Locals mull over future and mark Ramadan

Members of ousted party fast until sundown as political life unfolds

An opponent of Egypt’s ousted president Mohammed Morsi waves a national flag as a military helicopter flies over Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP

An opponent of Egypt’s ousted president Mohammed Morsi waves a national flag as a military helicopter flies over Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP


The city that gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood is a sleepy place most of the year, let alone at the beginning of Ramadan – and at a time that its leaders have gone into hiding.

The midday sun lit up empty streets festooned by vivid flags and lanterns in the heart of Damanhur, near where the movement’s leader, Hassan al-Banna, was born in 1906. Just over two decades later, in 1928, he founded the brotherhood, a group that had lurked on the fringes of Egyptian society before its spectacular electoral legitimisation a year ago – and even more astonishing fall from grace since.

Damanhur’s leaders – those who had not been detained by the security forces or gone into self-imposed exile since their leader Mohamed Morsi was ousted last week – have taken to gathering quietly in family homes, just as they did in the decades before their brief foray into Egypt’s body politic.

Their austere headquarters in the centre of town has been torched. So too have several homes of leaders and part of a hospital in which some members were treated after clashes that followed the toppling of Morsi by Egypt’s military leader, Gen Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

In one home, as the dawn-to-dusk fast bit deep into Wednesday, five local leaders, among them Hosni Omar, who heads the movement’s political front, the Freedom and Justice party, gathered in a lounge to dissect and analyse the week’s events.

Multipronged conspiracy
“We say emphatically that this is a conspiracy on a number of levels,” said Omar. “Both externally and internally. It is obvious that the US ambassador played a role before the coup took place and European and Gulf states have since with their silence.

“Internally, those who are now more comfortable are the remnants of the Mubarak regime. They are confident, emboldened. They have got what they want.”

Omar offered up juice and water, although he and the others in the room were all holding out for sunset, when the breaking of the fast and iftar meal would be announced from mosque minarets.

“We have a long history of democracy,” he said. “It is part of who we are and we are not going to let what happened stand.”

Just what to do about the ignominy of being ousted from power after so many decades waiting in the shadows to attain it is being thrashed out in livingrooms and prison cells across Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood leaders seem to have few options, so soon after Morsi’s demise, except to insist on holding street vigils until a way forward is established.

In Cairo, the wheels of a military-led transition are grinding slowly, but just fast enough to soon force the group’s leadership into what will be an instructive decision; whether to join the new political process or retreat to life on the sidelines.

“Do we want to legitimise them [the military]?” asked Omar rhetorically. “Of course we don’t. We will stay where we are until our rights are addressed. We have been through worse periods of persecution before.”

Faded importance
There is nothing in Damanhur to speak to the rise of the movement, or the personal development of al-Banna, who was born in nearby Mahmudiya, but spent his formative years here. The prominence of the town seems to have been scratched from the modern historical record in Egypt.

Later in the afternoon, a bustling marketplace was doing a roaring trade in Ramadan sweets, and a lantern-maker was piecing together vibrant creations of coloured glass and steel – in between fixing a shisha pipe.

“This is a place that just gets on with business,” said a Brotherhood member who escorted me around the town. “We will prevail.”

A man near the marketplace was touting the now-ubiquitous posters of Gen Sisi being handed out all over Egypt. There were few buyers here. And fewer still seem ready to accept the new reality: that the Brotherhood has gone back to the future and that the country is rumbling on without it.

On the road back to Cairo, the sun was setting on a hazy horizon, over green rice paddies that spread like pasture lands across the Nile Delta. The highway was emptying and young men carrying sacks of food appeared, playing chicken with cars as they sped by, and encouraging some to slow down to receive gifts.

Toll booths along the way had been transformed into mini-canteens, and large red tents here and there were getting ready to receive hungry wayfarers. The sun eventually set on another day in revolutionary Egypt, where the old ways are back and the past seems an increasingly distant drive down a highway. – (Guardian service)