In Egypt, secular groups and Islamists stage their protests separately

The art student, a devout Muslim, was sentenced to prison last month for protesting the coup that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The young journalist, relatively secular, was detained for opposing closed military trials for civilians.

The two are part of a minority of Egyptians who have dared to publicly challenge what they say are growing abuses by the country’s military and government.

But their groups do not work together.

“I am absolutely against any alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, because they’re traitors,” said the journalist, Ahmed Abdo, 23. “Their hands are stained with blood.”

About six months after Morsi was forced from office, his Islamist supporters continue to demonstrate against the military-backed government. More than a thousand Morsi loyalists have been killed, and many times that number have been arrested. Although secular opposition groups supported the coup, a new law that effectively bans protests and a draft constitution that maintains the military’s right to try civilians have galvanized small groups of secular youth activists to oppose the government as well.

But while the non-Islamist youths see their fight as a struggle for rights against a repressive military and police force, they still consider Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies their political enemies. As a result, the two streams of youth activists on the busy streets and university campuses of cities across Egypt have taken on the police state as parallel forces, not as one.

Their protests frequently erupt into bitter disputes, and even clashes, over who owns the movement or to which group a student “martyr” belonged. In recent days, non-Islamist youth activists have accused the Brotherhood of “hijacking” the campus protests.

“Seems like #MB are adamant about ruining everything, even the student movement,” an anti-Islamist blogger who uses the screen name “Egyptocracy” tweeted last week, as police fired tear gas at Cairo University students.

Hussein Gohar, a spokesman for the leftist Social Democratic Party, said Egyptians who backed Morsi’s ouster and those who opposed it are so deeply polarized that non-Islamist youths would “lose ground in the streets” if they were to publicly ally themselves with the Islam­ists.

Liberal activists and political parties, including Gohar’s, have held news conferences and issued statements simply to clarify that their cause is separate from the Muslim Brotherhood’s. Government agencies, media institutions and popular rhetoric are skewed aggressively against the Islamist group.

“We know their tendency toward hypocrisy, and their disgraceful positions,” the student wing of the Social Democratic Party wrote this month after clashes between student protesters and police. “As usually happens, the Muslim Brotherhood students violated what the student powers agreed upon . . . raising signs with their political slogans and disrupting the students’ goals with the goals of their own political stream.”

After coup, ‘more martyrs’

Perhaps partly because of the divide, the protests have remained relatively small and have had little effect on the course of Egyptian politics, now under the control of the military-backed government.

The country plans to hold a referendum on the new constitution in January — with or without the activists’ approval. The general public, whom Gohar dismisses as “willing to trade freedom for security” — is largely disinterested in the activists’ cause.

And the arrests and convictions continue. Daily protests and clashes between Islamist students and riot police have rattled university campuses nationwide, and three of the country’s most prominent secular activists have been put on trial recently.

Frustrated by the impasse, some, such as shoemaker and activist Mohamed Atta, are considering a new path. Atta, 31, has spent two years searching for justice after his brother, Essam, was tried before a secret military court and then allegedly tortured to death inside a maximum-
security prison.

In a final phone conversation with his brother, as he lay hemorrhaging on the prison floor from rape and poisoning, Essam revealed the name of the prison guard who he said had tortured him. But the guard has never been charged.

Atta has lobbied in the news media and before the attorney general for an arrest and a trial. But even after Morsi came to power in Egypt’s first democratic elections, the security forces remained just as abusive, he said. So in the summer, Atta joined hundreds of thousands of other Egyptians in the streets, calling on Morsi to resign.

The coup, and the crackdown that followed, filled him with regret. It “has added more martyrs,” Atta said.

‘We have to unite’

As the government’s dragnet has widened in recent weeks to include liberal activists, Atta has become a rare voice among the non-Islamist opposition — convinced that it’s time for Egypt’s Islamists and non-Islamists to join hands for a common cause.

The entrenched military and police are too strong to battle separately, Atta said. “I’m one of the people who are saying that we have to unite,” he said.

Some non-Islamists were outraged by the arrest in Alexandria of 21 women and girls loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. Of several dozen protesters who gathered on the morning of Oct. 31 with signs denouncing the coup, the police took only women and girls into long-term custody, lawyers said.

“It was meant purely to intimidate and terrify the Muslim Brotherhood and keep them off the street,” said Ahmed Mamdouh, an attorney for the Nadeem Center for Human Rights, who is helping to represent the women.

After a one-day trial that Human Rights Watch labeled “political,” the women and girls were ordered to spend 11 years in prison. The sentence shocked members of Egypt’s non-Islamist intellectual class, who had largely dismissed earlier Islamist arrests and killings as justified.

“Leftists and liberals” were suddenly interested in joining the defense team, said Mahmoud Gaber, another attorney for the group. The mother of 18-year-old defendant Aya Tarek said her daughter found supportive messages posted on her Facebook wall from girls she had never met.

An appeals court shortened the punishments to a one-year suspended sentence for the adults and probation for the seven minors. The group walked out of jail last weekend — emboldened, their movement stronger.

“Those who weren’t Muslim Brotherhood before have now become Muslim Brotherhood,” said Esraa Gamal Shaaban, a 19-year-old artist who was among those arrested. The case, she added, “has had the opposite effect” of what the government expected.

To Atta, the arrest of the female protesters and the lack of judicial action on other, more serious crimes only illustrate further the need for a united protest movement in the face of a powerful enemy. “This is the judiciary that we have in Egypt — putting people on trial for silly things while murderers go free,” he said.

Atta said it was the acknowledgment of the Islamists’ suffering since the coup that evoked his empathy. It’s the shared suffering that ultimately might bridge the divide, he added.

Lara El Gibaly and Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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