The family of MA (his identity concealed for security reasons), a Muslim Brotherhood member who left Egypt about a year ago, is having a somber time amid the holy month of Ramadan.
The wife of MA and mother of four children, SS, is not holding the annual large family iftar (breaking of the fast) on the first day. Nor is she getting the large Ramadan lantern out of storage and placing it in the living room. She is not planning to serve guests sweets. There will be no guests.
“Not this year. Ramadan has always been for us a month of festivities, just as it is a month of pious worship. But this is the first year since our marriage over 25 years ago that we are separated, and I don’t know why we have to be separated. I don’t know why he cannot be with us at the head of the Ramadan table, reciting the doa’a (a short prayer prior to the breaking of the fast), and for us to say "Amin" before he hands us each our dates to break the fast,” said SS.
In her mid-50s, this medical doctor seems to be carrying more years than her age. Herself a third-generation member Muslim Brotherhood (both parents are members to the oldest political Islam group, as were her grandparents), SS is heavily veiled. However, prior to the self-imposed exile of her husband, this lady used to be dressed in light pastille colours. Now it's dark grey and deep blue.
“I cannot claim to be cheerful when my life partner is forced to leave the country, without having done anything wrong, and while actually having been opposed to some of the decisions of [ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed] Morsi,” she said.
The decision to leave
It was last August, following the 3 July ouster of Morsi, the many arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and the bloody dispersal of the sit-ins of the Muslim Brotherhood, that MA decided to leave Egypt.
“He was never politically active in any sense. Neither were his parents. His only political involvement that I am aware of was his open rejection for the nomination of Morsi for the presidency. He openly said that we (the Muslim Brotherhood organisation) are not ready for this, and it could be a detrimental challenge,” said SS.
When Morsi’s spokesman in November 2012 announced the controversial constitutional declaration that granted the head of executive temporary extra-judicial powers, before Morsi went back on it almost fully, MA and SS were having tea and watching TV. They both paused, as SS recalled, and looked at one another.
“He looked at me and with a sigh said that this is not going to end well. He said that this could well be the beginning of the end for Dr Morsi — and maybe worse,” she added.
As of that day, MA started to suspend any expansion of his construction business. This was an agreed choice that he made with two other members — one a Muslim Brotherhood member and the other not — of his office “because nobody knew what tomorrow could bring."
Having followed the news of the "sequestration orders" imposed on grocery store chains owned by leading and currently imprisoned member of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat Al-Shater, SA is aware that her husband did the right thing when he decided to leave and pursue a new beginning with a new job in South Africa — one of the key destinations of Muslim Brotherhood members who feared “persecution” as part of a wave of arrests, indictments, and seizures of property.
No chance of reconciliation
Following the ouster of Morsi and the failure of all efforts, including those sponsored by the European Union with considerable international — including American — support, to broker a political deal between the new authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, the transitional government decided to deem the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.
This, said a former cabinet minister, was “primarily a political step that was designed to accommodate the repeated appeals of the Ministry of Interior to have some sort of backing for their attempts to contain the angry demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood that continued, despite the dispersal of the July and August sit-ins, in the hope of having Morsi reinstated as president.”
“It was meant as a message to the leadership of the group to check the demonstrations. The message failed and unfortunately the security apparatus went a bit too far in harnessing their old-fashioned harassment approach. It was also used by some TV anchors who decided to toe the line with the scheme of the security apparatus,” he added.
Between the angry Muslim Brotherhood and the "assertive” police approach, mutual resentment escalated.
Many people who had been frustrated with — or even phobic of — the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood rule were comforted by the terrorist designation. And some decided to act accordingly, showing their hostility up front.
Of those, some were the neighbours of SA.
“I have been living in this apartment building since I got married in the late 80s and although I don’t socialise much but I have had decent relations with everyone. I am really shocked to see some of those neighbours at the door of the escalator not replying to my morning greetings,” SA said.
For months, sentiments of anger seethed against members of the Muslim Brotherhood group — even suspected members — and their families.
Along with the assault against the headquarters of the organisation and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), individuals and their properties, including law firms and clinics, have been attacked.
Face-veiled ladies living in middle and upper-middle class neighbourhoods have complained of hostile attitudes in public space.
Recently this wave has abated considerably. But “it is much harder today still,” reminded AD, a member of the FJP who is planning to leave Egypt soon to Kenya — another destination in Africa that has received, according to Muslim Brotherhood sources, considerable arrivals from the Islamist group.
Having not taken part in any of the demonstrations since he left Giza's Al-Nahda Square sit-in on the eve of the forced dispersal (14 August 2013), “to avoid the sad end," AD said that many of his friends are now in jail for charges of crimes “they could have never committed,” and some have been included in the “rampant” death sentencing.
“Let us face it, the authorities are determined to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood. [President Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi said it that in his rule there would be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is something that many people are supporting,” AD said.
According to AD, an accountant in his early 30s who is going to escort his wife with him (also from a Muslim Brotherhood supporting family), “with the economic measures, the security measures and the judiciary, things could be really very tough for us.”
