In one of the strongest of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strongholds, where “no to the bloody coup” is sprayed on almost every soot-blasted block, an odd reality is settling in: Despite signs of its presence everywhere, the 85-year-old Islamist organization is almost nowhere to be found.
At a private school supposedly connected to the Brotherhood: “That’s all rumors,” said the deputy principal.
On a dusty stoop in a nearby village where locals have long depended on the Brotherhood for everything from cooking oil to wedding funds to the sweeping of dirt streets: “The Muslim Brotherhood?” said a skinny man who quickly walked away. “I don’t want to talk politics.”
A visit to this Nile River governorate suggests that a sweeping court ruling Monday effectively banning the group and all its activities merely cemented the Muslim Brotherhood’s return to the shadows of Egyptian society, perhaps more damaged than ever.
Since the popularly supported military coup that swept Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July, government forces have killed hundreds of his Muslim Brotherhood backers, arrested thousands more — including the group’s top leaders — and waged a propaganda campaign to demonize Brotherhood members as terrorists.
If the military-backed interim government follows through with the recent court-ordered ban, it would mean that authorities are willing to go even further than former president Hosni Mubarak did to crush the group.
The ruling was written broadly and appears to apply not only to the Brotherhood’s political and religious work, but also to the empire of hospitals, schools and charities that has been the basis of its support among millions of poor Egyptians for decades.
“This is our social capital,” said a worried local official with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, who at first gave his name but later pleaded that it not be published because, he said, security forces were investigating him.
“We are afraid they will remove our people from these charities and bring others instead,” he said. “The situation is very sensitive.”
Only a year ago, he was part of the Brotherhood network swept into power as voters in this agricultural governorate elected Morsi’s Islamist allies to 14 out of 18 parliamentary seats. They also gave Morsi two-thirds of their votes in the first presidential election after the 2011 ousting of Mubarak.
Now the official sleeps in a different place nearly every night to avoid local security forces that have arrested dozens of local Brotherhood members.
Among those arrested were wealthy individuals who funded charities, doctors who helped treat the poor, teachers who instructed kids in the Koran, and engineers who repaired houses, power lines and sewer systems in the poorest neighborhoods and villages, he said. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, preemptively shuttered its most visible projects, including a program to deliver school supplies.
“The people here need a lot of help,” said the official.
He suggested visits to what he described as a local charity that was picking up the slack in the Brotherhood’s absence and to a Brotherhood-affiliated school.
The official got into his car and drove down a dirt-packed road to a building where the corridors were filled with hundreds of kids and mothers clamoring for school supplies, families that normally would have been helped by the Brotherhood, he said.
“Please don’t mention the name of the Brotherhood,” he cautioned, walking into the office of the charity director. “Just say, maybe, ‘What kind of work do you do?’ ”
The advice didn’t matter, because the director refused to say anything.
Nearby was the allegedly Brotherhood-affiliated school, called Dawa al-Islamiya, which residents said was raided recently by security forces claiming there were weapons inside. Several teachers were arrested. Now workers were sweeping its outdoor walkways, and administrators were preparing for the start of the school year.
Asked about the raid, the arrests and the implication that it was a Brotherhood school, the deputy principal was adamant: “This is not right at all,” he said stiffly. “This school is under supervision of the Ministry of Education.”
Outside, another school official whispered a slightly different explanation; he said the ministry had pushed out many Brotherhood officials and taken control of the school.
“There is a lot of fear right now,” he said. “Anything with the Islamic name is under suspicion.”
After a while, the Freedom and Justice Party official suggested that it might be easier to find people willing to talk in a nearby village. And in scruffy Maymonia, where cabbage leaves and plastic bottles blow along dirt roads, it was.
Many locals said that the Brotherhood used to offer lots of help but that more recently, the rice and oil and gifts for kids came as part of campaigns for political candidates.
“They were also helping themselves,” said Mahmoud Sayed Abdulla, 40, sitting on a stoop in front of his juice shop.
He and others pointed across the street to the office of a former Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, Mohamed Shaker el-Deeb, who used to help people with money for weddings and funerals. Since Morsi was ousted, Deeb had disappeared, and the office was closed.
Mohamed Saad, a businessman from a wealthy local family, said that Deeb had been widely respected but that the Brotherhood’s reputation as a whole has suffered.
“They used to work very well here, but after they reached the chair,” he said, referring to the presidency, “they lost it.”
Asked who might take up their work, Saad pointed to an elderly man sweeping the street with a short broom. “We will,” he said.
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.