Rage smolders on in Cairo's crucible of rebellion

Working-class Imbaba fought Mubarak and fought Morsi -- and it's not done fighting

A poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi lies in the debris on August 15, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt.
Ed Giles/Getty Images

CAIRO, Egypt — Sayed Abdellatif knows by name the police officer who gunned down his son two years ago during the bloody uprising against Hosni Mubarak. But today, the baker from Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood says he'll stand with the police and the army against the Muslim Brotherhood’s “terrorism.”  

In the warrens of Imbaba, Abdellatif and his neighbors renamed his alley from El Salam, meaning “Peace,” to Mohamed Sayed Abdellatif Street, after his 23-year-old son was killed.

But recently, Abdellatif hung a new banner in a nearby intersection. This one features an image of his son’s face next to that of General Abdelfattah el-Sisi — the man who in early July ousted Mubarak’s elected successor, President Mohamed Morsi, a former top Brotherhood official.

The banner declares solidarity with the military and the police.

“The criminal Brotherhood sold the revolution and the blood of the martyrs,” he said. “If Sisi hadn’t intervened at the right time, we would’ve all killed each other. We, as a people, everyone one of us who knows a Brotherhood house would’ve gone there and killed everyone inside.”

This poor and disparaged district, packed with around 200,000 people per square mile and thick with memories of those who have died at police hands, provided a burning ember of working-class rage to ignite the rebellion against Mubarak and his hated security forces. But Morsi’s failure to deliver stability or relief from its poverty turned Imbaba, already suspicious of Islamists, quickly and ferociously against the Brotherhood, trumping many residents’ disgust for the police and suggesting that any future leader faces a precarious tenure in the face of unabating popular dissatisfaction. 

In the 21 years since more than 10,000 riot police besieged and stormed Imbaba in a six-week battle to root out radical Islamists who had established de facto control over much of the neighborhood’s life, the government seems to have mostly forgotten its residents. But they have not forgotten the government.

“Any coming president who doesn’t achieve the revolution’s demands will not be accepted by the people,” said Abdellatif.

Imbaba differs from Cairo’s peripheral ashwa’iyat — literally meaning “haphazard things” — where seemingly endless blocks of unfinished, red-brick slums leave little room for aspiration. Here, though many houses may lack proper plumbing, power and water, residents proudly lean on bonds between neighbors and families that have spread as tightly as its unpaved alleys, giving the place its reputation for fierce, defensive self-reliance.

The October 6 Mosque, across the intersection from Abdellatif’s banner, was built by his father in the 1970s to honor what many see as Egypt’s victory in the 1973 war against Israel. The mosque was partly funded by a well-off Christian family that runs the Malak Charitable Hospital around the corner, and Abdellatif routinely donates to the hospital’s director, Mahrous.

Affiliations here are based less on piety than neighborhood pride, and those who stir up trouble are rarely tolerated. Abdellatif boasted of the role citizens had played in the 1992 assault on the fundamentalists, whom he said had prohibited wedding celebrations, cracked down on widely accepted beer drinking, and splashed black paint on women’s uncovered skin. They and the Brotherhood were one and the same, a lineage of unwanted religious radicalism, he said.

As the tree-lined road leading north from the comparatively posh Mohandiseen district reaches Imbaba’s edge, taxis fade away in favor of sputtering, three-wheeled tuk tuks imported from India. The ramp up to the Ahmed Orabi Bridge reveals the decayed, trash-strewn vista of Imbaba’s old air field, closed down more than a decade ago, its promised redevelopment indefinitely on hold. The descent down from the bridge dips into Imbaba itself, a maze so dense that even taxi drivers who live there ask directions to find side streets.

Queues and blackouts

Imbaba’s issues are Egypt’s issues: shocking economic deprivation and a central government too corrupt or incompetent to offer its citizens a way up. The resentments accumulated over years, finally vented in 2011, would have vexed any new government, but residents said that Morsi’s administration not only failed to address them, it pushed people over the brink through bullheaded tactics.  

Ahmed Galal, a 37-year-old aluminum factory worker, said the price of diesel had doubled during Morsi’s year in office, drastically limiting his ability to transport goods and perform other work. Mohamed, a 36-year-old electric company employee, claimed that after his bosses changed following Morsi’s election, Brotherhood sympathizers received preferential hiring; his requests for time off began to be refused; and he fought with coworkers who attempted to force him to join prayers.

The Brotherhood, the men said, was looking out only for itself. In February, when the Brotherhood organized a convoy in a main street near Abdellatif’s bakery to distribute cooking gas at below-market prices – the kind of social service work at which the movement has excelled at for years – Abdellatif viewed it as a cynical attempt to buy votes using gas canisters “leaked” by the Morsi government. He gathered some friends and raised a protest that shut the convoy down.

Abdellatif and other Imbaba residents found their distrust of the Brotherhood echoed in many privately-owned newspapers and television channels, which fanned anti-Morsi sentiment with a continuous stream of rumors, presented as fact, about his and the Brotherhood’s financial support from the United States and plans to sell the Suez Canal and Sinai Peninsula to benefactors in Qatar.

In the one-room law office of Abdellatif’s surviving son, Ashraf, where the door was left open to ease stinging sewage vapors and which was temporarily rendered hot and dark by a power cut, men sat illuminated by a detached, battery-powered fluorescent ceiling light.

