To Mahmoud Sayed, Mohamed Mursi’s election as Egypt’s president a year ago was an opportunity he’d wanted for years: a chance to grow a beard as a sign of his faith. Islamists, he figured, wouldn’t be persecuted as they had under former president Hosni Mubarak.
That changed the day after the military deposed Mursi on July 3 following mass street demonstrations. Sayed, a 35-year-old driver, was accosted by two men. He was robbed, beaten and, in a final insult, spat upon and told to pass it on to Mursi.
Sayed’s next stop: the barber’s chair. The beard is gone -- and so are his hopes for a country that reconciles Islamic and secular Egyptians.
“How did it get to this?” Sayed asked, running a calloused hand across his clean-shaven face in Cairo’s low-income Waily district. “When Mursi was elected, we were full of hope. Now, we’re just full of anger and fear.”
The reversal of fortunes that emerged barely two weeks after Mursi was ousted has underlined Egypt’s increasingly entrenched polarization. Islamists and secularists who stood shoulder-to-shoulder during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak now face off in daily protests that have erupted into violence.
On July 15, Mursi’s supporters, calling for his reinstatement as the country’s first freely elected civilian president, clashed with security forces. Seven were killed and 261 wounded, according to a Health Ministry statement.
The language of dispute on both sides has increasingly become tinged with insult and enmity, as evidenced by the sheaf of Arabic and English insults written on the outside of a main presidential palace in Cairo. Scrawled on the cream outer walls are English expletives about Mursi, as well as a common refrain: “Leave, you sheep.”
The divide is most pronounced in the targeting of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi hailed, and other Islamists. Just weeks before, they held the reins of power in Egypt. Now they are on the defensive amid a campaign of detentions, arrest warrants and asset-freezing. Mursi himself is being held in an undisclosed location; presidency spokesman Ahmed El-Meslemani said on July 16 he was in a “safe place and receives the respect appropriate for a former head of state.”
Clashes between Mursi supporters, who have been camped out by the tens of thousands in Cairo’s Nasr City district, and the military and secularists speak to the tensions. In the single deadliest eruption of violence in months, Republican Guard forces killed more than 50 Islamists during one protest on July 8. The Brotherhood described it as a massacre and the military said the fighting was started by the other side.
At the core, however, is the polarization that has been building up since Mursi’s election last year -- a level of discord troubling both domestically and internationally. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, met with the various groups, ranging from the Brotherhood to the government, and stressed the need to overcome the differences.
The discussions focused on “the importance of a very inclusive process to ensure that this country really belongs to everyone here,” Ashton said, according to a statement the EU released on July 17.
Casting a pall over that hope, however, is the vernacular of unrest in the country following Mursi’s ouster.
“There are some in the liberal opposition, as well as in the old regime and the military, who believe in destroying the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force in the country,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “Talking about wiping out the Brotherhood, killing them, destroying them, show trials -- this language of retribution” wasn’t something he recalled hearing under Mubarak, he said.
The animosity has been building for months, as Mursi’s critics decried what they saw as self-serving decrees, hasty decisions from which he was forced to backtrack and his pushing through of a largely Islamist-drafted constitution that undercut the rights of minorities and women.
Their anger stems as well from an economy that’s growing as it slowest pace in two decades. Foreign reserves are more than 50 percent below their December 2010 levels and unemployment is more than 13 percent.
Egypt’s transition to democracy has witnessed the ousting of the second president in about two years and a faltering economy. Even within Islamist groups divides have deepened.
The Salafi Nour Party, for example, initially sided with the military in ousting Mursi, only to later change course after President Adly Mansour issued his constitutional decree and the clashes by the Republican Guard building left dozens dead. Nour this week also rejected the presidency’s reconciliation bid.
Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s preeminent religious institution, warned last week of the possibility of a civil war.
“It’s not a matter of love and hatred, but our differences should be sorted through political means,” said Hamdy Hassan, a senior Brotherhood official in the port city of Alexandria. Echoing El-Tayed, he added: “We are on our way toward a civil war.”
It’s that result that the interim government, headed by Mansour and Prime Minister-designate Hazem El Beblawi, is trying to avoid. The stated focus of the current administration is national reconciliation, though the prospects for that are dimming as the Brotherhood this week refused to participate in the government formation efforts and called for more protests.
That the Islamists are intent on bringing Mursi back despite his track record speaks volumes about their intentions, said Abdullah Hassan, a 27-year-old tour guide and activist. He was among the thousands who clashed with Brotherhood members in some of the heaviest days of fighting after Mursi’s ouster.
“When Mursi was elected, the Islamists starting saying this was their country, now, as if we didn’t exist or were heretics,” he said. “The fighting, the blood, the death -- is that what they mean about the nation’s interests? Well, it’s our country now. It always was.”
Omar Mansour, a teacher, experienced similar emotions when he attempted to drive on a recent evening. Under the pale glow of streetlights lining Cairo’s 6th October Bridge, Mansour spotted a throng of Islamists approaching on foot. A frown crossed his brow.
“Even after we got rid of Mursi, the sheep, they’re still making us go backward,” Mansour said, as drivers threw their cars back into reverse, their route ahead blocked by the Islamists. “Instead of backing up, we should just drive through them.”
Remarks such as those are the reason why Islamists are eager to ensure that they aren’t brushed aside again, or robbed of an elected office which they won.
“It was never about Mursi holding onto power, or the Muslim Brotherhood being the one to run the country,” said Sayed, the driver. “The idea is that we’re offering an alternative. If people didn’t like what Mursi was doing, they should just vote him out in the next elections.”