On Street 10 of the south Cairo neighbourhood of Moqattam on Monday, it was hard to believe that there had recently been trouble near the Muslim Brotherhood’s nearby headquarters. Yet throughout the past week, the quiet neighbourhood – better known in recent years as a hangout for young lovers – has seen three violent clashes pitting anti-government protesters against Brotherhood members and security forces.
Street 10, on which the group’s HQ is located, is referred to by neighbourhood residents as ‘Ikhwan [Brotherhood] Street.’ The headquarters building was purchased by the Muslim Brotherhood in May 2011, shortly after Egypt’s 25 January uprising.
The only sign of the recent violence were two missing banners near the building’s entrance that had borne the group’s logo. “The terrorists, the feloul [‘remnants’ of the Mubarak regime] tore them down,” explained an elderly security guard outside the building, in reference to anti-Brotherhood protesters.
At 5pm on Monday afternoon, three days after Friday’s clashes, another security guard insisted that the building was empty and that all Brotherhood officials had left the premises at 3pm.
The hilly district of Moqattam is a neighbourhood of roughly 100,000 residents, according to official estimates. It features a plot of land containing small apartment buildings and villas wedged between two heavily-populated working-class neighbourhoods.
Upon closer inspection, however, some signs of recent violence can be discerned. In the street opposite ‘Ikhwan Street,’ for example, a burnt-out station wagon straddled the curb.
Security guards at the HQ told Ahram Online that Friday’s protesters had torched the vehicle, which had been used by young Brotherhood members to patrol the street.
A few streets away in Nafoura Square, where most of the action on Friday took place, there is an eerie calm.
“Many people are still afraid to leave their homes,” Islam, the 21-year-old son of a local café owner, told Ahram Online. “See these empty cafés around the Square? Under normal circumstances, they would be bustling now.”
Friday’s clashes were reminiscent of a deadly battle between Brotherhood members and their opponents in December in front of the presidential palace, which marked the first time both sides had confronted each other in a free-for-all.
Locals join political fray
Islam was at his father’s café last Saturday when he heard that Brotherhood members had attacked a group of graffiti artists and journalists near the Islamist group’s headquarters.
Islam, along with his 16-year-old friend Mohamed, both of whom said they had “no interest” in politics, recounted how they had ended up taking part in Saturday’s clashes after seeing a Brotherhood member slap a female protester in the face.
“We were infuriated when we saw him beating the girl,” said Mohamed, who works as a waiter. “So we burnt one of their cars as it tried to leave the street.”
The incident to which Mohamed was referring – which was caught on video and circulated widely online – sparked uproar among the Brotherhood’s critics.
Saturday’s clashes prompted two additional violent episodes outside the group’s headquarters over the last week.
A few streets away from Nafoura Square, three burnt-out minibuses – said to have been used to transport Brotherhood members to the scene on Friday – could also be seen.
“We tried to ward off Brotherhood members as protesters approached so that they wouldn’t attack them,” 35-year-old Moqattam resident Tamer El-Shayeb told Ahram Online.
“We saw Brotherhood members amassing next to the protesters, gathering rocks from the hill,” he added. “We burned their buses, which they were using to transport rocks and chunks of marble.”
Sitting in her elegant Moqattam apartment, Tamer’s mother, Ebtessam, explained that her usually apolitical son had joined the anti-Brotherhood protesters outside when he saw them being attacked near the hill.
Accounts vary as to which side started the violence, but Tamer, Islam and Mohamed all appear to have taken the side of those they believed were being attacked.
Islam, for his part, said he would have joined the protest on Friday when he saw that it was being attacked, had he not had to stand guard outside his father’s café.
Tamer also said that he – along with other young residents – had joined protesters with a view to deterring Brotherhood members and preventing violence from erupting on their doorstep.
Right to self defence?
Reactions on the part of Moqattam residents to the violence – which, for the first time, they saw through their windows and not on their TV screens – was indicative of how Egypt’s ongoing political crisis was fuelling mounting political polarisation.
“When protesters came here a few weeks ago and performed a strange dance outside the Brotherhood’s headquarters, no one from the Brotherhood approached them,” said 37-year-old Ahmed Ezzat, a Moqattam resident who works at a hospital located opposite the group’s HQ.
In late February, dozens of young anti-Brotherhood activists staged a performance of ‘the Harlem Shake’ – made popular recently by social-media websites – outside the conservative Islamist group’s headquarters, as an ostensible means of non-violent protest.
“The protesters came again last Saturday and painted offensive drawings and expletives on the pavement outside the building,” Ezzat continued. “And then the media claimed that these protesters had been ‘provoked to violence’ by Brotherhood members.”
Ezzat is not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but believes the group has the right to protect its headquarters. This is especially the case in the absence of police, who have been largely missing from Egypt’s streets since the Tahrir Square uprising more than two years ago.
Ezzat went on to note that a number of offices belonging to both the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party had been attacked and vandalised in recent months by so-called “protesters.”
“Without police on the streets, I no longer feel safe,” he asserted. “These aren’t ‘protesters,’ nor are they ‘peaceful.’ Isn’t it the Brotherhood’s right to protect its property from violent assailants?”
Mohamed, the 32-year-old co-owner of an import/export business who lives off of Nafoura Square, echoed these sentiments.
“I also fear for my safety and my home, but it wasn’t the Brotherhood that caused the violence here,” Mohamed told Ahram Online. “The group’s headquarters have been looted before, while many of their offices in other areas have been attacked by these thugs.”
He went on to ask: “What else were they supposed to do if not protect themselves and their property?”
Tamer’s father, Mohamed El-Shayeb, a 65-year-old retired military officer, says the lack of police is at the root of the problem.
“In recent months three quarters of our building’s tenants have moved out [due to the political violence]. I’m worried,” he told Ahram Online. “I was in the military. What I saw through my window on Friday looked like a war.”
Petition targets HQ
On Thursday, prior to Friday’s clashes, a group of Moqattam residents began collecting signatures for a petition demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood relocate its headquarters from the area.
“Moqattam has always been a quiet neighbourhood and we don’t want tension here,” he said. “But our petition is also a political statement; a form of protest against the Brotherhood and their control of the country.”
“I’m a very liberal person, but I voted for [Brotherhood candidate] Mohamed Morsi because I couldn’t have voted for [Mubarak-era PM] Ahmed Shafiq,” he added. “I also thought that the Brotherhood, as an established group for all these decades, would have an understanding about how to run the country – but I was mistaken.”
Ali went on to claim that the Brotherhood had added two floors to its headquarters in violation of a building license restricting it to only five storeys. What’s more, he said, the license for the HQ was for a residential building, which, he said, could constitute another legal violation.
What Ali told Ahram Online about the headquarters’ legal status is, apparently, well-known to Moqattam residents. Last summer, the media reported that the Brotherhood had prevented the Moqattam municipality from lodging a complaint against the alleged building violation.
“This is a legally restricted group, the headquarters of which violates building laws,” Ali asserted. “Yet they’re securing it with [civilian] armed personnel. Do they believe their own lie that they are the victims?”
Campaign organisers say they have already succeeded in collecting 2500 signatures for their petition from local residents.
“The petition might not work, but we’re trying anyway,” Ali said. “At the beginning of the 25 January uprising, we never thought that our protests would lead to Mubarak’s ouster, but we persisted.”
Ezzat, however, believes Egypt’s ongoing post-revolution political crisis transcends the mere issue of where the Islamist group’s headquarters are located.
“At this point,” he said, “if any building – anywhere in the country – says ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ on it, it will become a target.”