The 25 Muslim Brothers had been locked inside the mosque for five hours, but the protesters couldn’t agree about what to do with them. Some simply wanted to swap them for demonstrators captured and beaten by the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
“Our religion is about
forgiveness,” said one protester, speaking through a window to the Brothers inside.
“We won’t hurt you.”
But other protesters disagreed.
“They are infidels,” screamed a man repeatedly. “Let them die inside.”
The date was Friday 22 March, and the rest of Cairo was dulled by a pale fog of dust. It was the first of the khamseen, a dust-filled wind that sweeps in from the Sahara each spring, blurring the streets and skies into a single ochre smudge.
But high up in Moqattam – a vast hump of rock that rises from the slums in the east of the city, and houses the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood – the air was clogged with something more menacing.
Where the fighting happened on Friday was as significant as how it did. Since the 2011 uprising that ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak, protesters have usually focused their attention on institutions of the state, with Brotherhood offices generally attacked as part of wider violence.
But last month, protests exclusively targeted the headquarters of the Brotherhood. The implication was clear.
For its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood is now as much an enemy of the revolution’s goals as the police, the army – even Mubarak.
“Hosni is Morsi,” summarised Maha Hatab, who had travelled to the protest from a town 10 miles west of Cairo.
“It’s the same revolution.”
At a time when a polarised Egypt urgently needs to build political consensus, Morsi has also been criticised for appointing allies to key positions within the Egyptian administrative hierarchy.
“The general concern,” explains Khaled Fahmy, head of history at the American University in Cairo, “is about the Ikhwanisation of the state.”
More specific concerns include the police – whose brutality Morsi is felt to have made little attempt to reform – as well as outbursts of extraordinary misogyny.
Last month, a Brotherhood statement claimed that if women were allowed to work without their husband’s permission, it would lead to the “complete disintegration of society”.
The Brotherhood’s supporters hope it will usher in a moderate Islamist state in the mould of Turkey. But statements such as this add grist to the view that – though no worse on gender equality than theMubarak regime – it is in fact the harbinger of a second Iran.
For its part, the Brotherhood can barely see itself in these accusations. In its eyes, its is a long-suffering movement with a strong support-base and a rich history of grassroots social work that is doing its best in trying economic circumstances to hold the country together.
Anger at the government and at the Brotherhood may be rising across all echelons of Egyptian society, asunemployment rises along with the cost of living. But the Brotherhood feel it still has a mandate to govern, especially as the Freedom and Justice party (FJP), its political wing, has won every election since 2011.
And it considers critics members of a metropolitan elite out of touch with the feelings of ordinary Egyptians.
Egypt’s Brotherhood has had 40 years to set down organisational roots, and the 2011 uprising occurred within a society that was already more influenced by grassroots Islamic trends.
The Brotherhood may have remained an illegal organisation under Mubarak, but from the 70s onwards, the Egyptian authorities tacitly allowed it to develop its communityprogrammes.
By 2005, its members also formed the largest opposition grouping in parliament.
Hopeless as its current actions may sometimes seem, the Brotherhood’s years in opposition have left it with considerably more organisational know-how than most of its new secular rivals.
To the Brotherhood, last November’s decision to fast-track the new constitution would be an example of this maturity.
In its rhetoric, a new constitution was urgently needed to ensure the maintenance of Egypt’s democratic transition.
Had Morsi not used his powers to push it through, goes its argument, the constitution risked being derailed by judges loyal to the old regime – prolonging Egypt’s post-2011 limbo.
Even if the move seemed dictatorial in the short term, it served to enshrine a constitution that in the long-term actually curtails Morsi’s power – which to the Brotherhood makes his actions well-intentioned, if clumsy.
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