- Life Style
On 13 February 2011, two days after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office, my uncle, Mohammed Abdel Qoddous, walked into the former headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in downtown Cairo for the first time in 16 years. The office had been raided and sealed shut by security forces in 1995 in one of the regime's many crackdowns on the outlawed group.
Nothing had moved since. A teacup with a stubbed out cigarette lay on its side atop a newspaper dated from the day of the raid. Wisps of sunlight filtered in through the shuttered window slats. A blanket of dust, layered precariously high after years of painstaking accumulation, trembled and filled the air as he walked from room to room.
"I was born here," he said with a smile.
My uncle has been a devoted member of the Muslim Brotherhood for the past 36 years. He joined the group in 1976 — the same year he got married — and has spent much of his adult life committed to the group's view of the world and codes of conduct. His allegiance to the brotherhood forms a part of his religious identity. He was drawn to its legacy of resistance in Egypt and has stood by it through decades of political oppression and systematic persecution.
The first of his dozen imprisonments was as a Brotherhood member in a 1981 police raid on the Guidance Council office that also housed the group's magazine, "Al-Dawaa," where he worked. He spent four months behind bars and says he was happy and proud to serve the time with then-Supreme Guide Omar Tilmisany. Over the years that followed, while he may not have always toed the line set out by the organization, his commitment to it has remained steadfast.
Now, a little over a year after the January 25 revolution, with the Muslim Brotherhood's ascent from a banned opposition movement to the most powerful party in Egyptian politics, hairline fissures that have long existed between my uncle and the group's leadership have begun to crack apart and deepen. As the Brotherhood strains to wrap its hands around the levers of state power in Egypt, my uncle finds himself having to confront the pressing reality that the group he has considered himself a member of for so long may very well be one he will have to begin openly protesting.
For more than he ever was a Brother, my uncle is, by his very nature, a dissident.
To chronicle his history is to map out a lifetime of dissent. He took part in his first protest in 1968 during the student revolt against Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime. In 1981 he was jailed as part of Anwar Sadat's widespread crackdown on opposition groups. After Sadat's assassination he was placed under close surveillance by state security (he casually recalls being openly tailed on the desert road to Alexandria whenever he drove north for family vacations).
As a career journalist, he wrote for opposition papers throughout Hosni Mubarak's reign. Leila Soueif, the professor and longtime rights activist, recalled that when she was advocating for her husband, attorney Ahmed Seif al-Islam Hamad, after he was imprisoned and tortured in 1983 for his involvement in the socialist movement, the only journalist that dared to write a story about his ordeal was Mohammed Abdel Qoddous.
But it wasn't until the 2000s that my uncle cemented his stature as one of the country's leading dissidents against the Mubarak regime. Famed for taking to the streets with his trademark megaphone in one hand and Egyptian flag in the other, he led protest after protest against the regime's increasingly oppressive rule. Incredibly soft-spoken in conversation, his voice would rise to a roar on the streets.
As the head of the Freedoms Committee at the Journalists' Syndicate, he helped turn the steps of the syndicate headquarters into the symbolic heart of the protest movement in the years leading up to the revolution. For his efforts he was frequently jailed, occasionally beaten and often harassed.
In 2004, he helped co-found the Kefaya movement and hosted many of their press conferences at the syndicate. He also built ties with the April 6 Youth Movement and the National Association for Change while continuing to advocate and raise awareness for political prisoners.
None of this behavior was very palatable to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had increasingly come under the control of more conservative elements of the organization, led predominantly by Khairat al-Shater. This wing was more concerned with ensuring the survival of the group and frowned upon provoking any confrontation with the ruling regime.
"The leadership was very upset at me because I was always protesting and speaking out against Mubarak," my uncle says. "Khairet al-Shater most of all. He is a person who likes law and order and he thought of me as rebellious and disobedient."
But when Shater was imprisoned by a military tribunal in 2007, my uncle invited his family to the syndicate for a press conference to condemn his jailing. Hundreds of Brotherhood members attended, the first time they went to one of his events. Shater wrote to my uncle from prison, thanking him for his help and support, and their relationship warmed.
"They have always left me to do what I want," my uncle says. "There are few members like me who act independently, outside of the organization."
The January 25 revolution will always be regarded as a miracle to my uncle, something he had been dreaming about for most of his life. A picture of him being dragged away during a protest on January 26 by five plainclothes police officers as a group of baton-wielding central security forces look on was widely circulated on television and the internet, provoking outrage.
He spent many nights in Tahrir during the historic sit-in that led to Mubarak's ouster. To walk with him in the square was to be in the presence of a revolutionary celebrity. Scores of people — men and women, young and old — would approach him to shake his hand, kiss him on the cheek and pose for pictures alongside him. He would be elated and humbled by the attention. "I never wanted to be a leader," he would say. "This is all I ever wanted, the love of ordinary people."
It was in the post-Mubarak landscape, however, that the divisions between my uncle's actions and the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership immediately began to manifest themselves.
In the weeks after Mubarak's ouster, the Brotherhood campaigned hard for the 19 March referendum that set up parliamentary elections later that year. Initially, my uncle walked in step with the organization, putting forward the Brotherhood's line of reasoning in family arguments and advocating for a yes vote despite widespread opposition among the majority of revolutionary youth that he so admired. Yet, when it came time to cast his ballot, the cognitive dissonance must have been too much for him to bear and he voted no.
