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Egypt's political tumult tears apart families, old friendships

The national rift is deep. Aunts curse a nephew, former friends trade punches, and countless debates rage as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and military are split apart.

September 29, 2013|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan
  • Supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, demonstrate against the nation's military rule this month in Dalga, south of Cairo. The national divide runs even deeper than during the 2011 uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from power.
Supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi,… (Manu Brabo / Associated…)

CAIRO — One aunt cursed him to hell, another accused him of murder.

The intense family passions were roused when Ahmed Samir posted on Facebook his support for Egypt's deadly crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. The proclamation drew Samir and his irate relatives deeper into the nation's battles over politics and conscience after nearly three years of unrest.

"My one aunt calls me a liar and prays for me to go to hell. She says I am covered with blood of those who were killed," said Samir, a customer relations representative for a bank. "She told me she was no longer my aunt and never to talk to her again.... My other aunt called me a murderer because I supported the army.

"I killed no one and won't allow anyone to accuse me of something I have not done," he said.

Egypt's escalating political tumult leaves little room for common ground. Fistfights break out in cafes and on street corners. Screeds shoot like arrows across social media. Debates over religion, politics and patriotism rage on television talk shows. Bearded men call on God in the night, and pictures of dead protesters lift in the breeze.

The nation's fate has been framed by the army-installed government as a struggle between an emerging democracy and the Brotherhood, portrayed as a band of terrorists determined to impose an Islamic caliphate. Security forces have killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters and anti-military protesters since the coup in July that overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

The brutality against and purge of the Brotherhood — its leadership is in jail and a Cairo court has banned its activities and ordered its assets confiscated — have unsettled many Egyptians. They accuse liberals and activists of blindly backing a military that for the second time since 2011 has resorted to excessive force and emergency laws to exaggerate national security dangers and crush its enemies.

Liberals and secularists, along with much of the country, are unapologetic. They blame the Brotherhood for polarizing Egypt with authoritarian and insular rule. That atmosphere led to massive protests against Islamists and made it clear that the street had become more potent than the ballot box at rendering verdicts on the nation's leaders.

Much of the dilemma flows from Egypt's conflicted identity. Since the uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago, the Arab world's most strategically important country has lacked a galvanizing vision to mend decades of repression and corruption. Morsi was the nation's first freely elected leader, but his downfall was a stunning rejection of the Brotherhood's brand of political Islam. The immediate alternative, however, was a military state.

Egyptians are living with a stilted sense of democracy, which, since the nation's independence in the 1950s, has left army men as the arbiters of power. Tension over how to bring about stability and create a model government for an Arab world in upheaval is cracking family bonds and friendships. Disillusionment and intolerance are intensifying amid a spate of militant attacks, including the assassination attempt on Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim early this month.

On a recent night in a cafe in Cairo's Heliopolis neighborhood, two friends, one a Brotherhood follower, the other an army supporter, began yelling and shoving each other.

"Only God is our savior against people like you," the Brotherhood man shouted, using an Arabic expression of condemnation.

"If that's what you're saying then I hope all you people [Islamists] die," said the erstwhile friend.

The men then punched each other until the scuffle was broken up by other patrons. The cafe owner ordered the pair to leave. They walked out in opposite directions.

Amir Ezzat is sympathetic to that kind of fury. His family has been loyal to the Brotherhood for years. But the 30-year-old electronics engineer said he never felt an affinity for the group until the latest violence left him "with no choice but to side with the righteous Brotherhood against the army and pro-Mubarak fascism."

"Until Morsi was deposed, I was quiet with my arguments, waiting to see what would happen," he said. "I understood people's frustrations against Morsi's rule and accepted their criticisms. But for the army to abolish a democratic vote and for people to cheer for it? Those are the same people who have long been calling for freedom and democracy."

On the other hand, Ezzat's friend, Khaled Tamim, a 28-year-old civil engineer and political liberal, has hailed the army's crackdown. He is angry about Ezzat's Islamist leanings even as Tamim, like a growing number of liberals, has difficulty reconciling the state's violence against the Brotherhood.

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