Egypt

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood Refuses to Back Down


Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood breaking their fast on the first day of Ramadan outside Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in Cairo

Photograph by Mohammed Saber/EPA

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood breaking their fast on the first day of Ramadan outside Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in Cairo

Tents flap in the hot midday wind next to Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in eastern Cairo as men sit under the shade discussing religion. The street and tents by the mosque are festooned with posters of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi, as those gathered here continue to protest his July 3 ouster. Camping out during the summer heat—and with the holy month of Ramadan starting—is tedious at best, with many dozing, praying, and reclining under the shade of neatly ordered tents.

Taha Ibrahim has been on the streets since June 28 and says he will remain out there until Mohamed Mursi is reinstated as Egypt’s president. “We elected Mohamed Mursi, and now you tell me my vote doesn’t count,” he says, a claim echoed by Mursi supporters here. “Before I left home, I wrote my will. We all did. Our families know: We came here to get Mohamed Mursi released, even if we will be killed,” he says, referring to possible concern after a massacre in which the army killed more than 50 pro-Mursi protesters 500 meters from Ibrahim’s tent in the early hours of Monday morning.

After two weeks of protests and violence, Ibrahim, a barber by trade, decided to start offering free shaves and haircuts to keep spirits high. “We’ve started to look improper, scruffy, so I volunteered to get my scissors and equipment to cut hair,” he says, as a middle-aged man with freshly shorn cheekbones sits in the plastic chair that serves as Ibrahim’s workspace. Though Ibrahim ordinarily charges from $1.50 to $2.50 for his work, he’s offering a free shave to anyone who wants one. In two hours, he’s had eight takers. “It’s no problem, the weather is perfect,” he says.

After a disastrous year at the helm of Egypt’s government, the Brotherhood is back on the streets. Its fall from power has brought out the Brotherhood’s core strengths of organization and discipline—the same traits the organization has honed since its inception in 1928, and the ones that eventually brought the Islamist movement to the forefront of political power. As Egypt’s military-backed interim government struggles to get the country on track, the Brothers are back to doing what they do best: protesting, organizing, and controlling their own members. Counting them out of the country’s future would be a mistake.

“Clearly there’s a political negotiation going on right now. Unfortunately, the price of the negotiations is people’s lives. The Brotherhood is going to see if they can somehow have a new accommodation with the new system, so they have some role in politics and some legitimate place and their leaders do not face mass imprisonment,” says Samer Shehata, associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Oklahoma, who studies the group closely.

The protest’s continued presence “calls into question the legitimacy of the [political transition] process, which is already difficult. The Brotherhood’s not going anywhere. You can’t get rid of them,” says Shehata. Despite the violence earlier in the week, the 10 arrest warrants issued for leading Brotherhood members, and the absence of news on Mohamed Mursi’s whereabouts, the protesters claim they will stay put and remain committed to peaceful demonstrations.

The group was known under former President Hosni Mubarak for providing social services that the state did not, while meticulously bringing their supporters to the polls. “Their willingness to give fully of themselves is because they are true believers. It’s not just a political party. It’s a social, political, and religious movement. When they are organizing things themselves and they are in complete control, they function very efficiently and very well,” says Shehata—unlike “their inability to work with others and share powers and make concessions to others when Mursi was president.”

Order and discipline reign from the moment you enter the encampment by the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. Three lines of men in hardhats do security checks on anyone wishing to take the road leading to the mosque. The first line checks IDs, the next line frisks entrants, and the final line checks bags, reporting to two control centers that monitor all activity on the boulevard, according to the group.

The neat rows of tents are rigged up to electricity and work is being completed on a massive stage from which protesters can be addressed through giant, black speakers. Posters and banners are supplied by the media committee, which also handles foreign journalists’ requests for interviews. Under the high, hot sun, men spray passersby with water for relief from the heat. Muslims cannot eat or drink during daylight hours during Ramadan.

“Logistically, we’re capable of running it for months, and that’s what we’ll do. That’s our thing,” says Gehad El Heddad, Brotherhood spokesperson, citing the group’s organizational prowess during the first 18-day uprising against Mubarak. Dealing with persecution, Heddad adds, is something the group is also accustomed to. Since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Brotherhood members have been rounded up, jailed and tortured. “Again, it’s what we do, it’s our life, I met my wife at a prison visit, that’s what our life is about,” he says.

But he warns that this might not hold true for all Islamists. “The military coup has pulled the rug under our feet. We were the de facto leader of the Islamic camp because our argument was that democracy works, that peaceful nonviolent change works. But it turns out democracy is for everyone but the Islamic parties,” he says.

The University of Oklahoma’s Shehata agrees, saying the Brotherhood had a similar experience in the 1950s “that led to fragmentation in the group. Some broke off and became more violent, while some stuck it out, so I think that’s also a very serious possibility.”

Back at the tents in Rabaa al-Adawiya, protesters are staying put and taking each day at a time. Hisham Ramadan, a pharmacist, stands with a spray bottle of water, shielding himself with an umbrella from the blazing sun,  and dousing whomever passes by. “I stay in the sun as long as I can stand,” he says. “We’ll stay here as long as it takes.”

Topol is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor. Follow her on Twitter @satopol.

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