They said that the gasoline and water shortages which had plagued Imbaba under Morsi had ended under Sisi. (Egypt’s actual interim president, former judge Adly Mansour, who was chosen by Sisi, was scarcely mentioned.) Problems that lingered could still be traced to Morsi’s faults: power cuts went on, they said, because of how much diesel the Brotherhood had sent to their Hamas allies in Gaza.

Such rumors, which have never been backed by credible evidence, are widely accepted in Imbaba and elsewhere, even after gasoline queues and blackouts continued after Morsi’s fall. They have been sustained by occasional endorsements from government officials including the late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and a judge, currently hearing a case regarding Morsi’s 2011 prison break, who has stated that Hamas and the Brotherhood conspired during the 2011 uprising.

Imbaba had never liked Morsi. In the first round of presidential voting in 2012, he came in third behind popular socialist Hamdeen Sabbahi and former Air Force general Ahmed Shafiq. In the runoff ballot between Morsi and Shafiq, 53 percent of Imbaba voted for Shafiq. His near-total lack of charisma meant he had little way to convince them otherwise. Sisi invoked memories of modern Egypt’s beloved founding figure, former Army colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the men said, while Morsi had given infuriating two-and-a-half-hour speeches and alienated almost every country beside Turkey and Qatar, who they viewed as his ideological allies.

But once in power, it was what men like Abdellatif saw as Morsi’s betrayal of revolutionary hopes that cemented their anger.

They listed several moments of lost faith. In November 2011, the Brotherhood refused to join protests against the security forces out of fear that the chaos would derail parliamentary elections it expected to win. Roughly a year later, Morsi supporters attacked a Tahrir Square demonstration that was meant to highlight the failures of his first 100 days in office. Abdellatif said he remembered their stones pelting a banner bearing his son’s image.

Mohammed, who had voted for Morsi, said his realization came last December, when Brotherhood toughs descended on the remains of a sit-in outside Morsi’s presidential palace, ripped down tents, and violently dispersed the protesters, igniting what until then had been the worst street violence in a year.

“Morsi opened his coat in Tahrir [after his election] and said he wasn’t afraid, then he sent his thugs to the palace,” Mohammed said. “He refused to speak to the people. He only spoke to his own supporters. He should be tried and executed.”

Along Abdellatif’s alleyway, past his bakery filled with crates and sacks of government-subsidized flour and a neighbor’s hovel packed with eight cows chewing feed and waiting for slaughter, many seemed to agree. Was Morsi’s ouster a revolution or military coup, Abdellatif asked his friends as they passed. Each gave the answer he sought – a revolution.

But not everyone in Imbaba is as sanguine, especially in the wake of the military-backed crackdown on August 14 that crushed the last remaining pro-Morsi sit-ins and left hundreds of his sympathizers dead. In recent days, protests against the military have begun to spread in the neighborhood, attracting significant numbers.

Egypt's 'hijacked' revolution

Few residents these days express open sympathy toward the Brotherhood in normal conversation, outside of protests. Its members and sympathizers have mostly gone to ground.

Ashraf, wondering aloud whether any of his neighbors had attended a pro-Morsi sit-in, mentioned a man named Sheikh Nasser.

"He's not around anymore," he said, vaguely. "It's sad." 

Sheikh Saleh, the imam of the small Hedaya Mosque, not far from Abdellatif’s bakery, said he agreed that the Brotherhood had “hijacked” Egypt’s revolution and failed to fulfill the rights of those who died, such as his own 15-year-old son, Islam, but he saw little cause to celebrate the movement’s violent downfall.

“Was it a revolution or a coup?” he asked, hitching up his long galabeyya and settling his hefty frame onto a stool. “Okay, when there’s a revolution, do you see armored vehicles throughout all of Egypt, or a curfew, or an army doing things like that?"

“If they’re the ones making the announcements about who is ruling Egypt, is that a revolution or a coup?” he said. “I see a coup.”

On January 29, 2011, Islam unlocked the mosque’s front door and recited its call to prayer, as he always did. Afterward, he left to join the ongoing anti-Mubarak protests and was shot dead by an officer at the Imbaba Police Station, a little more than half a mile up the road. Saleh’s younger son, Hazem, who struggles to reach the front door’s padlock, is now responsible for opening the mosque, whose turquoise-painted brick walls have faded beneath the dust that seems to cover the whole neighborhood.

Saleh, with slicked-back hair and a long beard dyed orange with henna, said he would identify himself as a strictly conservative Salafi and favored the Nour Party. He had little sympathy for the Brotherhood, but neither did he believe the tales of the state and its supportive media outlets seeking to pin almost all of Egypt’s violence since the 2011 uprising on the Brotherhood and Hamas.

He disapproved of the brutal way riot police had dispersed the main pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa el-Adaweya Square, and noted sarcastically how Sisi, once the head of military intelligence and appointed as defense minister by Morsi, had only recently realized that the Brotherhood was a national security threat.

“The media is brainwashing people that anyone who wears a beard is a terrorist and turning people against each other,” he said.

Meanwhile, the economy continues to slide, state coffers are draining, critics of the military are being jailed, and prospects for street violence remain, he said. Saleh expected Islamists to be excluded from politics and imprisoned, while the police officers who had killed the sons of Imbaba – and whose identities are well known to its residents – remained free.

“We need stability and national reconciliation," he said. "But how can you say you want to make a compromise when you’ve got the knife on my neck?”

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