Maclean’s exclusive: Brothers in charge — Is Egypt becoming the next Iran?

A feature report by Michael Petrou on the dynamics at play in the streets of Cairo
CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 24: A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood overcome by emotion is carried onto the stage as Egyptians celebrate the election of their new president Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square on June 24, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. Official election results today confirmed that Mohamed Morsi is to be the next president of Egypt. Morsi received over 13 million or 51.7% of the votes, while his main rival, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, received 48.27 percent. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Foreign correspondent Michael Petrou travelled to Egypt earlier this fall where liberal activists told him that their revolution is far from over. Petrou filed his report days before President Mohammed Morsi seized new powers in his country. In a feature report from the Nov. 26 issue, Petrou explored the ways political Islam had taken firm hold in Egypt.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Cairo’s Saladin Citadel appears to float above the heart of the Egyptian capital, a collection of seemingly impregnable battlements, towers, soaring minarets and the beetle-like domed roofs of its mosques.

Tonight its walls are bathed in pink light. In one of its courtyards, a men’s orchestra and a singer are belting out songs before a nimble-toed conductor. Young men dressed like medieval Muslim warriors, with flowing robes and wide swords on their hips, stand guard on rock platforms or mingle casually with the watching crowd. The yard is full of leather chairs; TV crews scramble to film arriving politicians. Egypt’s new government is commemorating Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187.

Egypt in pictures: Michael Petrou narrates a slideshow of images

“This event is to remind people of the hideous Israeli acts that are committed against Jerusalem and the Palestinians,” says Ahmed Salah, a member of the ministry of culture’s media office. Enass Omran, a young woman staffing a table for the Al-Quds International Institution, an NGO the U.S. alleges is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, says the night is about more than long ago history. “Maybe,” she says, “we can enter Jerusalem again.”

Tonight is particularly sweet for members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its new political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. During the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, the Islamist movement was suppressed and many of its members persecuted. Still, it enjoyed wide support, especially among poor Egyptians, who shared its religiosity and benefited from its charitable work.

The Muslim Brothers were not at the forefront of the revolution that toppled Mubarak in early 2011. Yet they—and the more fundamentalist Salafists, who seek to emulate the rigid social mores of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers—have benefited most from Mubarak’s overthrow. Muslim Brothers and Salafists dominated the newly elected Egyptian parliament before it was dissolved earlier this year. And they control the Constituent Assembly, tasked with rewriting Egypt’s constitution. In June, long-time Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was elected president, representing the Freedom and Justice Party.

“I’m feeling freedom,” says Tamar Ommar, a youth committee chairman in the Muslim Brotherhood, as music from the orchestra swells through the yard and young men carrying Egyptian and Palestinian flags run through the edges of the crowd. “My uncle was imprisoned here in the citadel prison,” says Ommar. So were many other Muslim Brothers. “Their blood was spilled here. So I feel proud to stand here. Their spirits are here.”

Ommar himself was jailed here during the Mubarak era—“two weeks, three weeks. The longest time, 55 days.” But tonight there is no trace of bitterness or resentment. Words tumble out in a hurried, imperfect, joyous stream. “We’re moving in freedom. We live in freedom. And we’re opening to the whole world,” he says.

On stage, the orchestra has finished and video clips are projected onto a large screen. There are scenes from a sand-and-sandals epic showing Saladin’s army marching into Jerusalem, followed by footage of the October 1973 war between Israel and several Arab states. Egypt’s early successes in that conflict shattered Israel’s sense of invincibility and laid the foundation for negotiations leading to Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Clips of Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal are met with cheers and applause.

Images from the Palestinian intifadas appear. Periodically, interspersed amid all this, is a shot of a large clock, seemingly implying that time is running out. The video montage concludes with footage of crowds in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.

A special guest takes the stage: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. “The Zionist entity must know that Egypt has returned,” says Meshaal. “The time has come to overturn the negotiating table on those who wish to enslave us. Nothing will restore the homeland but jihad, the rifle and self-sacrifice.”

Another night, in another corner of Cairo, a different crowd gathers to take stock of what Egyptians have achieved since the revolution, and of the struggles that lie ahead. They fill the street outside the headquarters of the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament. Some shout slogans—“Our revolution is not the guidebook of the Muslim Brotherhood!” and “Bread, freedom and social justice.” The latter chant echoed through Tahrir Square during the pro-democracy protests almost two years ago. Tonight is a declaration of still unfulfilled dreams.

