One of the Muslim Brotherhood's offices in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
On Saturday, two passengers on Cairo's underground metro in their early 20s looked jaded, but they still shouted at the top of their voices, demanding an end to the “rule of the Supreme Guide.”
Calling him names, the two men went on a foul-mouthed outburst against Mohamed Badie, the man they believe had overruled Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi and assumed effective control of the country.
The passengers, it transpired, were angry because they had been involved in a confrontation with Brotherhood members in front of the Islamist group’s headquarters in the Cairo district of Mokattam, a fortress that has long been spared street violence and attacks.
The presidential palace was a protest hotspot for several months, but it has now made way for the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters, a building that lies on a hill which overlooks many parts of Cairo, in a reflection of the opposition's belief that Morsi is largely subordinate to Brotherhood leader Badie, who keeps a low profile despite being the subject of constant speculation about his actual role in Egypt.
Badie, who was elected as the Brotherhood Supreme Guide in January 2010, one year before the eruption of the revolution which eventually propelled his once-banned group to power, is now under the spotlight more than ever.
The 69-year-old had to deal with an unusual situation when he was heckled by a young man while dining with his family at a fancy Cairo shopping centre last week.
The man furiously questioned his role, but Badie simply replied, according to a Brotherhood spokesman: “If I'm the one who actually rules Egypt, then I agree with you: ‘Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide’.”
Perhaps Badie has something to prove to some disgruntled political activists, who seem to have almost forgotten Morsi in their chants, preferring to hurl a barrage of insults at a man they believe is more influential in the unofficial ruling hierarchy.
‘Morsi not ruling Egypt’
Clashes erupted at the Brotherhood headquarters when protesters sought to mark it with graffiti, spray-painting murals that condemned the group and its leader.
Deeming the act “provocative,” Brotherhood members rushed out to confront protesters, using wooden sticks to disperse them.
Images and footage of a well-built man aggressively slapping a woman in the face went viral on social networks, drawing a chorus of denunciation.
“Some youths besieged us after we drew the graffiti and hurled obscenity-laced insults against us … one of them hit me hard on the face and we had to retreat after finding out that they held bladed weapons,” activist Mervat Moussa, the woman slapped by a Brotherhood member, told satellite television channel ONTV.
“We will continue to fight until we bring down the rule of the Supreme Guide, because Mohamed Morsi is not the one ruling Egypt.”
Several journalists said they were also attacked and dozens were injured when police stepped in.
Media phone-ins were rife with anti-Brotherhood rhetoric that questioned the group’s legitimacy in comments not heard since the era of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, whose iron fist kept at bay the 85-year-old group until a revolution ignited by the youth brought them to the forefront of politics.
The group remains legally unrecognised, but several Brotherhood officials said recently its status will be legalised once a new law regulating the establishment of NGOs is put into effect.
Critics of Islamist movements feared Egypt would turn into an Iran-style hierarchy in which the president is overpowered by a cleric. They believe their fears were realised, at least partly, nine months after Morsi became the country’s first freely elected leader.
The Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), consistently distance themselves from the presidency. Morsi resigned his membership of the FJP upon winning the presidential elections in 2012.
“In fact, all rumours about the intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood in government affairs have no basis in truth, and are totally unacceptable,” said Brotherhood secretary general Mahmoud Hussein.
Morsi was coy when he was asked in a recent television interview about his relationship with the Brotherhood and its leader, saying that his “historical links” with the Brotherhood have a big influence on him but that he is now the president of all Egyptians.
Critics accuse him of only caring about the Brotherhood's interests, citing his decision to dismiss interior minister Ahmed Gamal El-Deen because he failed to protect FJP bureaus during recent nationwide clashes as an example.
He was also criticised for allowing an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly to fast-track Egypt’s first post-revolution constitution late last year.
“Morsi is a helpless president who cannot make any decisions. He simply follows the instructions of the Brotherhood Supreme Guide,” well-known writer Alaa El-Aswany, who supported Morsi in last year’s presidential elections but later became one of his staunchest opponents, wrote in his column in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
“Morsi is the one who ruined his relationship with Egyptians … the millions who poured into the streets to celebrate his success in the elections are now calling for an end to the Supreme Guide's rule.”
Demonstrators called for more protests in front of the Brotherhood headquarters, which is now protected by armoured police vehicles, over the next few days.
Meanwhile, one of the two train passengers asked his friend whether there was any chance Morsi would turn against the Brotherhood one day; his comrade responded with derisive laughter.