Amid clashes of Egypt’s Brotherhood, opposition – the quiet struggle of those in the middle

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 25, 2013 

Zainab's aunt, a resident of Fayoum, one of Egypt's poorest governorates, holds a prescription that has the logo of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.


— To mark the two-year anniversary of an uprising that led to their ascension, members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood came to the town of Faiyum on Friday with a simple message: The government may not be providing services for you, but the powerful social organization supporting it still can.

They fanned out in this historic, impoverished town and picked up 2-week-old trash thrown between apartment buildings. Brotherhood doctors carried boxes of medicine into makeshift clinics to distribute to the ill. Merchants opened subsidized food, gas and clothing markets.

One hundred miles north down the Nile River and a world away, thousands gathered at Tahrir Square, a now international symbol of its literal name, liberation. The opposition, unable to coalesce around a political platform that can unseat the Brotherhood, was back protesting in the streets, battling police tear gas with rocks, stagnation with chants.

But regular protests in Tahrir have done more to alienate voters than to topple Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. And the Brotherhood’s social campaign no longer buys the votes it once did. There is a patina of disillusionment over millions of Egyptians like Faiyum resident Safa Ramadan, 43, who is too hungry to embrace the luster of revolutionary change, too humiliated to appreciate another handout.

Ramadan’s husband does not make enough money to keep up with rising prices brought by near constant instability. So she pulled her 12-year-old son out of school and made him get a job as a garbage man, or perhaps more aptly, garbage boy. Friday, she stood over baskets of fruit and vegetables, swarmed by flies, and fretted over whether she could afford the extra 10 cents a kilo of tomatoes will cost her this week.

“The prices never go down. They always go up by a lot. What am I supposed to do? Should I pay for school or pay for food?” she asked, draped in a dark headscarf and gown. “Morsi has not done anything for us.”

Two years after Egypt began an awe-inspiring campaign of change, two major groups that spurred that movement, the Brotherhood and its opponents, in many ways cannot evolve past the movement that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In the absence of a government that can provide goods and services and salvage a deteriorating economy, Morsi’s supporters on Friday fell back on the strength of their social movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to pacify their base. Since Morsi’s election, it has become increasingly blurry how independent the Brotherhood is of the government; the organization members make no apologies that their mission is to help Morsi’s base.

Morsi’s supporters, repeating a Brotherhood talking point, said democracy is the ballot box, and Egyptians should respect the results and allow Morsi to govern.

“The uprising is over. Let’s start working on the nation. We would be happy if all the parties started joining this,” said Abdel Tawab Moussad, 43, a 22-year member of the Brotherhood and an engineer who helped pick up trash. “We are trying to show the government how to work.”

The opposition, which once had so many on the street that it forced the Egyptian military to tell Mubarak to step aside, was back out Friday. Comprised of liberals, moderates, remnants of the Mubarak regime and the elite, they again came to remind people they could still cause headaches for the leadership, but so far, not much more than that. Even if they had solid ideas, they are too disjointed to manifest them.

The nation has undergone the motions of reform. There have been four governments and a new constitution ushered in through five elections. Egypt now has its first democratically elected president and a constitution that seeks broad protections to both Egyptians and the nation’s environment. And yet, five months after Morsi’s election, much of the government institutions, the ones that led to Mubarak’s fall, remain the same. There have been no major police reforms, a call that initially spurred the protests of Jan. 25, 2011. There have been no economic or infrastructure reforms. This year alone, there have been at least six major building collapses or train collisions, killing hundreds.

Around the nation Friday, hundreds of thousands chanted in the streets, clashing with police as they called for Morsi to step down or to do more. In every home in Cairo were the sounds of protests, either within earshot or over television screens that projected chaotic scenes around the country. State television reported that six protesters had died in Suez. By 9:30 p.m., 265 had been injured, the Health Ministry said; by 11 p.m., that figure jumped to 369.

Protesters cut access to the capital’s main bridges and subway stations, trapping commuters. Some threatened to overrun the government’s media building, which historically has marked the end of a government. Government tanks lined the highways, and police again charged at protesters.

“Bread, freedom, social justice,” the demonstrators yelled, the defining chant of the protests two years ago.

Inside homes in places like Faiyum there was a quiet furor over the ongoing protests, which many attribute to the weakened economy. Tourism, which was once tied to as many as a third of all jobs here, will not return without stability, they argue. The economy cannot recover without security.

Earlier this week, the Muslim Brotherhood announced a national initiative to provide goods and services that the government has not – three months before a parliamentary election it hopes to dominate. Just as it did before the presidential election and the constitutional referendum, members turned the party headquarters into a free clinic run by doctors who support the Brotherhood. The 84-year-old Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organized and most powerful group, bought food and clothing and sold them at discounted prices. Members slaughtered sheep in front of residents so they could see they were getting fresh, discounted meat.

According to government statistics, unemployment in Egypt is at 12.4 percent – though the actual figure is likely far higher. The Egyptian pound has fallen by 12 percent since Mubarak left office, but the price of everyday goods has climbed far more than that. Tomatoes, the telltale measure of food prices here, cost roughly 30 percent more. In a nation where the average Egyptian puts 46 percent of his income toward food, such rises have made things like fruit and cooking gas a luxury.

In Faiyum, government and non-governmental organizations, known as NGOs, used to pick up the trash. Residents could buy cooking gas for 5 pounds without Brotherhood help instead of 20 pounds on the black market. During Mubarak, there was no such thing as gasoline lines because the government could afford to subsidize fuel.

Outside one clinic, where boxes of medicines were stacked inside, Ahmed Yassin, a pediatrician and longtime member of the Brotherhood, wrote prescriptions to those visiting him on a pad with the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party logo. Patients carried his prescriptions outside, where another member gave them the medicines they needed for free.

It is perhaps because of such efforts by the Brotherhood that Faiyum endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood-approved constitution by 89 percent during last month’s referendum, a far bigger margin than the 60 percent national average. It also overwhelmingly voted for Morsi.

Ramadan was among them, but she vowed to stay home for April’s parliamentary elections, despite all the services Morsi’s party showered around her.

“We don’t want anything anymore. Yes, they are picking up our trash, but we want to eat,” she said as she reached to pay for her tomatoes. “I will not vote.”

Amina Ismail contributed from Cairo.

VIDEO: Violence flares on anniversary of Egypt uprising