Two men with a guitar and drum sing the lyrics of a poem by Ahmed Fouad Negm, whose colloquial verses reflect the hardships and anger of Egypt’s poor: “Build your palaces on our farmland, with our labour and toil . . . We’ve been injured, and now we’ve had enough.” The drivers of passing cars lean on their horns. Given Cairo’s unrelenting traffic, it’s impossible to know whether they do so out of support or frustration with the added congestion from the demonstration.

The protesters, who number about 200, have come specifically because they fear that the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly will create a constitution restricting individual freedoms, especially those of women. A draft version guarantees the equality of men and women—so long as it does not contradict the “rulings of Islamic sharia.” An article banning the trafficking of women and children was removed due to pressure from Salafist members who feared it would make dowries illegal.

Manal el-Tibi, one of the few secular leftists on the panel, quit in September because she felt it was entrenching the dominance of political Islam. “We’re at a breaking point,” she says. “If we lose this battle now, we won’t have democracy for 50 or 60 years.”

For many on the streets tonight, the constitutional deliberations are a small symptom of a bigger problem: what seemed within their grasp during the uprising in Tahrir Square—a liberal and democratic future—is slipping away.

“The Islamists are trying to take over smoothly, in a very subtle way,” says Menna Ellaithy, 24, an actress. On the first day of protests in Tahrir Square, police arrested some of Ellaithy’s friends. Then a student, she spent the night hiding in a nearby building before returning to the square the following day. Her parents oppose her political activism and have punished her for it.

“It was amazing,” she says of the atmosphere in Tahrir Square at the time. “I was really excited about everything. For once, we agreed on something—to fight the oppression. Even though there were so many people opposing us outside the square, we were very strong. I believed in Egypt very much, which isn’t the case right now. We got rid of Hosni Mubarak to a get a more fascist regime that would take more rights away from us in the name of religion. I’m absolutely depressed and hopeless. All the people I know who died—all for nothing; people who got tortured, arrested—all for nothing.”

Many of the women in the crowd tonight are like Ellaithy: young and educated, their heads unveiled. Among them, Sabah Fawaz Ibrahim stands out. Middle-aged, she wears all black. A headscarf closely frames her face. When a bystander expresses surprise after she shakes the hand of a male reporter, she laughs and, referring to her garments, says, “These are only for God.”

“I’m a simple woman,” she adds. “I believe in God, and just after that, the revolution.” During Mubarak’s rule, Ibrahim says she was made to feel worthless. “As a poor person, I felt the country didn’t belong to me. When I took my child to the hospital, they put him on the ground.” Ibrahim is upset because of the ongoing poverty in Egypt and what she describes as a lack of social justice. But she says her primary motivation for joining the protest tonight is to protect her rights as a woman against those who might use a new and more Islamic constitution to weaken them. Behind her, a small number of demonstrators has taken up a new chant: “Our revolution will come back!” But it’s been a couple of hours, and the crowd is starting to disperse.

During the protests in Tahrir Square, those celebrating at the Cairo Citadel and those protesting outside the Shura Council stood side by side. Non-Islamist revolutionaries recognized the persecution Muslim Brothers had suffered and welcomed them as part of a broader movement. Besides, they shared a short-term goal of ousting Mubarak.

But with the dictator gone, what united Egyptians opposed to him evaporated. Last month, liberal and leftist activists once again met their former Islamist comrades in Tahrir Square. This time there was no solidarity, only fistfights, thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails. When it was over, two buses were aflame, and more than 100 people had been injured.

The clashes began with simultaneous demonstrations. Morsi’s opponents wanted to criticize the president’s first 100 days in office, as well as the Islamist domination of the Constituent Assembly—a persistently galvanizing issue for secular Egyptians. A day before the demonstration was to take place, the Muslim Brotherhood called on supporters to stage a rally of their own. Ostensibly, the Muslim Brothers wanted to protest the acquittal of some two dozen Mubarak allies of crimes committed against demonstrators during the revolution. But it’s difficult not to see the Brotherhood’s hastily organized event as a show of force against their political rivals.

The violent confrontation that followed was perhaps inevitable. It’s unclear exactly who started it. At one point, Brotherhood supporters stormed and dismantled a stage set up by Morsi’s opponents. The Islamists withdrew before nightfall, when things might have gotten much worse. But this latest rumble in Tahrir Square left the fault lines already running through Egypt starkly exposed.

