EGYPT AUGUST 16, 2013
Today, just after evening prayers in Cairo, I phoned Hesham El Ashry, a Salafi television host and minor celebrity among extreme hardline Islamists. (I profiled El Ashry for The New Republic last fall.) He is a supporter of the Gama'a Islamiyya, the Al Qaeda precursor in Egypt that renounced violence a few years ago, but once made sport of machine-gunning tourists by the dozens in Luxor. I asked how he had fared in the last two days in Cairo, which have seen about 600 of his fellow Islamists massacred by the military. El Ashry said he was in Rabaa al Adawiyya Square, the main encampment of pro-Morsi protesters, when the military assault began. And he barely survived the attack—or didn't.
"I died four times," he said.
"I died four times," he repeated. "Four times I watched my life go, but I'm here, hamdulillah." He was, it seems, being metaphorical. But I could hear an exhaustion in his normally animated voice that made clear that each near-death felt quite real to him—a bullet whizzing by his ear, a sniper spinning toward him and aiming. Still, I mentally made a note to apply certain corrections to his body counts: I can't confirm any of his story, and apparently his own non-death counts as four.
But the slaughter was grotesque, even according to the official counts. And if you wish to know how Salafis think about the last two days, heed his desciption of a slaughter much worse than even the photos and official statistics from Cairo reveal. "It was so bad. We were in Rabaa Square at 6:45, and they just came in killing everyone. This has not happened before, not in Egypt, not anywhere." He said the protesters passed around Coca-Cola to wash tear gas from their eyes. They expected to meet riot police with tear gas, and to throw rocks in self-defense. "The vanguard was the young men, and they were all shot. The military was shooting, shooting, and shooting."
He says he fell back with fellow graybeards to the center of the square and watched as bodies piled up and were set ablaze. "It was not hundreds dead," he said, referring to the official death count. "There are at least ten thousand dead in Egypt in the last two days, and the soldiers are burning the bodies so that no one can know." When escape routes from the square opened, he and others fled. Many, he says, were captured and jailed. After two nights on the run, he arrived home, safe and alive (more or less).
"All the military is killing Egyptians in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Assiut, in Sohag, in Marsa Matrouh," El Ashry said. "There is no military in Sinai. If Israelis want to take back the Sinai they can take it in half an hour."
He accused General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in last month's coup, of wanting to destroy Egypt. "This is a war against Islam, and it is fought by the Americans, the Israelis, and the Copts," El Ashry says. "Today it is unbelievable, but tomorrow it will be worse, and the day after that worse." Churches are being used as armories, he said, and the goal of the chaos will be to murder all the Islamists to keep Israel safe and Egypt weak.
He says the opening stages of an Islamist counterattack are already underway, with soldiers killing other soldiers rather than cooperating with the slaughter of Egyptians. (There are no reports of friendly-fire attacks yet.) "This will end when the Egyptian military is destroyed," he says. "We will not be Algeria," site of a decade-long war between Islamists and the military, "because in six months the Egyptian military will be finished."
"Egyptians blame America for this," says El Ashry, who spent years in New York, where he worked as a high-end tailor for such clients as Paul Newman. "Obama does not call this a coup, and America is telling Sisi to do this. It is a crime against humanity."
El Ashry has, in the past, claimed that violence is no solution. But now, he says, Egypt's Islamists will hold America to account. "We had political parties, we gave up violence. But we know for sure now that America does not care about democracy. There will be terrorism against America, and if Egyptians see an American, they will kill him."
I asked why America would offer words of support to Islamists, if they are already planning terrorist attacks against America.
"Right now one hundred percent of Egyptians are against America," he says. "You will never satisfy them all." The right statement from Obama could, he says, persuade "maybe fifty percent" of Egyptians not to want to commit terrorist acts against America.
Egypt is a country of 82-million people.
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.