Unprecedented division on display everywhere has come to replace the brief period of national unity in Egypt after the toppling of Mubarak. The graffiti that now covers virtually every square meter of Cairo captures the mood. The colorful pictures of 2011 portraying a nation’s hopes for freedom, routinely depicting the unity emblematic of the original Tahrir square demonstrations, have been replaced with darker images. One enormous caricature painted under a bridge boasted a picture of Morsi with a head the size of a lamppost and made to resemble Hitler—with a similarly sized sinister, almost devil-looking Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s top strategist, on one side and Muhammed Badie, the organization’s Supreme Guide, on the other. What looked like mind control cables connected the two Brotherhood officials to the president, and swastikas surrounded these images. It’s against this backdrop that Egypt’s crisis deepens, putting further strain on the country’s social cohesion.
Calls for the June 30 Rebellion campaign were spray-painted in black on the sides of what seemed like every building and billboard. On a gray wall in a trash-lined street someone had sponged away the word “tamarrod” and replaced it with the Arabic phrase “blood for blood” next to the same date. An Egyptian-American visiting Egypt at the same time recounted how a taxi driver evidently mistook him for a member of the Brotherhood on account of his beard and refused to pick him up, yelling, “I don’t load cattle and sheep” as he screeched off. The Arabic word for “Brotherhood” (ikhwan) rhymes with “sheep” (khirfan), with the latter increasingly used as a derogatory term to describe Brotherhood members as blind followers, incapable of independent thought.
Similar sentiments filled private media channels funded by businessmen hostile to the new order. Oppositionist social media echoed these views, with prominent activists routinely posting an image of Morsi looking like Hitler as their profile picture. Even charismatic opposition media personalities regularly cast the Islamists as not only incompetent, inferior, and unfit to rule, but—most worrying—as un-Egyptian: the “other.” Their loyalties were to their party and to foreign forces like Hamas or Qatar, not to the Egyptian people, the media argued. They were an illegal terrorist organization that had taken hold of the country and had to be removed—Egypt’s survival depended on it.
Demonization went both ways. Television channels sympathetic to the Brotherhood churned out low quality and inflammatory programs depicting the opposition as immoral and hostile to Islam. Both sides depicted the other as an existential threat, yet paradoxically also as a miniscule fringe sidelined by their own clear majority. Each claimed to be “the people” (ashaab).
Before June 30 social polarization reached a fever pitch. People didn’t just hold different opinions about the same reality—they held different realities. For example, a well read and previously apolitical school teacher who had voted for Morsi was visibly disturbed as he stressed that the goal of the June 30 demonstrations were not to oust Morsi, but to “end Islam in Egypt.” Conversely, a senior officer in a prominent opposition party remarked that the Muslim Brotherhood had to go because they were recreating Egypt’s social order in their image. Her proof was that the Islamists in power had forced women to cover their hair and had shut down all the movie theaters and plays (though Iron Man 3 was still playing in Cairo in halls full of women without hijab). But worst of all, she said with passionate exasperation, the Ikhwan were about to demolish all of Egypt’s ancient artifacts, including the pyramids, and close down its tourism as sinful. She tried to reason with them, she said, pointing out that the country depended on tourism revenue and previous Muslim rulers hadn’t destroyed the country’s ancient heritage. In her telling, they retorted that this oversight was only because those who governed in the past weren’t aware the pyramids existed.
This type of delusional criticism of the Brotherhood is especially absurd considering there was no shortage of real shortcomings for which to justifiably deride them. From its inability to manage the economy to its mishandling of sensitive foreign relations challenges, the Morsi administration gave its political adversaries plenty to work with. In late June, gas lines stretched out for miles, even at midnight and dawn. The lines blocked traffic, creating hours of delays. In a press conference that week, the Petroleum minister responded to the crisis by denying the fuel shortage and encouraging the public to shun groundless rumors of long lines at the pump. Food prices soared, effectively doubling every few months, while power cuts were a daily reality. Though usually brief, electricity outages were unpredictable, disrupting businesses and daily life. In the weeks leading up to its scheduled rebellion, Cairo was effectively crippled.
Opposition leaders condemn these failings in spades, as well they should. It is how educated elites combine paranoia with justified policy critique that creates the parallel universes Egyptians inhabit as they pass each other on the street. The fuel crisis was but one example. Morsi supporters blamed the “deep state” for deliberately manipulating the fuel distribution channels to produce the shortage. Those who opposed the president said the shortage was just one of many examples of Morsi’s mismanagement and why he had to go. Not to miss an opportunity, some among them added accusations of treachery, claiming he was depriving Egypt of gas so he could help power Gaza for Hamas. As soon as Morsi was removed, fuel shortage and power cuts reportedly disappeared, or at least improved dramatically, prompting opposing reactions again. While Morsi supporters see the previous crisis as a clear indication of the problem resulting from the opposition’s use of political manipulation to undermine the president, his detractors say it shows how quickly Egyptians corrected their consumption behavior, out of relief that he left.
Egyptians are deeply divided, but not along the simplistic religious-secular fault line many assume. Those who marched on June 30 seem to have come from all walks of life; secular and devout, liberal and leftist, revolutionary and reactionary. A prominent leftist activist who had voted for Morsi expressed his discomfort with the coalition’s fulul elements (remnants of the old regime) and said he regretted having to march alongside people that did not share his vision for Egypt. However, he said, “The Muslim Brotherhood has become so arrogant. We need to send them a message so they wake up and make change.”
While individual activists expressed nuanced and sometimes reluctant support for tamarrod, its public advocates were much less subtle. Prominent figures in support of the protest took issue with the international media’s depiction of the fissure as one between anti-Morsi and pro-Morsi forces in Egypt. Instead, according to them, it was a battle between “the people” and “a gang of fanatics.” Both sides continue to claim to be “the people” fighting fringe elements. Though according to a poll conducted a month before by a local research institute called Baseera—at the same time that Morsi’s approval rating plunged to 32 percent—of the roughly 60 percent of Egyptians who were aware of the tamarrod campaign, 50 percent supported it and 50 percent did not. The conflict raging in Egypt seems to be pitting “the people” against “the people.”
Dalia Mogahed is president and CEO of Mogahed Consulting. She is co-author with John L. Esposito of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.