A revolution that was in large part spearheaded by young activists and secular democrats has been taken over by political Islam. It hasn’t been a violent coup. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have roots in conservative Egyptian society that liberals don’t, and they are better organized. They won democratically.

Once outlawed and abused, political Islamists now govern one of the largest and most important countries in the Arab world. With 80 million people, a border with Israel, and a long alliance with the United States, Egypt will always be a central player in the Middle East, even when its economy is in tatters. Its long history and rich culture gives it an almost gravitational pull. “Everyone considers Egypt their country. They say it is the mother of the world,” says an emigrant from Lebanon.

Liberal and leftist revolutionaries elsewhere in the region naturally look to Egypt. What happens here matters everywhere that political Islam and liberalism struggle to replace the dictatorships that have shackled the Middle East for decades. But in Egypt today, the secular liberals and leftists who once seemed poised to sweep out of Tahrir Square and into political office are disorganized and marginalized.

“People are getting depressed because you think, ‘Okay, we’re in the streets. We can do everything. We are the generation that changed Egypt,’ ” says Mozn Hassan, a young feminist activist. “But Egypt is so complicated. And changing society is tough.”

Mahmoud Salem, a widely read blogger, says half his revolutionary friends are “roadkill, depressed and at home,” while another 30 per cent are trying to leave the country. His math doesn’t allow for many secular liberals ready to fight for their vision of Egypt’s future.

During the Mubarak era, most avenues for political or social organization were shut down. There were only the mosques, and it was through mosques that the Brothers spread their networks. And in poor areas they stepped in where the state was absent, providing health care and other forms of support. This was hardly a secret, but even so the extent of their influence surprised some liberals.

“When the revolution started, we were kind of in denial,” says Farah Shash, a psychologist with the El Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an NGO. “We never thought that the Muslim Brotherhood would have this much power.” Another secular activist laments that the Brotherhood has “someone in almost every nook and cranny in Egypt.”

Taking on such opponents would have been a challenge, even if Egypt’s non-Islamist revolutionaries were united. But they weren’t. And they had little in the way of political platforms or strategies. “Those capable of winning votes are those who have been well organized for a long time, and those who can communicate with ordinary people. And religion is still an effective way to communicate with ordinary people,” says Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University.

“After the revolution, it’s not enough to talk to the people about freedom of expression, and freedom of thought and democracy. Talk about bread-and-butter issues. And not only talk about bread-and-butter issues. Try to help people get bread and butter. The Islamists have been doing this for years and years.”

Mahmoud Salem, the blogger, was one of the more prominent activists during the revolution in Tahrir Square. One night he and some friends were almost lynched by pro-Mubarak thugs while police stood by and watched, or joined in the attack. “They brought ropes and said they were going to hang us. Fun times,” says Salem, a gregarious, fast-talking and irreverent author and social media consultant who sprinkles his conversation with references to Monty Python, The Lord of the Rings, and the sexual habits of Yemeni women. His blog is titled Rantings of a Sandmonkey.

In an interview over an iced coffee in a trendy café in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo, Salem blames liberal revolutionaries for their infighting, shortsightedness and failure to offer Egyptians a coherent alternative to Mubarak. “Despite all international warnings, and all the history books, we managed to fall into the same trap that people in Iran have fallen into: secularist people, too busy fighting over ideology and trivialities, create an environment that allows Islamists to dominate every aspect of the country. If you do a revolution, you’re aiming to be the ruling power. That’s the idea. There’s no point in overthrowing a regime and then walking back and saying, ‘Well, whoever wants to, take it over now.’ If you take down a regime, you have destroyed foundations. You have created a vacuum. If you are not ready to fill it, you will be crushed.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, doesn’t believe there’s any reason for Egyptians to mope about at home, or to fret for the future of their human rights and democratic freedoms. “Our party is freedom and justice,” Hazem Farouk, a senior member of the Freedom and Justice Party, emphasizing the word “freedom” and giving the thumbs-up sign with both hands as he does so. His point—one that other Muslim Brothers make—is that freedom comes before justice. Egyptians must make their own choices. Islamic law may be just, but it can’t be forced.

“Freedom of thinking, freedom of expression, freedom of arts, freedom of newspapers, freedom of media, freedom of religion,” he continues, tightly gripping a reporter’s arm, “our religion says no pressure on anybody. Really. We accept all of that.”

