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      Life as a Muslim Brotherhood Supporter in Egypt

      January 17, 2014

      By Peter Schwartzstein


      By H. Elrasam, via Wikimedia Commons

      Most of the time Faisal (name changed to protect his identity) forgets he has shotgun pellets lodged in his head. They sometimes throb when he plays soccer and occasionally keep him up at night, but only now, with a new fear of infection setting in, does he worry about his inability to seek professional medical help.

      “If I go to hospital I’ll be arrested for sure,” the tall, thin, slightly sallow 25-year old told me in a hushed tone when we met in a small neighborhood café late one evening.

      Faisal is more than slightly paranoid. He repeatedly glanced at the café’s other customers and nervously massaged his hands when an armored personnel carrier passed nearby. But he has good reason to be fearful: Hospital personnel allegedly reported dozens of wounded Muslim Brotherhood supporters to the police, and Faisal’s keen to avoid their fate.

      He was first wounded on August 14 as the police cleared supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi from Rabaa. Two months later, he was shot three times more during demonstrations accompanying commemorations of the 1973 war against Israel, as he and hundreds of other Muslim Brotherhood supporters sought to force their way into Tahrir Square.

      A doctor friend and fellow Morsi sympathiser has dealt with his more manageable wounds- removing 14 pellets and a bullet from his arms and shoulders, but the metal shots trapped in his jawbone, another just below his hairline and a third to the side of his left eye socket will require more complicated procedures than can be performed in a clinic.

      I bumped into Faisal shortly before he was shot for the first time while reporting on a brutal clash in an affluent Cairo district. Several hundred Morsi supporters evicted from one of the camps in the shadow of Cairo University had angrily smashed their way through a thin cordon of police, killing several officers, stealing their riot equipment, and burning a police bus. They were furious at the brutality of the security forces and intended on camping at a traffic circle in the middle of one of Cairo’s main intersections.

      It was never going to end well, and the clashes between Morsi supporters and police forces soon transformed the local mosque into a makeshift morgue.

      At some point amid the mayhem I lost track of Faisal who had arrived late on the scene to a thick pall of black smoke from burning tires that offset the effects of tear gas. Fearing the worst, I checked every one of the morgue’s roughly 20 corpses, which had begun to stink in the scorching afternoon heat after the air-conditioning was knocked out. A few of the bodies were scarcely recognizable, but he wasn’t there.  People told fantastical tales of bodies being carted off to conceal the soaring death toll, and I wondered whether something similar had happened to my engineer acquaintance.

      But Faisal, unlike at least 700 other Morsi supporters and approximately 50 policemen, didn’t die that day. His body was peppered with birdshot (clusters of pellets fired from the shotguns that many Egyptian thugs use) and a live bullet, which was fired, he said, from a residential balcony.

      Weak from loss of blood and his ears still ringing from the noise from earlier clashes with the army, he stumbled back through the empty side streets and past the military checkpoints. When he finally got home, he collapsed and slept for 18 hours.

      Faisal’s family disapproved of his politics, but they were afraid of the inevitable late-night door knock from the police, so they moved him out of Cairo.

      For two weeks he laid low and recovered from most of his injuries in a distant coastal town. He threw away his phone, fearing—in a fit of extreme paranoia—that the security services were tracking him. He shaved his scruffy beard when told the police were paying extra attention to long-bearded men associated with ultra-conservative Islamism and wore long sleeves to conceal the telltale gashes and furrows in his arms produced by birdshot.

      Faisal is very small fry in the Morsi-supporting ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’ that organizes weekly protests calling for the deposed president’s reinstatement. He’s never formally joined the Muslim Brotherhood and back when I first met him in April, he evinced little sympathy for the now-banned organization. “Morsi’s useless,” I remember him telling me, but the popularly supported military coup changed all that.

      “Morsi’s a democrat,” he now said, rehashing the most familiar Brotherhood talking point. He steers clear of discussing the much-maligned president’s failures and denies having disparaged his rule in the first place. Much of the time I have to crane my head to hear his low whisper, but there’s no containing his disdain for the army’s actions.  “The military just woke up one morning and thought, we have guns, let’s become president,” he shouted, which only attracted suspicious stares from those around us.

      But, when I asked him about Islamist attacks on Christians—which escalated during Morsi’s yearlong presidency, before peaking in the midst of this summer’s mayhem—that confidence disappears. His face blanched. He ducked off for an extended bathroom break before launching into another conspiracy theory. The security services were responsible, he said. “They burnt the churches so that while everybody’s looking there, they could kill us all in the camps here.”

      It’s a frequently told tale in a country with a weakness for outlandish plots. Faisal might happily mix with non-Muslims, but many of his compatriots aren’t so accepting. “[Christians] are traitors to Egypt,” student Hossam Ali told me on that desperate day in August, as I frantically dashed around looking for Faisal.

      Back then, many Morsi supporters felt it would only be a month or two before their president was ushered back into office. “We cannot be stopped,” one Brotherhood member confidently told me as I tracked a protest in September, but Faisal’s not so certain.

      His once close-knit group of friends has splintered between those resigned to or happy with military rule, and an ever-shrinking number intent on pressing for Morsi’s return. Mahmoud, Faisal’s best friend, was conscripted into the army for his mandatory military service only days after he was lightly wounded during the dispersal of the Morsi supporters’ camps in August. The often pitifully small number of protesters who turnout after midday prayers on Friday has left him painfully aware of his side’s weakness.

      Still, he insisted that he has no intention of accepting another president. “Rain or heat, I’ll continue struggling for my president,” he said.

      @pschwartzstein

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      Topics: Muslim Brotherhood, pro-Morsi, Egypt, Middle East

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