AD is willing to add to this the “lack of flexibility” of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in jail, especially the strongest man of the group: Al-Shater.
AD argues that had it not been to the intransigence of Al-Shater, Morsi would have, “under the pressure of some respected figures” — he names a prominent judge, a prominent lawyer and a prominent journalist — agreed to a referendum on the continuation of his presidential term.
“This could have taken things in a totally different direction. It was a mistake from the beginning for us to have filed a candidate for the presidential elections. We were not ready for it. We could have had a good exit, but unfortunately things took the sad turn they did.”
The account of informed official sources on the days leading to the ouster of Morsi, and the unleashing of psychological war on the Brotherhood, add that the intransigence of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership went beyond the ouster.
“They declined a serious offer to take part in the first post-ouster government. They could have had their share and continued, but they were in denial. They thought they could return Morsi as president again. They were blinded. They thought they were too powerful and that the people were on their side. They thought that the authorities would be intimidated and the international community would add pressure,” said one official source.
According to this and other official sources, it was El-Sisi who seemed particularly keen — at least at that point in time — to include the Muslim Brotherhood, to avoid anticipated international apprehension over the definition and nature of Morsi's ouster.
Cairo-based European diplomats do not offer exactly the same narrative, although they don’t depart from it fully.
In the words of one who was involved in the negotiations, “The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Morsi himself, had some conditions that had to be met before they decided to agree to any talks. These included the announcement of the place in which Morsi was held under house arrest, and the release of a few leaders who were arrested. Obviously the authorities declined. They offered, instead, to release some of the figures in a symbolic gesture, but eventually they didn’t.”
The reason they didn’t, according to official sources, was information suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood were inciting the wrath of some radical militant groups, essentially in Sinai, to avenge the ouster of Morsi — and “at any price,” according to one.
What now for the Muslim Brotherhood?
Today, with the exception of odd groups of hardcore revolutionaries, the vast majority of Copts are firmly opposed to the reinclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It was a black day when Morsi was elected; it is a miracle that he was removed. We love El-Sisi forever for it, and we are confident that he would stick to his word and keep [the Muslim Brotherhood] under pressure until this organisation is completely abolished,” said one Coptic medical doctor.
He added that it was his plan “to leave this country altogether had those people stayed in office. They hated us and they openly threatened us. They said we had to bow to their norms, or we could go to Canada. I was about to go to Australia actually, to join my brother and my sister-in-law who are living there already.”
The experienced breakdown in social cohesion is not necessarily inevitable, according to some political figures and groups.
Hesitant attempts to open a window for "dialogue," however, have so far been aborted by the dual influence of the security apparatus, that is completely resistant to the reintroduction of the Muslim Brotherhood, and continued public frustration — something AD attributes almost entirely to “aggressive media defamation" and "propaganda.”
The stubborn leadership in jail is also a handicap, forestalling dialogue — even at a very preliminary level.
“They rejected the ideas proposed by some middle-rank members of the group to authorise the beginning of an overseas dialogue with a representative of the state authorities, to allow for at least an end to persecution,” said MH, another FJP/Muslim Brotherhood member.
Divisions within ranks
Today, there are disagreements within the group on what to do next. In the account of MH, the leadership “would have a very hard time to turn back now to the ranks and tell them we had to bow to dialogue, because it amounts to them saying we should have agreed to dialogue a long while ago. This would not only challenge their status but could actually undermine the cohesion of the organisation, which is sacred to people like [El-Shater]."
The argument is that such a position would amount to an announcement of the failure of the leadership, and could make the many groups inside the organisation decide to take whichever path they may wish to have.
El-Shater, according to MH, is convinced that what kept the Muslim Brotherhood together for close to a century, despite prior rounds of persecution, is that the organisation is unified. This, El-Shater thinks, according to MH, would help the Brotherhood survive the current round of persecution, "which is probably harder than the one the Muslim Brotherhood endured under” Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950s and 1960s.
This had not stopped some of the leadership in exile, whether in Africa, Arab states (particularly Qatar), Asia (including Malaysia) and in Turkey, Europe and North America (the last two privy to those with dual nationality) offering in public statements ideas for possible reconciliation.
SA and AD are pessimistic about the future, especially in the short run. More repression and “more nightmares” is what they coming.
MH is less pessimistic, and not just because he senses “a growing momentum” within the Muslim Brotherhood to explore an exit to the current crisis, including a possible slow return to politics through the nomination of second or third rank figures in the parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn.
“This would have to come with some sort of apology to the masses for the mistakes committed by the group out of lack of experience, or miscalculations, or whatever,” he said.
But the main reason for cautious optimism, according to MH, is the widening “sentiment that the repressive measures of the state — not just against the Islamists, but against all groups of the opposition — will inevitably allow at least the political figures to realise that no matter the mistakes — some of which were truly big — that the Muslim Brotherhood made, the real issue is not with us but with the police state that is trying to establish new foundations.”