The police lieutenant put his boots up on the desk and casually reloaded his machine gun. "The problem is," he said, nodding at a TV that was live-broadcasting the siege of a nearby mosque, "these people are terrorists."
It was mid-afternoon on Saturday August 17, and for nearly 24 hours, the lieutenant's colleagues in the police and army had surrounded the al-Fath mosque in central Cairo, inside which were hiding a few hundred supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
On screen it seemed as though it was the soldiers doing the terrorising. But for the lieutenant, the terrorists were the ones on the inside. They had bombs, the policeman said: they deserved what they got. And a mob of locals agreed. "The police and the people," chanted a crowd that had gathered to lynch the fugitives as they exited the mosque, "are one hand."
It was a wretched scene – but one that has become familiar in Egypt. Here was yet another symptom of the widespread hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, in the space of a year, has gone from being Egypt's most powerful and most popular political group to fugitives. Here, also, was brutal violence, a shortage of humanity and, above all, scant regard for the truth.
For those inside the mosque were not terrorists. An armed man may later have been filmed on top of the minaret, but the mosque's imam claimed access to it was controlled by security forces who had by that point breached parts of the building. For certain, when I visited the mosque the day before – shortly before troops surrounded it – it mainly housed doctors and corpses.
After the police fired on nearby Morsi supporters – who had gathered to oppose not just the July 3 overthrow of the group's scion, but also the massacre of hundreds of Morsi backers on August 14 – the mosque had been turned into a makeshift field hospital to deal with the fallout from Egypt's fourth mass killing in six weeks.
"After they finish outside, [the police] will come in here," a doctor, Mahmoud el-Hout, said, "and arrest all the wounded." He wasn't far wrong – only women and the dead were later granted a safe exit.
Inside and outside the mosque two parallel realities existed – much as they do across Egypt as a whole. The country is largely polarised between, on the one hand, those who believe their livelihoods and way of life were threatened under Morsi's incompetent and divisive presidency, and that his Muslim Brotherhood are violent traitors who must be destroyed – and, on the other, the Brotherhood and its dwindling Islamist allies, who remained camped in Cairo's streets after Morsi's ousting, to defend his democratic legitimacy.
The split is not even. Millions marched on June 30 to call for Morsi's departure, and the vast majority of the country is firmly behind the army that deposed him days later. But perhaps less than 25% of Egyptians now have strong Islamist leanings, if Morsi's quarter of the vote in the first round of last year's presidential elections is anything to go by.
Here and there, activists prominent in the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak reject this binary division and express disgust at both the new fascistic army-backed regime and the authoritarianism of Morsi's own government.
Army rule may be counter-revolutionary, they argue, accompanied as it is by a return to favour of figures, institutions and policies that buttressed the Mubarak era. But so too was Morsi, who tried to co-opt corrupt state institutions rather than reform them – and who had little interest in building consensus, reining in police brutality, or increasing social freedoms beyond those of his once-oppressed Islamist allies.
Yet few share this nuance. Most so-called liberals have thrown in their lot with the army, because the environment has forced almost everyone into a with-or-against-us mind-set. When Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt's leading liberal politician, resigned as interim vice-president in protest against the massacre of Islamists on August 14, he was roundly attacked – even by former allies.
El-Sayyid el-Badawi, leader of Egypt's oldest liberal party, told a breakfast show that he didn't want to call ElBaradei a traitor – before strongly implying that he was. "Mohamed ElBaradei is a son of a bitch," summarised one woman in the mob outside the al-Fath mosque on Saturday.
Haranguing the Western media's lack of support for the army's crackdown, an otherwise measured psychologist recently told me that he felt Muslim Brotherhood members – many of whom have obediently remained in the streets on the say-so of their leaders – were suffering from some sort of collective psychosis.
Yet if the Brothers are delusional, then it seems only fair to apply the same rhetoric to their opponents, who seem to be under an equally debilitating spell.
Jingoistic and uninquiring media
Spurred on by a jingoistic and uninquiring media (some Egyptian TV presenters cried with joy on air the day Morsi was overthrown), much of Egyptian society is convinced that the former president's supporters are wholly a terrorist force bent on making Egypt part of some wider Islamic state.
"We are not against protesters, but we are against terrorists. We have a war with terrorists," said Mohamed Khamis, a spokesperson for Tamarod, the grass-roots campaign that successfully encouraged millions to march against Morsi in June. He said he accompanied the police on August 17, when security forces murdered hundreds of people at two six-week-old pro-Morsi campsites. "We asked the police officers to shoot them with pistols and the police officers refused to shoot them," Khamis said.
"Really, that was what happened. So I am surprised people died. How come so many people died then? I think it was the Brotherhood who killed them, not the army or police."
But though the Brotherhood is no stranger to violence – not least during clashes in December outside the presidential palace when Brotherhood members attacked anti-Morsi protesters – their recent involvement in acts of aggression, to be fair, remains unproved.
Certainly, jihadi insurgents outside the Brotherhood's command – but nevertheless angered by Morsi's removal – have mounted a terrorist campaign in the lawless Sinai peninsula during the past six weeks. Twenty-five police conscripts were murdered in cold blood by Sinai insurgents on Monday.
Undeniably, Morsi sympathisers in some form have attacked dozens of police stations since the August 21 massacre – and desecrated at least 30 Christian churches, following prolonged sectarian incitement from some Morsi supporters at Brotherhood-led sit-ins over the past month. And if the crackdown against the Brotherhood and its allies continues, it is hard to see how more extremist violence can be avoided.