Farouk says he would welcome a Christian president of Egypt, and adds that he was educated in a Catholic school from the age of three until he went to university. Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesman, says that Islam acknowledges freedom for everyone, and that God said men and women are equal before him.

Even the newly empowered Salafists seek to reassure. “Injustice is prohibited against non-Muslims in Islam,” says Younis Makhyoun, a leading member of the Al-Nour Party and a member of the Constituent Assembly.

But Makhyoun, who sports a large, calloused bruise on his forehead from touching it to the ground while praying five times a day, also believes Islam should be the source of all Egypt’s legislation. “Sharia, you can’t divide it,” he says, referring to Islamic law. “You can’t take one part and leave the other. So we are calling on Islam to play a role in all aspects of life. Because we believe this came from God, so it’s better than anything man can bring.” Makhyoun says this shouldn’t worry anyone. In fact, he says, numerous Egyptian Christians want to live under sharia, because it would make getting a divorce easier.

Unfortunately for Islamists like Farouk and Makhyoun, many people simply don’t trust them. It doesn’t help that there have been a number of instances of Islam-justified moral vigilantism—acts that some say have been enabled by a new climate resulting from political Islam’s electoral success.

Earlier this fall, a teacher in Luxor province punished two schoolgirls who weren’t wearing Islamic headscarves by cutting their hair. Radical Islamists have also forced Christians to flee their homes in Rafah, near Egypt’s border with Israel. The teacher who shamed the unveiled girls has been fired, and the Christians who fled Rafah have since returned. But some analysts believe the overall trends in Egypt are illiberal and threaten to become undemocratic.

“The Arab Spring is becoming rather miserable,” says Walid Kaziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. Kaziha fears that the Muslim Brotherhood, having established itself as a political force through democratic elections, will solidify its position by taking over the supposedly apolitical institutions of the state, especially the security services, something he’s witnessed before in Iraq and Syria. “I have seen the Baath party entrenching itself in power. And although in time it becomes a minority rule with very little support from the general public, try to pluck it out and you can’t,” he says. “They are so consolidated in their position inside the state apparatus. They control society and they control the economy.”

Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, believes that democracy and political Islam, as it is practised by the Muslim Brotherhood, are incompatible. “They have a fundamental point of view. Some of their leaders believe that democracy is something Western and we have an alternative in Islam,” he says, pointing to Iran, Sudan and Gaza as examples of so-called Islamic democracies that are in fact dictatorships.

And yet Egypt today is more democratic than it was during the Mubarak era, says Al Sayyid of Cairo University. “The exercise of certain civil and political rights, which are basic indicators of democracy, definitely have expanded. There is more freedom of expression, more freedom of association, more freedom of peaceful assembly, including peaceful protest. We also have free elections.”

But Al Sayyid notes that the Shura Council still appoints the editors of many Egyptian newspapers. That Morsi has made no move to change this “casts doubt,” says Al Sayyid, on the president’s commitment to press freedom. And Al Sayyid says the ultimate goal of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is an Islamic state. What differentiates it from revolutionary Islamists elsewhere is its patience. “The approach of the Muslim Brotherhood is a gradualist one. They believe that Egyptian Muslims are good Muslims. If they are told the true teachings of Islam, they will abide by these teachings. But there is no need to force it.”

A basic challenge for liberals hoping to rebuild a revolutionary political movement is that many of the Egyptians who joined them in Tahrir Square revolted for different reasons. More than individual freedoms and democratic rights, they wanted to believe their lives could improve.

Cairo’s Al-Matariyyah suburb contains neighbourhoods that are poor without seeming grubby or dangerous. Cows, goats and sheep are crowded into street-side pens and lines of laundry criss-cross its narrow streets. Amr Ibrahim lives and used to work here, driving one of Cairo’s overcrowded minibuses. The police would shake him down daily for bribes. “No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t make much money,” he says in a café over small glasses of tea, for which he insists on paying. “I’m 31 years old and I couldn’t find an apartment, move out or get married.” One morning, when he refused to give the police the demanded bribe, an officer shocked him in the neck with a stun baton.

It was no different for the neighbourhood’s other residents. They suffered constant abuse and humiliation. Police forced young boys to fetch them newspapers. “People felt the injustice,” Ibrahim continues. “Look at all the young people around you. Look how they are dressed. They’re poor. They have no food or dignity.”

