Egypt is running short on common ground. The election of Mohamed Morsi as president was itself a near thing, the longtime Muslim Brotherhood official winning office with less than 52% of the vote over a former prime minister from the time of Hosni Mubarak. But in the last two weeks, his decisions have polarized the country to the extent that some saw, in the strife of the last two weeks, glimpses of a potential civil war. Much of the problem is the Brotherhood and its the ambiguous performance so far, as I report in my magazine story this week.
Just what is the Muslim Brotherhood? Is it the flailing, benign but essentially well-intentioned force described by a senior Brotherhood official named Gehad el-Haddad, who wears a lapel pin of the Egyptian flag? Or is it the juggernaut of political Islam feared by the West for most of a century, a shadowy group intent on dismantling the modern nation state to restore the dominion of a Caliphate over the the world’s Muslims? Or is it, as some Islamist thinkers maintain, essentially a spent force, a haven of mediocrity that exists largely to perpetuate itself?
Six months into the Brotherhood’s rule, no clear answer has emerged. But one thing it hasn’t done, not two years after the stirring revolution, is build anything remotely resembling consensus. The clannish, long-underground organization entered the realm of electoral politics with no great reservoir of trust among non-members, and since coming to power has done little to re-assure the many skeptics. As el-Haddad put it, in an interview with myself and TIME’s Cairo reporter, Ashraf Khalil, the organization has been writing checks on its credibility since the revolution, and needs to start replenishing its account.
Morsi hasn’t helped. The former physics teacher was genial and good-humored when three of us from the magazine met him in the presidential palace on Nov. 28, a Wednesday. But one of the most sensitive statements he made during that interview was, shall we say, inoperative less than 24 hours later: How much longer the Constituent Assembly would need to finish drafting Egypt’s new constitution. Morsi said one or two months, and he was inclined toward two. The very next day the assembly went into overdrive, and declared its work done by early Friday morning.
Who’s in charge? The office of president is made for an individual, but all indications are that the leadership of the Brotherhood has a great deal to say about events. “You have to distinguish how the Freedom and Justice party sees it and how the Muslim Brotherhood sees it,” el-Haddad says, in his crisp British accent. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not interested in votes and the like. They’re interested in doing the right thing in terms of the objective it puts ahead of it. And that objective is ending the transition period as fast as possible. Says el-Haddad, “If popularity was the question we wouldn’t have taken more than 80% of the decisions we’ve made in the last two years.”
The divisions in the society have their own geography. Tahrir Square still is a locus – one best visited in the company of Ashraf, whose “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation” is a truly thrilling read. But the square belongs only to the secular youths who started the revolution, and still regard themselves as its guardians.
But after Morsi’s Nov. 22 decree placing himself beyond judicial review, the protesters made a second home in the street outside the Presidential Palace, out toward the airport in the upscale Heliopolis district. This was the scene of the bloody fighting between highly trained Brotherhood irregulars and opposition demonstrators the night of Dec. 5, which left 10 dead and Egypt more polarized than ever. The Brothers accused the opposition of working with remnants of Mubarak’s police state – noting that fatal gunshots had to come from somewhere. Human rights groups appeared more concerned that the Brotherhood had taken the law into its own hands by holding some 50 protestors captive. Morsi appears complicit in the extrajudicial detentions, referring in his speech the next day to “confessions” and “a fifth column.”
Since that night, supporters of the president have kept their distance from the palace. Some assemble outside a pair of mosques within walking distance, where the chants the night after the battle include “Egypt will be Islamic” and “Screw liberals, seculars and the constitutional court.” It was only a couple of hundred people, but they were intense. “We are not educated, but we understand everything that’s happening around us,” says Zainab Ibrahim, 40, saying she had only five years in school. “They don’t want to give us freedom.”
Another, overwhelming Salafist band of protesters made camp outside town. Media Production City stands out past the Giza pyramids by an amusement park called Dreamland; it’s home to several private TV stations the protesters call beholden to Mubarak holdovers, and hostile to the new Egypt.
“Are the protests by the palace legitimate protests? Are these people who want the country to move forward? Who want prosperity for the country?” asks Abdulgalil Ragab, walking down the driveway clogged by angry men in beards and jebalas. Minutes earlier, the crowd had become a mob, swarming a car that apparently had grazed protesters in the driver’s haste to leave the station. It was an ugly moment, sticks in the air, a man running to the scene shouting, “To Jihad!” When I held my phone up to take a picture of the terrified woman at the wheel, a man grabbed my wrist and shouted an alarm. When others explained situation, he ran back to kiss me on the cheek. It was the kind of personal diplomacy – “deconfliction” in military jargon – that’s becoming less possible in a country fast running short on common ground.