There was no doubt in Tahrir Square, among a group opposed to Mohamed Morsi, about what had really taken place behind the scenes. Barack Obama had sent $8bn to the Muslim Brotherhood in return for allowing Israel to seize much of the Sinai; the military had subsequently discovered the plot and stepped in to do their patriotic duty.
Across Cairo, where Islamists had continued to gather at Nasr City demanding the release and reinstatement of Mr Morsi, there was a variation on the tale. The sum was $10bn and it had been paid directly to the head of the army, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and a corrupt cabal of senior officers to carry out the coup; the Sinai and the Rafah crossing into Gaza going to Israel as part of the deal.
Wild and extraordinary rumours are often the staple currency in a state in turbulence and the Middle East is hardly a stranger to conspiracy theories. But what is quite remarkable about the current strife in Egypt is the common ground of distrust and antipathy the protagonists have towards the US.
In turn, the Americans and its European allies seem at a loss as to how to react to the violence and uncertainty in the Arab world’s most populous state. Washington has avoided the “C” word – acknowledging that a coup had taken place would mean that the US administration would have to suspend the $ 1.3bn aid package it sends to the Egyptian military every year. At the same time, confusing and contradictory messages are sent from Washington about the army’s actions and the mass arrests which have followed.
In an attempt to bring clarity and exert influence, William J Burns, the Deputy Secretary of State, arrived in Egypt this week. He met the country’s military-backed interim leaders; but two of the groups which had opposed Mr Morsi – the Salafist al-Nour party and Tamarod, which had mobilised the protests on the street – refused to see him.
There was no meeting with the Brotherhood either. Mr Burns was invited to their sit-in; this was rejected on security grounds. The movement’s officials were asked to come to the US embassy instead, but they declined, fearing arrest on their way to or from it, and would thus join much of the leadership already in custody. The Americans, apparently, could not guarantee them safe passage.
The UK, with far less stake in the country, does not excite the same passions as the Americans. Indeed senior leaders of the Brotherhood felt the need to regularly meet British diplomats while they were in power, and members of Tamarod and other anti-Morsi groups continue to do so now.
London’s position is that the Brotherhood must not be marginalised, but encouraged to take part in the elections supposedly held next year. It too avoids the “C” word, but some exports licences for arms to the military have been suspended. The Whitehall view is that prosecuting Mr Morsi – who is facing a number of possible charges including treason – and his colleagues should be discouraged because that would pose huge obstacles towards reconciliation.
Reconciliation, however, is going to be anything but easy in apolitical landscape polarised and mired in bitter accusations and recriminations. One might have expected that even opponents of the Brotherhood would have been deeply worried about the 51 Morsi supporters killed and more than a hundred wounded by the army and police on the worst day of violence.
But sympathy was in short supply. A young man acting as my translator, who had taken part in protests which led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak, said he felt sorry at a personal level for the injured and the bereaved families we met at a hospital that morning. But “you know, when they were in power they did some terrible things, they used the police and their own thugs to beat, kill people who opposed them. So no, I won’t feel sorry for long”. Another activist, warned: “Don’t be taken in by the Islamists. We think the international media has been giving them an easy ride”.
It is true that the Brotherhood and its supporters went to great efforts to cultivate the journalists, welcoming and accessible at their rallies, asking us to see through the propaganda of the “extreme secularists” (“Do we really seem to you like terrorists?”). Tahrir Square, where their opponents congregated was, on the other hand, often hostile and, for female journalists, dangerous.
Outside Cairo things were different. In Alexandria I discovered supporters of the Brotherhood had been carrying out targeted killings of opponents. There were no other foreign journalists there and so no charm offensive by the Islamists to win us over. The officials I did get to meet, after prolonged negotiations, were guarded and suspicious.
The local media faced severe intimidation. “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists put up pictures of journalists on their websites saying they are wanted,” said one reporter, Mohammed el-Ghani. “Of course we have to do our job, but it's worrying for us and our family. The foreigners stay in Cairo, I don’t think they really know what’s going on in the rest of Egypt. People here think they have an agenda in not showing what’s going on here. ”
In Cairo, the trial of Hosni Mubarak was restarting . After the proceedings were adjourned a few of the lawyers spoke about the case and, inevitably, the talked turned to which countries had secretly plotted for and against the strongman who had ruled for more than 40 years. Not far from the courthouse were broken windows, damaged cars, lumps of rocks, abandoned banners: the debris of the previous night’s street battles and a sign of just how much the vision of a democratic, pluralist post-Mubarak society had faded away. The killings have continued on a regular basis since then; there are no signs of the political impasse ending; attitudes, if anything, have hardened. Egypt continues on its uncertain path in the Arab Autumn with the West seemingly ineffectual but firmly placed in the popular imagination playing roles in a dark narrative of conspiracy and intrigue.Reuse content