CAIRO — It is no longer cool to have a beard.
Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is out. His opponents, a military-backed interim government of secularists, are in. And if you’ve got a beard — that most conspicuous symbol of Islamism in post-Arab Spring Egypt — you’re likely to get taunted on the metro, harassed in the souk and possibly even assaulted, according to conservative Muslims.
A month after a military coup ousted Morsi and landed his top cohorts in the Muslim Brotherhood behind bars, a popular backlash against the Islamists who governed for just over a year is palpable far beyond the halls of power. It is evident in the sidewalk conversations, the grocery lines and the television talk shows.
Criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood had been building for months, as citizens griped about a declining economy and what some called the group’s determination to dominate this nation’s power structure. But since Morsi was toppled, the complaints have exploded into a full-throttled fury at his supporters, demonstrating the dangerous polarization in this nation that is a key U.S. ally.
In the weeks since the July 3 coup, Egypt’s military and the interim government — which is made up largely of liberals and stalwarts of the Hosni Mubarak era — have cast Morsi’s Islamist supporters as evil-willed “terrorists,” child abusers and spies. The Egyptian media have whipped up the anti-Islamist fervor with dramatic reports that the Muslim Brotherhood dismisses as lies.
On the streets, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians joined protests in June to oust Morsi, there is a willing audience for the new government’s charges.
“The treatment has changed for the worse,” said Osama Ibrahim, an imam at a Cairo mosque that caters to hard-line Islamists.
The nation’s turmoil has seeped into his daily life in the Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams, he said. “On the metro, they call us names. People come up to us and say, ‘How are you, Sheik Morsi?’” he said.
He said his wife, who wears a face veil, saw men in their neighborhood yank the veil off another woman draped in black. At another point, local men stopped the couple’s car and barred them from entering a marketplace, Ibrahim said, because of the way they were dressed.
“You have to understand: The minibuses don’t even stop for me anymore,” he said.
The tensions are quickly rising. Thousands of Morsi’s Islamist supporters marched through the streets Friday, and police clashed with pro-Morsi demonstrators outside the suburban headquarters of several local television networks as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns landed in the Egyptian capital for a last-minute diplomatic push to avert violence.
Egypt’s security forces are preparing to break up the sprawling pro-Morsi encampments that have taken over major roads in eastern and central districts of the city.
The Obama administration is working with European and Persian Gulf nations to try to reinforce messages of calm to both the interim Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. Secretary of State John F. Kerry met Friday in London with Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, whose government is in close contact with the Egyptian military and interim government. Separately, Kerry and other U.S. officials have sought help from Qatar, which has close ties to the Brotherhood.
“All of the parties involved have a responsibility to be inclusive, to work towards a peaceful resolution. The last thing that we want is more violence,” Kerry said before his meeting in London.
At a Friday news conference, officials from Egypt’s State Information Service and the state-run National Council for Women accused the Islamists at the largest pro-Morsi encampment, in eastern Cairo, of “trafficking” and abusing children, exploiting Syrian refugee youths and “training terrorists.”
“The battle being fought in Egypt is a war against terrorism,” said Mohammed Badreddin Zayed, the head of the State Information Service. Officials aired footage of children chanting for martyrdom and wearing the white shrouds that Muslims use to cloak their dead. They also passed out a DVD labeled “Violence of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Although some of the government’s allegations are clearly exaggerated, the rights group Amnesty International said Friday that it had interviewed opponents of Morsi who said they were tortured inside sit-ins supporting the former president. The report reflected the danger of further bloodshed in a conflict that has left at least 140 dead, most of them Morsi supporters killed by Egyptian security forces.
But the domestic media have largely echoed the government line, tapping into Egyptians’ xenophobia and casting the Brotherhood as linked to foreign plots.
“The conspiracy between the West and the Muslim Brotherhood has been revealed,” Gaber al-Qarmuty declared on his show “Our Country” on the liberal-oriented ONTV on Wednesday night. He ran footage of a truck full of individually wrapped packages that he described as being Molotov cocktails en route to a pro-Morsi demonstration.
Egypt’s television stations, a mix of government-controlled and privately run channels, have enormous influence in this poverty-stricken society in which conspiracy theories are rife and education standards are poor.
Qarmuty likened Morsi’s supporters to brainwashed peasants, accusing them of transforming their protest camp into a public toilet, and appealing to Egyptians’ highly traditional social mores.
“Is it okay for your wife or daughter to look from your balcony and to see someone taking a shower and going to the bathroom? Is this okay?” Qarmuty implored his viewers.
A popular talk-show host, Tawfiq Okasha, has repeatedly urged Egyptians to take to the streets alongside the police in what he calls the defense of their nation against terrorism.
“Go and stand by the police and be one hand with the security forces,” Okasha told his viewers Monday night after announcing that police were clashing with pro-Morsi demonstrators in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura.
In the poor and conservative neighborhood of Imbaba, which the Islamists once claimed as a stronghold, Rageb Amin, a barber, has stayed silent as the anti-Islamist vitriol has seeped into his customers’ conversations.
“People say that in Rabaa, they take hostages and kill them,” Amin said, referring to the site of the main pro-Morsi sit-in. He still backs Morsi and thinks the allegations are lies. But speaking up would spell “problems,” he said.
Other former Brotherhood supporters have swayed to the popular narrative. Sherif Said, an employee in a steel rebar warehouse, said he planned to shave his beard because his bosses persuaded him to abandon the Islamist cause.
“This guy used to be with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mohamed Zeitoun, Said’s boss. “He was talking about ‘legitimacy’ up until last week,” he said, in a reference to Morsi’s standing as an elected president. “But we convinced him not to be with the Brotherhood,” Zeitoun added as Said watched, wide-eyed and silent.
Michael Birnbaum and Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo and Anne Gearan in London contributed to this report.