. has canceled a planned joint military exercise with the Egyptian military, but they have refused to cut its $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military.

Now joining us to discuss all this is Lina Attalah. Lina is the cofounder of Mada Masr, an Arabic and English online news organization. She’s also the former managing editor at Egypt Independent. And she joins us now from Cairo.

Thanks for being with us.

So, Lina, here at The Real News, you know, we try to go beyond the headlines and take a look at what might be happening behind the scenes. There are some saying that this is exactly what the Egyptian military wants, in the sense that they allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to take power after being democratically elected, and they essentially gave them enough rope to hang themselves. They gave them control, allowing them to mismanage the economy, things of that nature. Do you see this as being strategic? Do you see the military actually getting exactly what they want in this situation?

LINA ATTALAH, COFOUNDER, MADA MASR: So, basically I think it’s hard to imagine that there was so much orchestration throughout the last couple of years or, you know, year and a half from the side of the military. And this kind of narrative completely removes any incrimination from the Muslim Brotherhood as, you know, the temporary ruling elites or the, you know, short-living ruling elites of Egypt.

We have to recognize the fact that there have been a lot of failures from the Brotherhood when they took over. And this is conducive to what we’re going through right now.

I do believe that there was a point in time when the generals thought that they can basically have some sort of an arrangement with the Brotherhood. I’m sure that there was a point in time when the generals were in agreement with the Brotherhood and there was thinking that this could be a working relationship. And I’m pretty sure that the two sides became at odds when the Brotherhood started to try and control state institutions a lot more on one hand, and on the other, when the military revealed its real interest in being the ultimate institution in control of the state in Egypt. So when those two real ambitions sort of emerged from these two elite institutions, this is when we started having a problem.

But thinking from the beginning that this was all orchestrated by the military I think is a little bit far-fetched. We do have to account for the fact that the Brotherhood came to power and had basically no national projects in the shelves to, you know, try to work with it. They were mostly concerned with a power grab. And, you know, this put them at odds with the other institution that is also looking for remaining the most powerful body in the state. So this is what you’re looking at, really, a power struggle, a traditional, typical power struggle between two strong parties in the country.

DESVARIEUX: So let’s talk about another power struggle that’s not really being seen is between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. How is the Qatari-Saudi rivalry being played out in Egypt?

ATTALAH: I mean, it’s of course being played out on several levels. There is the funding level. So, for example, the Qataris were much more enthusiastic to support Egypt during the, you know, short-lived rule of Mohamed Morsi, of President Mohamed Morsi, while right now the Saudis have pledged tons of money in the form of loans and grants to the Egyptian government the moment Morsi was ousted. And you could tell that this is the chance for Saudi Arabia to basically, you know, get over what it was–what it was completely concerned about, which is a growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood around the region.

This is a disconcerting phenomenon for the Saudis in the Arab world, and the support that this emerging power getting from Qatar, an ambitious player in the the Gulf area, was also extremely disconcerting for the Saudis. So the Saudis are just feeling that they are perhaps having this moment when they can basically end this Brotherhood phenomenon in the Arab world, which is eventually endangering to its very, you know, status quo. So definitely there is another power struggle on the Gulf level between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that is playing out in the crisis in Egypt right now.

DESVARIEUX: And let’s talk about the United States and where they fit into all this, because, like we mentioned, funding, for example, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, they are having a growing amount of influence and are funding the Egyptian military heavily. And there are reports coming out that it has already surpassed the United States in terms of the amount of aid that is provided to Egypt through Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and those Gulf countries and other Gulf countries. Can you talk a little bit about that? How is this going to affect the power dynamic between the United States, Egypt, and those Gulf nations?

ATTALAH: I think the United States right now is still in an in-between position of having had–just settled its relationship with the Brotherhood as the new ruling elite in Egypt, the kind of elite that basically was proving to be a good replacement to the Mubarak rule, which was also a traditional ally for the Americans for decades. And now this quick turning of the events and end–quick turn of the Brotherhood rule is of course causing confusion to the American administration, which is now at odds with the fact that they have to handle another leadership altogether, particularly a military leadership that they have for long been interested in seeing at the margins of politics, as opposed to being on the forefront of politics.

