One song dominates Egypt’s airwaves, blaring from radios and television sets nationwide. It’s a hymn of praise to the army, which overthrew President Mohamed Mursi three months ago, and the emotions it evokes show how the country remains polarized by that intervention.
Distressed that the song was played at her daughter’s school, Jihen Maher went there to complain. Maher, whose family joined protests where hundreds of Mursi supporters were killed, found herself whisked away by police, according to her sister. At the other extreme is Azza Ibrahim in Cairo, who says the melody evokes only joy, and who sometimes kisses her wallet-sized photo of army chief Abdelfatah al-Seesi.
When it comes to Egyptian attitudes toward their army commanders, there’s not much middle ground between adulation and anger. Those fiercely held allegiances may leave little room for the compromises needed to end the violence that has killed hundreds since the overthrow of Mursi and the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood, or to build the inclusive democracy that the army-backed interim government is promising.
“This has become an existential battle for both sides, with no room for consensus,” Amr Ezzat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and columnist for the independent Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, said by phone. “One side talks about a coup and the other about terrorism. How can they sit together?”
The division widened after security forces forcibly broke up sit-ins of Mursi supporters in Cairo and nearby Giza, leaving hundreds dead. Since then, a cycle of protest and reprisal has unfolded alongside signs of a growing militant insurgency, while the economy is barely outpacing population growth.
Maher, who lives in Mursi’s home base in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, was later released on bail, according to her 31-year-old sister Youmna. Teachers said they would drop their complaint if she apologized, agreed never to visit again, and removed a picture of Mursi from her home, Youmna Maher said by phone.
“How do you think we feel when they play the song saluting the people who killed our children?” said Youmna, who attended the pro-Mursi sit-ins. “It’s like you want to create a civil war.”
In Cairo, Ibrahim lauds the crackdown on Islamists led by al-Seesi. “This country needs someone powerful, fearless. El Mozzah is the one,” she said, using an Egyptian slang term for handsome. “Look what he’s doing to the terrorists. Isn’t that proof enough?”
Amid the rise of the U.S.-trained al-Seesi, Egypt’s Islamists, who won parliamentary and presidential elections after Mubarak’s fall, have seen their hold on power neutered. Many senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders are in detention.
Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, hasn’t been seen in public since his July 3 removal, which followed mass protests against him. He’s due to go on trial next month on charges of inciting killings while he was president.
As supporters denounce Mursi’s removal as a coup, and hold rallies to demand his reinstatement, the army-backed government that replaced him is erasing reminders of the Islamist’s year in power. The constitution that he pushed through a referendum is being amended. Critics said it failed to guarantee basic freedoms, and showed how Mursi was advancing Islamist interests at the expense of the country.
The army has also started a campaign in the Sinai targeting what it describes as terrorists -- the same term sometimes used to describe the Brotherhood. Militants have killed dozens of security personnel, including three soldiers and a policeman in an attack yesterday.
“The military is going full force on a security-focused approach,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “There is no longer any real talk of national reconciliation, of reintegrating Mursi supporters into the political process.”
The government says it’s committed to holding free elections, while insisting that those linked to violence must be held accountable.
Excluding the Brotherhood “from the political process until they rid themselves of their ugly authoritarian heritage is a protection of democracy,” said Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.
The bloodshed in Egypt has hurt some of its international ties. The U.S. said Oct. 9 it will cut military aid, including $260 million in cash and deliveries of F-16 fighter jets and helicopters, until the government takes steps toward restoring democracy.
Other countries, especially in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, have supported the army takeover. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates pledged $12 billion after Mursi’s fall.
That aid has helped replenish Egypt’s currency reserves and stabilize the pound. The benchmark stock index neared a one-year high this week. Persistent violence and political instability, though, remains a deterrent to investment and tourism, vital for economic recovery.
In resort cities like the Red Sea diving haven of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Brotherhood’s fall was initially welcomed. Now, that feeling is being supplanted by concern that the unrest will keep tourists away.
At the resort’s Hard Rock Café, Mustafa Kamal, 27, pointed to two men grinding on the dance floor, and a young woman whose skirt flew up as she danced to a tune by American singer Pitbull. “What do you think would have happened to them if Sharm had been Brotherhoodized?”
‘For How Long?’
He paused for a minute. “We’re dancing now, but for how long?” he said.
Hours later, a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives inside a security base in El-Tour, a short drive from Sharm El-Sheik, killing at least four policemen.
As violence threatens to deepen Egypt’s economic slump, it may be hard for any leader to retain popularity for long, including al-Seesi. Supporters are urging the general to run for president next year, though he told Al Masry Al Youm newspaper this week that the “time isn’t right” to discuss a bid.
“It won’t take long before people begin to question and complain about any leader who doesn’t deliver food and drink,” said Fishere. “Egypt has changed.”