No Tears for Martyrs as Violence Mars Egypt Vote

The doorway to Salah Adel’s room frames the last hours of his life at home. A notebook on the desk. Slippers by the bed. A pillow slightly indented from the final time he laid his head there.

The scene forces a daily juggling of the pain and pride his family feel. Pain over the loss of a 20-year-old son and brother shot dead on a Cairo street as he joined Muslim Brotherhood supporters confronting Egyptian security forces. Pride that he died fighting for a cause in which he believed.

“We don’t shed tears for martyrs,” his mother, who asked to be identified as Um Salah, or Mother of Salah, said as mourners and well-wishers bustled around the family’s apartment last month. “His brothers, when they saw the glory of martyrdom, now want to win the same honor.”

More than 1,000 of Adel’s fellow protesters and 150 police and army personnel have died in clashes following the military’s July 3 removal of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. The toll is cleaving society, widening rifts that this week’s referendum on a new constitution isn’t going to heal.

“Politics has become zero sum,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It isn’t about differing policies or give and take -- it’s about if you win, I lose.”

Outbreaks of Violence

The referendum, which ends today, is part of the army-installed government’s declared plan to restore democracy, to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. Tens of thousands of soldiers deployed throughout the country were unable to prevent outbreaks of violence during yesterday’s first day of voting, when at least nine people were killed.

The Interior Ministry said it arrested 249 people seeking to disrupt the ballot, more than half of them Brotherhood members. The election commission said late yesterday that final results won’t be published until electoral registers are checked to ensure no one voted more than once.

The proposed charter is billed by the government as enshrining civil liberties omitted from the Islamist-leaning 2012 document adopted under Mursi. Opposed by the Brotherhood as an attempt to legitimize an army takeover, it has also drawn criticism from secular activists for not limiting the powers of the military and their courts, or protecting the rights of religious minorities. It restricts presidents to two terms.

Vote Trumpeted

State media trumpeted the vote, with Al-Ahram newspaper’s banner headline reading: “Egyptians Knock on the Doors of Freedom and the Future.” Interim President Adly Mansour said Egyptians were voting on the road map for the country’s future, as well as for the constitution, Al-Ahram reported as he cast his ballot.

Mamdouh Mohamed, 62, said the constitution’s endorsement “will be the first step on the right track so the country can move forward. Once it passes we will officially have the legitimacy that the Brotherhood keeps talking about.”

Mohamed said he voted for Mursi, then grew disillusioned with his policies. Now he’s an al-Seesi fan.

“We want a strong man and everyone loves him,” he said. “God gave us this hero who saved the country. He is a wise man and loyal to the country.”

Mursi, who served one year before he was kicked out by Abdelfatah Al-Seesi, the defense chief he appointed, is on trial. The Brotherhood describes his overthrow as a coup, and the new government as “killers.” The group in turn has been officially designated a terrorist organization.

New Arenas

The crackdown on the Brotherhood reached a peak with the August killing of hundreds of protesters as security forces raided Cairo sit-ins. While the violence has become less intense since then, it’s also been channeled to new arenas.

The Brotherhood has staged rallies on university campuses, while suicide bombings and gun attacks have spread from the Sinai peninsula to the capital, strikes that authorities blame on the Brotherhood without providing evidence of its involvement. The group rejects the claims.

Amid the violence, Egypt’s economy is growing at its slowest pace in two decades. One in seven of the workforce is unemployed. Inflation is almost 12 percent.

In an interview at the family home, Adel’s father, Adel Abu Hemeida, said his son took to the streets angered by the army’s removal of Mursi, which he saw as heralding the return of the autocratic rule Egypt had rejected.

Bullet Through Chest

Friends say they saw Adel, who got engaged a fortnight earlier, rubbing his eyes and coughing from the effects of tear gas, then collapsing as a bullet fired from what they described as an armored personnel carrier tore through his chest.

“He died standing up for what he believed was right,” Hemeida said. “I raised him to follow his own conscience, and not to use me as the barometer for right or wrong. I knew he would be a martyr” from the time he joined the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

In place of the unity of that earlier revolt -- when Islamists, Coptic Christians and secularists stood shoulder to shoulder -- Mursi’s eviction has shattered the country’s social and political foundation, Hemeida said.

“There is this kind of stoic resolve, and I think it’s really deeply felt, that their cause is worth dying for. That’s what makes this very difficult to resolve,” Brookings’ Hamid said of Brotherhood supporters. At the same time, the government has targeted Islamists with a “dehumanization” program, he said. Televised funerals of soldiers and police have heightened anti-Islamist sentiment.

Celebrated as Savior

Along the 6th of October Bridge in central Cairo signs urging voters to support the new constitution are placed at 10-meter intervals. State media report daily on the “terrorism” gripping the country, and have successfully linked it in many minds to the Brotherhood. Al-Seesi is feted as a savior by opponents of the Islamists, and urged to run for the presidency.

“They deserve it,” said 43-year-old Cairo resident Ahmed Ali, referring to the crackdown on the Brotherhood, as he listened to news of another clash on Dec. 12. “They want to give the security forces a reason to confront them so that they can maintain their status as victims.”

The Brotherhood says halting demonstrations would be a capitulation in the face of a power grab by what it calls the “junta.”

It was the crackdown, the stumbling economy and fear that the gains of the 2011 uprising were at risk that pushed Adel onto the streets, according to his father. It’s “up to God” to decide if his blood was spilled in vain, he said.

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