So this is really the essence of the relationship between Egypt and America since the David Accords of 1979, namely, that the military institutions should just be on the fringes of politics. Its main function should be to just preserve regional security in Egypt and the region. And the fact that this seems to be changing in a radical way is of course causing troubles for the American administration.

So right now I think everyone is grappling with what should the final position be, because we’re talking not just here about the relationship between Egypt and the United States, but we’re also essentially talking about a long-term relationship between the Americans and the Saudis, which is also geared towards preserving regional security in the Middle East, which is basically the ultimate concern for the American administration and for any American administration. So you’re yet to see how all these different parties are going to come to terms with each other [incompr.]. Right now, they do not seem to be necessarily allying with the Saudis supporting the post-Morsi regime and the Americans not being quite clear about their final position, but also hinging on rejecting what they have been–increasingly called a military coup against the Morsi regime. But I’m not expecting this position to stay the same for a long time.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about the Muslim Brotherhood and their call for just peaceful demonstration. Do you think that they’ll stick to this strategy?

ATTALAH: I mean, since yesterday, since this the sit-ins’ dispersals, it was hard to really see anything peaceful happening anywhere in the country. All marches, all actions, all protests undertaken by the Brotherhood since the dispersals of the sit-ins, since the forcible dispersals of the sit-ins, have ended up in clashes with residents of the neighborhoods in which they’ve been marching. But they have also been actively burning police stations. They have been not necessarily just Muslim Brotherhood members, but sympathizers, at least, have been burning churches, particularly outside of Cairo.

So betting on peaceful action I think is far-fetched at this point. I did hear repeatedly while covering the dispersal yesterday people from the sit-in calling their fellows in different governorates and telling them not to come to a sit-in anymore, since the sit-in is over, and to just focus on burning the closest police station to them. So it’s hard, it’s really hard to bet on any peaceful action at this point.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. I’m also trying to get a sense of the mood in the country, because I think it does make a difference to know who was the aggressor in this situation. Obviously, the military, they came out with live ammunition and things of that nature, but the Ministry of Interior is reporting that there were armed protesters, or I should say there were armed people in the camps, in some of the encampments. So can you talk a little bit about that? Do you feel like people are buying that line? Or are there more people now sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood supporters?

ATTALAH: I mean, in terms of whether some of the encampments were armed or not, we did do some reporting in the past that proved that there is some weaponry inside the camps, inside the sit-ins. And at the same time, the fact that 43 people died from the ranks of the police is a manifestation of the fact that there has been, you know, some firearms from the side of the protesters during the dispersals of [incompr.] sit-ins. However, to exaggerate this narrative of the armament of the encampments is extremely problematic, because it was clear that what happened yesterday was a typical use of excessive force by both the police and the military to disperse the sit-ins and that there’s no way that both parties were equally armed, at least judging, obviously, from the level of the casualties from both ends.

But in terms of a general mood, I do not get a sense that people have sympathized with the Brotherhood more just by the sheer fact that they lost over 500 of their supporters in the course of the few hours during which the sit-ins were dispersed yesterday. And that’s mainly due to a state-engineered media campaign to demonize the Brothers, to call them terrorists, to call them armed thugs, which has basically left people with this sense of urge for the state to basically intervene and disperse the sit-ins, whatever it takes, because they are basically terrorists. So there was this huge media campaign that was conducive to very little sympathy from the people towards the Brotherhood, despite the fact that there have been atrocious images from the dispersals yesterday.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, we’ll certainly be tracking this story. Lina, thank you so much for joining us.

ATTALAH: Thank you, Jessica. Take care.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Lina Attalah is the founder of Mada Masr. She is the former Managing Editor at Egypt Independent (formerly Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition). Lina studied journalism at the American University in Cairo. Before joining Egypt Independent, she wrote for Reuters, Cairo Times, the Daily Star, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. In 2005, she worked as radio producer and campaign coordinator with the BBC World Service Trust in Darfur, Sudan. She also worked as project manager for a number of research-based projects with multimedia outputs around the themes of space, mobility, and intellectual history. Lina is particularly drawn to border areas, where human geography issues of conflict and desire are rampant.