In Egypt, a darkening mood as instability persists
Cairo • In Egypt, misery just keeps piling on and, fittingly, the nation is officially in mourning.
Political violence and unrest have plagued Egypt since the ouster in 2011 of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, but a flurry of deadly incidents this week appears to have touched a raw nerve in the nation's psyche, with many Egyptians abandoning hopes for democracy and freedom and instead embracing a grim view of the future.
"I think the time has come for everyone to acknowledge that the only thing this country can offer us is nightmares," prominent activist Mona Seif wrote despairingly on her Twitter account Thursday. "It is futile that, every now and then, we try to find an excuse to be happy or optimistic."
The interim, military-backed president, Adly Mansour, announced a three-day state of national mourning Wednesday to honor 39 Egyptians who died this week. They include 11 army soldiers killed in a suicide bombing in the turbulent Sinai Peninsula, 27 who perished when a freight train rammed into their cars at a rail crossing south of Cairo and a senior security officer in charge of monitoring Islamist groups who was slain by gunmen near his home in the capital.
A day after Mansour announced the mourning period, two police officers, one in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and the other in the town of Qaha north of Cairo, were gunned down by suspected Islamic militants.
The incidents, in rapid succession, have touched off an uproar. TV commentators derided the government and the prime minister as useless and negligent and called for swift retribution against terrorists and whoever is behind them. Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to bring to justice those behind the killing of the soldiers.
A silver-haired constitutional judge, Mansour tried to counter the nation's gloom in the statement announcing the state of mourning, saying, "The nation's guardians will defend it against the powers of darkness, terror and extremism."
Mubarak's ouster fueled dreams of democracy and reform in an autocratic system that was seen as corrupt, brutal and uncaring for its people. Instead, several thousand Egyptians have been killed in clashes with police, army troops and against each other, and the economy has been battered by constant instability. Elections were held, but after a year, a huge sector of the population turned against the winner, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and his supporters, with giant protests capped by a July 3 military coup that ousted him.
Though the ouster was depicted as a "re-set" on the path of democracy, the turmoil has continued, and lately, al-Qaida style suicide bombings and assassinations have added to the mix.
In a country previously unused to political bloodshed, graffiti associated with blood or martyrdom is now everywhere.
Thousands of graffiti by Morsi supporters declaring "CC: Murderer" a play on the pronunciation of el-Sissi's name have sprung up walls, highway signs and the sides of public buses since security forces killed hundreds of Morsi backers on Aug. 14 when they cleared sit-in protest camps in Cairo.
Graffiti on walls in Cairo near the famed Tahrir square often depict a black-clad "martyr's mother" with a haunted face or men carrying coffins.
"Our fate has not changed despite of our revolutions," Hamdi Keshta, a 29-year-old businessman, said in Cairo's famed Tahrir square, just hours before clashes Tuesday night between protesters and police left two people dead. "The authorities don't work for the good of the country. Instead they work from a security perspective to protect the regime, whether it is a religious or a military regime."
"I hope Egypt will have a reason, any reason, to be happy again soon. We need a large dose of happiness," he added.
The deaths this week at the railroad crossing were all too reminiscent of Mubarak's 29 years in office, when a string of disastrous infrastructure accidents killed hundreds, all blamed on negligence mixed with corruption. Many had idealistically hoped that the revolution that removed Mubarak meant an eventual end to those problems.
Testimonies by survivors of the rail crossing disaster echoed Mubarak-era complaints of an uncaring leadership.
"May God exact revenge on them (government officials)," one injured woman said in a frail voice from her hospital bed. "How can they do this to us? We are humans after all."
Other survivors described signs of negligence. There was no guard at the crossing, and emergency services and police arrived hours after the incident, they said. The crossing guards were eating a late dinner in their nearby kiosk when the incident happened, according to leaks from the investigation published in Wednesday's newspapers.
"A failed government and a failed society," screamed popular TV talk show host Amr Adeeb in an on-air outburst Tuesday. "The price of a human being in Egypt is equivalent to the price of a laptop computer," he said, casting scorn on the government's offer of 15,000 Egyptian pounds in compensation to families of the victims less than $3,000.
"The problem of negligence or indifference is chronic in Egypt," said prize-winning novelist Hamdy Abdel-Jaleel. "Our people will never rise before achieving a just democracy."
The country's mood is playing out against a backdrop of a massive crackdown against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhoods. More than 1,000 Morsi supporters have been killed by security forces and some 2,000 top and mid-level leaders of the Brotherhood have been detained along with several thousand supporters. Many of the leaders, including Morsi, are facing trials, mainly on accusation of inciting violence.
Frequent clashes between protesters and police and the campaign of violence by militants against the army and police have fueled a vehemently anti-Brotherhood camp calling for harsh action against them and reducing the already small chances for political reconciliation.
"Forget any talk of reconciliation. It is treasonous to put our hands in the hands of murderers," columnist Mohammed Amin wrote in Thursday's edition of the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. "Retribution satisfies all and brings stability to the nation ... execution to those who betray us, execution to those who take innocent lives. Why are we lenient in meting out justice?"
In a last bit of misery, the nation lost out on any chance of reaching to World Cup with a 7-3 aggregate loss to Ghana in a two-leg qualifier. Egypt's fate was sealed Tuesday, when it narrowly beat Ghana at home but not by enough to overcome its humiliating 6-1 away loss to the West African nation last month.
A seven-time African champion, Egypt last qualified to the World Cup in 1990 and a berth in Brazil in 2014 would have certainly lifted spirits.
Egypt had a spark of hope, though, when its top football club last week won the coveted African Champions' Cup.
But politics intruded even on that.
Egyptian striker Ahmed Abdel-Zaher celebrated his goal with the four-finger gesture that symbolizes support for Morsi. Then star midfielder Mohammed Abu-Treka a public Brotherhood supporter refused to accept his winner's medal from the sports minister to show his opposition to the military-backed government.
Abdel-Zaher has been suspended and put on the club's transfer list. Abu-Treka was fined.