Pictures by Mosa'ab ElShamy

Egyptians’ Lives between the Poles

02/06/2014 . By Sara Khorshid

While some Egyptians marched to protest “the coup’s injustice” and to demand the reinstatement of ousted President Muhammad Morsi, and while other Egyptians called upon Defense Minister (and now Field Marshal) Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi to run for president, Rachad died.

His death came unexpectedly, especially because Rachad had been coming to work regularly. While at work on an otherwise-normal winter day, he complained from not feeling well; minutes later, he died. A parking guy in his sixties, Rachad spent his days in the upper-middle class neighborhood where he worked. His informal-sector job offered no insurance, no retirement plan, and no right to sick leave. Because he was paid an irregular wage after each working day, Rachad could not afford to take a day off even when he was sick.

Rachad would daily be seen having his modest breakfast – a piece of bread and a cup of tea – while sitting in a small chair next to the BMW or the Jaguar he guarded. The neighborhood’s residents often heard him shout on the street during his quarrels over parking spaces, though some would point out that whenever they showed him some respect, Rachad’s attitude would automatically become very peaceful and decent.

Like many in Egypt, Rachad died in silence. The residents of the street where he worked, who lead lives more comfortable than his had been, seem too busy to mourn him, too worried about their futures in tension-ridden Egypt to realize that Rachad is no longer there for their cars.

Starting a few weeks after January 25, 2011, the garage where Rachad worked would never look the same. Apparently driven by the emotional spirit that prevailed among many Egyptians in the wake of January 2011’s unprecedented protests, Rachad wrote some words of wisdom and proverbs on the walls of the garage he guarded: “If your strength prompts you to infringe on others’ rights, remember that God is Almighty.”

Those were the days when he was still enthusiastic about the revolution and the values it heralded. Perhaps he was hopeful that the protests’ chants – “bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity” – were about to come true. They were not near, though. Moreover, one of his sons was injured while taking part in the protests; he was subsequently arrested and detained by the authorities. Rachad’s other son continued to help him parking cars because it was the only job he could find despite holding a degree that qualified him to have a more comfortable job.

The 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate Muhammad Morsi as President of Egypt renewed Rachad’s hopes for a better future. However, his hopes were once again to turn into frustration. Eventually, Rachad reached a point at which he became against everyone – Mubarak’s regime, the army, Morsi, and the Brotherhood – after all, he continued to live in the same poverty and hardship under the rule of each of them.

Although there are many Egyptians who are like Rachad—sick of politics and disillusioned with all politicians—the louder voices come from Egyptians at “the poles:” those who are clearly pro-Brotherhood/pro-Morsi on one side and those who unquestioningly support the armed forces and Sisi, the country’s de facto ruler, on the other. The smaller number still trying to engage in politics but who oppose both of the sides mentioned struggle to be heard amidst the din coming from the extremes.

Ultimately, all Egyptians regardless of their political leanings are going through hard times. However, looking out from within their respective bubbles, people in each camp believe that it is everyone else who is responsible for the country’s hardship. What they do not see—or at least do not acknowledge—are the range and complexity of motivations behind members of “the other side.” So many people have seen the terrible losses suffered by their communities, friends, and families that their actions cannot be understood as motivated just by political desires.

Consider the lives led by supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood. Many saw their friends and loved ones die in front of their eyes during the authorities’ brutal dispersal of the Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins, which were primarily staged by the Muslim Brotherhood. As to those who have so far survived the ensuing violence, many have been arrested under charges such as belonging to a “terrorist organization” or inciting violence. Others, aware that they might be arrested at any time, are actively on the run. Many who had the opportunity to flee the country already have done so, and many more are trying to find their own way out.

Many anti-Brotherhood Egyptians label Brothers as “sheep” on the grounds that the group’s members take action en bloc in an organized and coordinated manner. However, from the perspective of those in the pro-Morsi camp, the use of this label is not only condescending but also unfair. First, a considerable segment of this group assert that they support legitimacy, not Morsi himself. From their point of view, they are defending a just cause: Morsi was elected through free and fair elections, and removing him before the end of his term was an illegitimate act. Indeed, within this group, June 30’s call for early elections was itself illegitimate, and the events of July 3 constituted a clear and undeniable military coup d’état.

Of course, there are also those who say that they simply support Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in itself, which they see as an organization run by heroes who have stood in the face of the “coup’s tyranny.” They also regard the Brotherhood as an organization of religious people whose ultimate end is to please God, lending a greater air of legitimacy to their actions. Many other Egyptians equally claim that God is on their side. They repeatedly say, “We are all Muslims,” arguing that they reject the “guardians of Islam” role claimed by Muslim Brotherhood for itself.

For their part, when the army’s “lovers”—yes, many say “We love our army!”—are confronted with the atrocities committed by the state against “anti-coup” protesters and random Muslim Brotherhood members, they justify the acts by claiming that the state is acting to protect the people from “terror.” Of course, such claims do not arise entirely out of thin air—violent acts instigated by a minority in the pro-Morsi camp that have swept the country since last summer have certainly not left this group unscathed. Even so, many seem to be driven by a broad fear, believing that every Muslim Brotherhood member is either evil or brainwashed and that, in either case, all are “terrorists.” This perception is constantly repeated in the pro-army media. It has become so easy to get overwhelmed by the anti-Brotherhood/pro-Sisi media propaganda that surrounds Egyptians everywhere that many fail to stop and think about the appalling acts committed by the state in its pursuit of “terrorists,” including killing protesters by the hundreds and arresting and detaining thousands under allegations like “chanting anti-army slogans.”

As simplistic as it is to accuse all Muslim Brothers of being terrorists, the Brothers have done little to dissuade people from such characterization. They have, for example, failed to condemn the series of violent operations attributed to Al-Qaeda-inspired militant groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Champions of Jerusalem”). Morsi himself is accused of empowering Al-Qaeda’s affiliates and members of the formerly militant Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama’a Islamiyya groups, the latter of which split off from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s.

There are pro-Morsi Egyptians who claim that Interior Ministry officials have plotted the violent operations that have targeted the Ministry’s headquarters and killed its personnel, an attitude that bears similarity to that of the anti-Brotherhood Egyptians who argue that the Brothers killed one another during the dispersal of Raba’a. People who hold such beliefs have turned the “sheep” label around on those who currently support the state, claiming that they want to live in “self-imposed slavery.”

While Egyptians from both camps confine themselves to their divisive worldviews, escalating tensions and violence cast a dark shadow over the country’s future. People like Rachad continue to suffer to make ends meet, and many have left the country in search of more quiet lives elsewhere. Among the people who have “taken sides,” it is rare to see any understanding of the motivations of these people who remain in the middle. Without such understanding, it is not surprising that many are searching for emigration opportunities, seeing little positive in Egypt’s future.

There remains, however, the remote, but possible, scenario of another wave of revolution sweeping the country. Such a development could either finally succeed in achieving “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” for all, or it could further devastate the country. To prevent the latter, Egyptians will need to move away from their highly polarized current state and towards a more cohesive and understanding society capable of accepting and protecting the rights of all of its members.