The political divide that’s led to over a year of violence and tumult in the Arab world’s most populous country spilled out into the streets of New York today.
As Egyptian president Abdul Fattal el-Sisi addressed the United Nations for the first time, about 300 supporters of the former army general — who led the popularly supported coup that toppled the government of the elected president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July of 2013 — gathered across from the World Body’s headquarters to cheer him on.
Sisi is accused of massacring anti-coup protestors, stripping Egyptians of some of the civil freedoms they gained after their dramatic January 2011 uprising against the government of Hosni Mubarak, and rolling back freedom of the press. His fans, who wore T-shirts with Sisi’s face silhouetted against an outline of the Giza Pyramids and carried signs with slogans like “The Time Is Now! The Egyptian Dream! Sisi!,” see it very differently.
“We are here today because we love Egypt and we love Sisi,” one woman told Business Insider. “Sisi is the perfect man for Egypt.”
“We don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood,” said one woman, who wore a red and white-patterned headscarf and held an Egyptian flag. “They give everyone a bad image of Islam.” She said she attended in order “to say we support you and we’re happy you’re our president.”
“He killed children, killed the elderly, and destroyed the churches of Egypt,” Ayed, from Philadelphia, told Business Insider of Morsi, who Sisi overthrew in July of 2013. “Libya, Syria, Iran — Morsi wanted to make Egypt like this.”
Morsi was widely disliked and distrusted throughout Egypt when he sole year in office was up, but the demonstrators claims are highly debatable and echo the intense political polarization that has occasionally turned violent within Egypt itself. Some Egyptians see Sisi’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood crackdown, which included army and police attacks on anti-coup protest encampments in Cairo in which over 370 people were killed, as a legitimate fight against a group of would-be religious authoritarians that wanted to co-opt the Egyptian state. Others view Sisi as a usurper, a would-be dictator, or even a mass murder.
The demonstrators ran through full-throated, frenzied chants in Arabic and English. After the event concluded, they were instructed by event organisers to walk back to Madison Avenue, several blocks west — a route which took them past a small group of demonstrators clad in black, and surrounded by a thick cordon of NYPD officers and metal barriers (it was unclear who had organised the march, but some of the signs bore the logo of the American Egyptian Public Affairs Committee, the Egyptian Front Coalition, and the Alliance of Egyptian Americans).
A rival group of about 25 anti-Sisi protestors didn’t seem to have any uniting political faction behind it — there were no signs depicting the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-coup icon, or any other partisan symbol, for that matter. But an already-riled and uncritical pro-Sisi crowd seized on the nearest target they could find, screaming at the group from the other side of the barrier.
Salah Anwar, an MFA candidate in film at the City College of New York and the protest’s organiser, was unfazed. “We’re here for people in prison for expressing their opinion,” he said. “For students and university professors in jail for having an opposing opinion.” He rejected the idea that the pro-Sisi crowd had simply been brainwashed — even in America, he said, Egyptians were deeply divided. He said he had acquaintances and relatives who were Sisi supporters, but was certain it was only “a matter of time before until they realise that nothing has changed.”
Passing pro-Sisi demonstrators screamed and motioned towards their opponents in black; at one point, police needed to restrain a middle-aged man in a suit who vigorously brandished an Egyptian flag while nearly yelling himself hoarse.
“Down, down with military rule!” the anti-Sisi group chanted back in Arabic, apparently unworried that an already tense face off could turn physical. After all, they stood behind a barrier of hyper-vigilant cops — this reporter had his bags searched just to enter the anti-Sisi protesters’ cordoned-off area. For a moment, the officers on duty even told me to wait for things to calm down before they were willing to open the barrier at all, for fear of giving either side an opening to escalate things further.
These weren’t he only groups of demonstrators on hand across the street from the UN today. One woman held a sign comparing Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, who is accused of war crimes related to his government’s 2009 push against the Tamil Tigers — a campaign in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed — to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi:
And another group was there to support Theodoro Obango of Equatorial Guinea, who is one of the oppressive leaders in sub-Saharan Africa. Obango has ruled the tiny west African country since 1979 while maintaining strict controls on political activities and speech. Human Rights Watch has cited Obiang’s government for its use of torture, and Freedom House rates the country “not free.”
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