But the central charges – that most Brotherhood supporters are violent, that their two huge protest camps were simply overgrown terrorist cells, and that their brutal suppression was justified and even restrained – are not supported by facts.
My experience during six weeks of reporting at Rabaa al-Adawiya in Cairo suggested the vast majority of protesters there, including many women and children, were peaceful. Many may have failed to face up to Morsi's own incompetence and autocratic governance and some may have turned too blind an eye to sectarian attacks recently launched in their name. Others have actively incited them.
On the day of the coup, an imam from Minya, in southern Egypt, ominously said backstage at Rabaa: "It's going to be a civil war – and it's going to be very bad in particular for the church in [eastern] Egypt, because everyone knows they have spearheaded this campaign against the Islamic project."
Anti-Morsi sentiment stems from both Muslims and Christians, but some members of the Brotherhood have disgracefully scapegoated and attacked the latter.
But many Rabaa protesters have simple, sincere reasons for their anger: they are upset about the theft of their votes and fearful of a return to the anti-Islamist oppression of the Mubarak era. "We all voted for democracy," housewife Aza Galal told me recently, six-year-old son Saif in tow. "And then, because some people gathered in Tahrir Square [on June 30], they put our votes in the rubbish bins."
Morsi's government hardly promoted the wider values on which a successful democracy relies, but Galal's anger is understandable: Morsi or his allies won five consecutive votes between 2011 and 2012.
"If we leave the square, it will be worse than the 1990s," said Suzanne Abdel Qadir, referring to Mubarak's treatment of Islamists. "We're back to the days of oppression under Mubarak. If we go home, then the fight is over."
The pro-regime propaganda comes right from the top. On August 18 Egypt's state information service published a public memorandum to foreign correspondents in Egypt, rebuking Western media for failing to acknowledge that the July 3 coup reflected the will of the people, and for being overly sympathetic to the Brotherhood – apparently unable to distinguish between support for Morsi's disastrous and autocratic presidency and criticism of the flagrant human rights abuses of his successors.
Among many other false claims, it justified the siege of two mosques used by pro-Morsi doctors last week to house, respectively, a makeshift morgue and a field hospital – on the grounds that they had, in fact, harboured terrorists.
As one journalist noted, such claims would have been amusing had they not further endangered the lives of foreign journalists in Egypt (several of whom were either assaulted, detained, or even killed last week while trying to cover Egyptian news), and had they not flown in the face of the truth.
At the Iman mosque, where hundreds of bodies were taken from the site of one of the massacres on August 15, there were no insurgents – just corpses. Filling the floor of the mosque in its entirety, many of them had already begun to rot, and one was so badly burnt that it looked less like a body and more like a blackened tree stump. Doctors said it was the remains of a boy in his early teens, and an old woman squatted beside it in the belief that it was her lost relative. But only its sunken eye-sockets and internal organs identified the corpse as that of a human.
The next day, at the al-Fath mosque, there were again no obvious terrorists, but simply unarmed and injured protesters, many of whom were bleeding to death. One man, Mohamed Said, was carried in, barely conscious – a gunshot wound in his back – and leant against a pillar. Then his head slumped, and doctors rolled his eyelids shut.
Egypt has been awash with cruelty from the desecration of Christian churches by Islamists, to the burning of corpses at Rabaa. But perhaps the most heartbreaking sight has been the street outside the Zeinhom morgue, Cairo's main mortuary.
Due to the massacres, morgue staff, already severely stretched, struggle to deal with the unprecedented number of bodies arriving for autopsies.
As a result, dozens of grieving families have clogged the street outside, their dead relatives rotting in the heat. A curfew is in place in Cairo, but families dare not leave the queue until their relatives are admitted to the morgue. "Curse the curfew," said Atef Fatih, whose brother was shot dead last week. "We don't care about it. We will wait until they let the body inside."
Some pile the coffins high with slabs of ice to stop the rot. But the ice melts fast, leaving the ground a sludgy mess of mud, blood and corpses. To add to the injustice, many families report that the police have refused to sign off their corpses as murder. Humanity and truth are in short supply.
Nor are they the only virtues to have been sacrificed in Egypt. So too are logic and common sense. Amid the rhetoric about Islamic terrorism few seem to recognise that most of the terrorising has, in fact, come from the state.
The government justifies the state-sponsored violence as a necessary step towards avoiding civil war. But it does not seem to realise that its provocative brutality is the thing that makes such a horrific outcome more likely – further alienating and radicalising Islamists, and pushing some towards violence.
One commentator suggests that this may, in fact, be the state's desired outcome – a heightening of extremist violence, which gives the government more cover to increase its powers.
Similarly, few seem to have seen the irony in appointing a new Cabinet whose primary objective is to fix the economy, but which has since given its backing to the state massacres that have further frightened away the investors on which a revived economy would depend.
With the state seemingly unwilling to rein in its violence, the Brotherhood unlikely to curtail its street presence, and unwilling or unable to prevent its allies and harder-line followers from violence, the future looks utterly bleak. Here and there, there are moments of fleeting dark humour. Egypt's leading private broadsheet, Al-Masry Al-Youm, last week published an interview with a Republican "senator", Maurice Bonamigo, a man who approved of Egypt's controversial new domestic direction – but one who, it later emerged, had never been elected to higher office.
There have also been moments of unexpected personal kindness. They range from the soldier photographed aiding a grieving woman during the August 14 massacres to the police lieutenant who, putting his machine gun to one side and switching off his television, handed me a carton of guava juice – bringing to an end a two-hour-long detention at the hands of both police officers and an angry mob of vigilantes. "You are welcome in Egypt," the lieutenant said, and smiled. – © Guardian News & Media 2013