On the Run With the Muslim Brothers

Life underground with the Muslim Brothers in Cairo: call-in television shows to denounce the neighborhood ‘terrorists’; the predawn knock at the door; the terror and confusion of now-leaderless protestors. Scenes from post-coup Cairo by one of France’s finest feature reporters, Florence Aubenas.
In their year in power, Egypt’s Muslim Brothers somehow never imagined or prepared for this, the nightmare scenario: Coup d’etat against their president, army massacres of peaceful demonstrators, mass arrests, the group decapitated. Some wonder: is the army trying to drive our peaceful activists toward despair and terrorism?

On the television, the show has just begun. One of those talk shows that Egypt’s new private channels love so much: on this one, viewers can call in to denounce ‘terrorists,’ live on the air. Sitting in front of his TV, Yasser listens as the host repetitively assails someone who ‘is extremely dangerous for the country’s image.’ The host repeats the name, so that it will stick in his viewers’ minds. And this is when Yasser, seated on his couch, suddenly realizes that this ‘terrorist’ whom they are hunting is himself: Yasser, 40 years old, father of two children, a salaried employee at the conference center of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers.

Yasser’s wife is the first to recover. “You have to run,” she tells him. He balks at the notion. “I haven’t done anything,” he says.

Yasser and his wife left behind a comfortable life in Dubai to return to Cairo a year ago, inspired by Mohamed Morsi’s election as president and by the prospect of an Islamist government. Now the army has violently pushed Morsi from power; after an initial period of direct military force, the repression against his supporters has begun to take a judicial turn in recent weeks. At least 1,700 people have been arrested, according to an investigation of 15 police stations and four prisons in the capitol by a lawyers’ association.

On his couch, Yasser still cannot believe that the police are really going to come for him. “Why me?” he asks. “They have only been going after the big names.” His wife’s reply: “Your colleagues are already on the run, aren’t they?” Nowadays they are numberless: from former ministers to humble little Brothers, all of them suddenly hurled by the hundreds into a life underground, none knowing if the worst is yet to come.

On the surface, life in Cairo seems almost normal again after this summer of rioting and sorrow. There are fewer checkpoints, and the hotels organize showy ‘special curfew evenings.’ But the air is still electric with tension, the hours marked by news updates that flash across people’s mobile phones. Mohamed Morsi, the overthrown president, will be prosecuted for ‘incitement to murder’ at a still-unknown date. The first round of trials of pro-Morsi demonstrators, before a Suez military tribunal, has just ended: breathtakingly long sentences, with punishments ranging from 10 or 15 years without parole to as long as life in prison, in one case.

“There is clearly a special hostility for the Islamists,” says one lawyer, Amr Hassan. Twenty-nine years old and appearing a decade younger, Hassan looks nothing like we might expect an Islamist sympathizer to appear. In 2011, he founded the Collective for the Defense of Revolutionary Youth, for those arrested in Tahrir Square during the struggle against the Mubarak regime. Now it is the families of pro-Morsi demonstrators rounded up by the truckload from the summer’s sit-ins who come calling. For Hassan, at least on the legal level, this struggle is as difficult as the one in 2011. It is actually harder. “Many of them are charged with possession of illegal weapons or for murder, which was not the case for the Tahrir protestors.”

“Do you know what the most surprising thing is?” he asks. “The indictments accuse them of not only shooting at security forces, but also of accidentally shooting each other.”

For his part, Abdallah Fathi, vice president of the Egyptian Judges’ Club, swears that “all of the legal procedures have been valid. There have perhaps been some excesses in the amount of force used, but the French public must understand one thing: we did not have any choice.” He receives us in the elegant building that has been for decades the headquarters of the Judges’ Club, the official union for Egypt’s judges. “The new people in charge had originally planned on banning the Freedom and Justice Party, and even banning the Muslim Brothers. In the end they decided on criminal rather than political prosecutions,” he goes on. “But now we have entered the context of a struggle against terrorism.”

A Club colleague opens the door, interrupting: he wants Fathi to lend a hand to the career of his son, a newly minted prosecutor. Fathi signs the proffered paper without a glance, continuing his discourse, “All of the judges support the current strategy.”

Except, that is, for the 150 judges (out of 50,000) who proclaimed their support for Morsi when he took power. After his downfall, their credentials were revoked, pending an investigation of their suspensions. A dozen or so are on the run.