When his neighbours began to march toward Tahrir Square, Ibrahim says it felt like something for which he had been waiting his whole life. He had never taken part in a demonstration before, but he got up and joined them. “Those who were afraid took courage from others,” he says. It took them all day to reach the square. On the way, they torched the local police station.

Ibrahim says that at the time he had little idea about the scope of the uprising. He joined the march because of pent-up anger after a lifetime of mistreatment. When they reached the square, a battle raged. Ibrahim was among those ripping up paving stones to throw at the security forces. His participation was brief. Pellets from a shotgun hit him in the face and blinded him in one eye. Because those taken to hospitals risked arrest, Ibrahim was treated at a makeshift clinic near the square.

To say that Ibrahim isn’t a democrat is condescending and inaccurate. He’s already sacrificed more for democracy than most people in Canada ever will. And yet when he talks about why he joined the revolution, he’s more likely to bring up police corruption, poverty, the lack of opportunities and the more general lack of dignity. “When it comes to democracy, we are in kindergarten,” he says.

Farouk Said, 22, one of Ibrahim’s neighbours, was also shot during protests in Tahrir Square. Asked why he took part, he too talks about corruption and poverty. Students who achieved good grades could not get jobs. Men aged 40 could not afford marriage.

Said and Ibrahim do value some of the same rights that liberals champion. During the Mubarak era, Said notes, even to sit around a café table and talk about government oppression would be to risk arrest. Asked how he defines freedom, Ibrahim answers “to speak without fear.” But Ibrahim, who wears a tight, stylish black button-up shirt, is not secular. He would oppose any constitution that is against his religion and says he would not allow someone to take out his sister by herself. Men and women, he says, should not be behind closed doors together until they are married. “When you talk about freedom, you’re talking things that are a sin, and people will not accept that,” he says.

Though he lacks much in the way of schooling, Ibrahim now has a job in the ministry of finance. He got it with the help of an honest police officer and a government program to find jobs for those injured during the revolution. He can now afford an apartment and is newly married. In June, he voted for Mohamed Morsi.

Perhaps ironically, the victories Egyptian Islamists have enjoyed at the polls may benefit the country’s leftist and liberal democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood spent the last 80 years in opposition. They never had to govern and so were free to criticize and condemn without having to prove that they would do any better.

This is no longer the case. Islamists will be judged on their actions, not their promises. Mohamed el-Beltagy, a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party, acknowledges the high expectations many Egyptians have, and their limited patience. The government’s challenge, he says, is delivering results quickly. “If we are able to do that, then we will preserve this state of hope.”

Already, Egypt’s new government is missing its targets. Morsi campaigned on a 64-point plan to improve the lives of Egyptians within his first 100 days in office. Egyptian activists responded by setting up an online “Morsi meter” to track how many of these promises he’s kept. By November, well past the 100-day deadline, the number of fulfilled promises stood at 10.

Rather than point to the political progress of their movement since the revolution, liberal activists instead say the greatest change that’s occurred in Egypt is within them. They’re no longer afraid to stand up to authority and will do so again. “We broke the fear,” says Farah Shash, the psychologist and a Tahrir Square vet.

Menna Ellaithy, the young actress who is so cynical and dejected about everything that’s taken place in Egypt since she and her friends flooded Tahrir Square, allows that today, “people have become more outspoken. They’re less scared. And the same goes for me. We’re freer from the inside.”

Mohamed Zaree, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says the only thing Egypt has gained from the revolution is hope. “If there is a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime, we know how we can bring it down.”

Such courage may serve as a check on whatever undemocratic impulses the Muslim Brotherhood possesses. No Egyptian government will ever again be able to safely bet on the docility of the Egyptian people. But courage alone won’t help liberals triumph at the ballot box. They are weak and divided. If they want to find a way back to political influence, they must unite, then go about the tedious but imperative process of building support, one apartment complex and village at a time—explaining what they stand for and how they would govern Egypt differently.

It won’t be easy. And few, according to Mahmoud Salem, are itching to get to work. “A lot of them are tired and depleted and broke. They have compromised their relationships and family and everything for the sake of this revolution. Right now, you’re dealing with exhaustion.”

But not complacency. The other common refrain from liberal activists in Egypt is that their revolution isn’t over. One described the revolution as a path, with the uprising of last year only the first step. Those ahead will be difficult. “I’m starting to think that hope is a bad thing,” says Salem. “Because you don’t need hope. You need determination.”