During the post-Mubarak period, he did not let up on his advocacy for victims of repression under the rule of the military council even though the Brotherhood kept largely silent in reverence to the ruling generals. My uncle hosted the first of many press conferences for the No to Military Trials group in March 2011, despite the campaign being vilified in the face of the military's widespread popularity at the time. He later spoke out in a video for the imprisoned blogger Maikel Nabil, who had been handed a three-year prison sentence by a military tribunal, a principled move given Nabil's avowed support for Israel.
As 2011 progressed, the Brotherhood continued to move further away from the revolutionary movement and more closely align itself with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. A protest in Tahrir on 27 May billed as the "Second Day of Rage" marked the first major demonstration the Brotherhood officially boycotted. Instead, the group released a statement in support of the SCAF and called on people not to attend. My uncle nevertheless came to the square. He was surrounded by people yet again, though this time they were hounding him about the Brotherhood's stance and asking him to explain why the group was betraying the revolution. He would listen patiently and sometimes argue back, seemingly torn between his allegiance to the organization and their increasingly anti-revolutionary positions.
During the pivotal clashes between protesters and police on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November that left 45 people dead, the Brotherhood expressly forbade its members from taking part and was accused of sacrificing the protesters for the sake of the parliamentary elections days later. Bed-ridden with a cold, my uncle did not come to the square though he vocally supported the elections and proudly voted for the Freedom and Justice Party list.
Yet, less than a month later, he joined with protesters in solidarity as they clashed with army soldiers in front of parliament on Qasr al-Aini Street. As rocks rained down from the building above and small fires raged on the street around him he stood calmly in his rumpled suit, flag in hand, and watched the battle unfold.
The Brotherhood had also begun to echo some of the accusations made by SCAF and the state media that the protesters were inciting people to topple the state and create anarchy. In the wake of the Qasr al-Aini clashes, a prominent Brotherhood member filed a lawsuit against three members of the Revolutionary Socialists, accusing them of such charges. The Brotherhood's eponymous party newspaper, Freedom and Justice, published a front-page article on the case. In response, my uncle used his daily column in the same newspaper to defend the Revolutionary Socialists and remind people that the group had protested the Mubarak regime for years and had stood by the Brotherhood when its members were being imprisoned.
Despite the numerous actions my uncle took that pointed to his independence of mind — free from the Brotherhood's 'listen and obey' credo — he would frequently spout Brotherhood party dogma during arguments and debates, a manifestation of the complex and convoluted relationship he maintained with the organization and his continued allegiance to it.
But his rhetoric has begun to shift in the last few weeks into open criticism.
"I don't approve of their political performance," he says. "There is no difference between the Freedom and Justice Party and other parties. They are acting like politicians, not like Islamists."
When the Brotherhood attempted to dominate the Constituent Assembly by shoving through a last-minute change to include 50 members of Parliament as well as stacking the remaining half with Islamists or other sympathetic members in a move that enraged groups across the political spectrum, including liberal parties, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, he was visibly distraught and penned an article denouncing the decision.
In response, a senior member of the Guidance Council called him at home to scold him, provoking a fierce argument. The next day, the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and its former head, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, took him out to lunch to make amends.
He was less vocal in his opposition to the Brotherhood's decision to nominate a presidential candidate. He stood against the group reversing its earlier pledge not to field a candidate but kept his criticism largely to himself as the Brotherhood was coming under fire from all quarters in the media.
"I am against the Brotherhood taking over everything," he says. "They want the Parliament, the Constituent Assembly and the presidency? What is this?"
Nevertheless, before Shater was disqualified from the race, my uncle was torn over who to vote for. He respected Shater and a part of him was inclined to support the Brotherhood's official nominee, but he had long supported the candidacy of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, the former senior Brotherhood member who was expelled from the group after announcing his decision to run for the presidency last year.
My uncle first met Abouel Fotouh in 1977, after he famously confronted Sadat as student union president at Cairo University, in part to criticize Sadat's restrictions on the speeches of Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazaly, my uncle's father-in-law. In 1985, the two traveled to Afghanistan together for a month where my uncle covered the mujahideen resistance against the Soviet occupation and Abouel Fotouh volunteered as a doctor.
My uncle sees himself and Abouel Fotouh as two parts of the same strand within the Brotherhood. "Abouel Fotouh is like me, a rebel," he says.
After Shater was expelled from the race and the Brotherhood threw its weight behind its backup candidate, the lesser-known Mohammed Morsy, my uncle's choice to vote for Abouel Fotouh was easy. While he has not publicly come out in support of Abouel Fotouh for president — the Brotherhood has explicitly forbade its members from doing so under penalty of expulsion — he has not made his inclinations a secret either.
On 20 April, the Brotherhood came out in full force for a protest in Tahrir alongside numerous other groups to "preserve the revolution," as it claimed. For the first time, my uncle did not join them.
The future relationship between my uncle and the Brotherhood is unclear. His association with them is anything but straightforward, a convoluted mix of religion and politics that is difficult to define. Yet like so many of the organization's rank and file, his connection with the group is being remolded in the unpredictable landscape of post-Mubarak Egypt.
"Right now the Brotherhood are not ruling. But a clash can happen when they become the rulers," my uncle says. "If they do something against general freedoms I will be the first to stand against them, I won't hesitate. If they want to kick me out, I will leave." He pauses to think. "But I don't think they will."
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He is a correspondent for the TV/radio show Democracy Now! and a fellow at the Nation Institute.