It must have been at about 5 in the morning a few days earlier when Yasser and his wife heard the police cars noisily coming up the street, escorted by the neighborhood’s little snitches who pointed out the house. Awakened, the whole neighborhood was there to watch as men in black masks smashed at his door, as if to tell them: “look what we might soon be doing to you.” Yasser had not fled. He had no backup plan, didn’t even know who to call.

On the streets of Cairo, every Friday after the prayer, Morsi supporters try to gather their forces to protest his overthrow. Depending on the week, between 10,000 and 40,000 people come out to march in a city which has been entirely locked down, a far cry from the explosive state of affairs earlier in the summer.

military-islamist21Morsi supporter, Cairo, Photo: DAPD.

In this police-state atmosphere, the tone inside the demonstrations has changed as well. Foreign journalists are now welcomed. Women’s hands are shaken without a second thought; they will get a smile and a look directly in the eyes, even if their arms are bare.

It is here, in the middle of this very visible crowd, that Bashir risks his few outings. He introduces himself with a little smile: polite, a little sarcastic. A pharmacist and longtime activist in the Islamist political movement, he has been head of Youth Against the Coup since July. Certain that he is being followed, he has not gone home for two weeks now. “Although the Muslim Brothers have spent most of their history underground, they had not prepared any strategy at all in case of trouble,” he says. “This shows the Brothers’ weakness, and the disaster they caused when they took power. What a mistake!”

Looking around, he says he can recognize about “200 of these people, some of them underground like me.” Today , in the heat and closeness of the crowd, interview appointments are snatched discretely. Information circulates rapidly: the head of public relations for the anti-coup movement has been arrested; then comes the turn of its head of ground mobilization. Ministry staff appointed during the year the Brothers were in power, are leaving en masse after the arrests of Morsi’s assistants. “We do not have a leader anymore, we are disorganized. Thankfully, there’s still Facebook,” says another.

A military helicopter passes over the demonstration. The crowd breaks out in applause, as if it were a recognition of their strength, a proof that the story is not over yet. “The army has done good by wanting to do evil,” says Bashir. “A whole generation of the Brothers is going to find itself in retirement, making room for the youth to take over.” He still wears his little smile. “So what if the price is exhorbitant? I would pay it too, if it came to that.”

Among members of the former government, some, like the former Minister of Youth, know that an arrest order is hanging over them. Some find out by chance that they are wanted, while others are inexplicably spared. Unsure of their situation, though, have dropped out of sight. “Really, nobody understands what is going on, and the confusion feeds the panic,” another lawyer involved in the defense of arrested Islamists explains. “Other than those who are really at the top of the hierarchy, like the Prime Minister or the Brothers’ Supreme Guide-the new regime seems to be swinging blindly at whoever comes within reach, whether they are important or not, though maybe with a particular preference for getting those who have the ear of the media.”

Unlike Amr Hassan, the young lawyer for the Collective, this lawyer openly asserts his membership in the Islamist movement. Like everyone here, he refuses to imagine that the fugitives will turn to the path of violence, “other than a few isolated cases, of course,” he says.

But what will all of these people do while they are hiding in the city? He is visibly troubled, unable to really come up with a response. Now he asks himself the question: “What if the army carried out this whole operation just to push us into taking up arms and turning into terrorists?”

He gets up. Comes back with a pile of papers. “Take them!” He has a defeated tone, a man giving away his most prized possessions before the fatal moment. His lips tremble a little under a small mustache, fine as an eyebrow. There is no sound now but that of Cairo’s endless traffic jams, beating like waves against the windows of the office. “I am waiting for them too,” he says. “They are going to come and arrest me.” The documents are customs investigations launched under Morsi against Mubarak and his clique.

On the streets of Cairo, portraits of general Al-Sissi, the new strongman, are posted on all of the shops. Ultimately, Yasser ended up fleeing at the last minute. He is seated at a cafe near the Nile. His shirt floats around a body shrunken by fear; his gaze flits in every direction, unable to settle on anything. “Everything’s going to go back to the way it was, isn’t it? Do you think we will take back the government?” His telephone rings. It is his mother. Immediately, he lies. “I am safe with friends. Pray for us.” On the mobile phones around us, messages are arriving: A car bomb has exploded in front of the Interior Ministry.

Florence Aubenas