Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood failed the most basic test - feeding the people

CAIRO: A tiny woman dressed all in black sits at a crowded communal table in the Cairo neighbourhood of Agouza, her daughter hovering protectively by her side.

It is just after 7pm and she is breaking the Ramadan fast at a Ma'edet Rahman, one of thousands of special tables set up in streets all over Egypt during the holy month, where the poor or even those just passing by can eat together for free.

Mona, who is 60 and does not want her last name published, travels from the outer suburb of Haram every day to sell lemons and bunches of mint on the streets of the capital.

It is tough, dusty work and most days she makes 25-30 Egyptian pounds ($A3.90-$A4.70), just over the $US2 per day on which 40 per cent of her fellow Egyptians survive.

After paying a monthly rent of 300 Egyptian Pounds (A$47), there is little left over for food and other essentials for Mona, a widow, and her three daughters.

Her struggle is, in essence, Egypt's struggle, yet it is one that the deposed Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government forever failed to grasp.


"I eat here with my daughter so we don't take Iftar alone," she says, acknowledging that the last year had been especially tough on finances.

Conscious of the crackling tension around her, Mona won't be drawn on the downfall of Mohamed Mursi on July 3 — a move his supporters claim was a military coup but his detractors say was the will of the millions of people who took to the streets calling for his removal.

But the volunteer manager of the communal Ramadan table, at which around 70 people eat each night, is more forthcoming.

"We give people rice, vegetables and meat, some people come not just for the food but to be together — this is the real Islam, this is not the Muslim Brotherhood," says Waleed Tyson, 40.

Egypt is riven with divisions — between pro- and anti-Mursi protesters, between Islamists and secularists, Islamists and Coptic Christians, those who support the revolution and those who believe it was a military coup and between the Muslim Brotherhood and everyone else — and the fear that these tensions will spill over into violence is ever-present.

The political deadlock, in which it appears that the Egyptian Military will not consider restoring Mursi to the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood will not back down from its demands for reinstatement, shows no signs of easing.

We give people rice, vegetables and meat, some people come not just for the food but to be together — this is the real Islam, this is not the Muslim Brotherhood.

What is clear is just how far the Brotherhood's fortunes have fallen. Beyond the loyal supporters and members keeping the vigil in the square outside Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City, in the marches in Giza and the protests in Alexandria, it is difficult to find a fan. Those who do not support the military's intervention in the revolution — yes — but a Brotherhood fan? They appear to be thin on the ground.

"Many of the poor thought the Brotherhood would help them live a better life, but they did not," said Mohamed Abd El-Sabour, from the Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra.

"Then religion got in between the people and the Brotherhood — they thought as long as they were religious and prayed that we would trust them, but they needed to do something much more concrete than that. They needed to make real progress," the 33-year-old said. Two months ago he was forced to leave his job as a salesman and start driving taxis.. The economy — and being able to fill his tank again after the recent chronic benzene shortages — are the key issues that occupy his mind.

"Eventually the Muslim Brotherhood will have to accept their fate and leave," he said. "The experiment has failed." His was the mildest opinion offered to Fairfax Media last week.

Hand-in-hand with the anti-Brotherhood rhetoric is vehement anti-Americanism.

From both pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood supporters, from street vendors to academics, the conspiracy theories about the US's alleged involvement in Egyptian politics are as prevalent as they are fanciful.

US Ambassador Anne Patterson is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an academic from a respected institution told me with a straight face. A young revolutionary leader from the Tamarod movement, the group that kick-started the protests that led to Mursi's ouster, repeated the charge.

Meanwhile, over at the Muslim Brotherhood's unofficial headquarters in the hall behind the Rabba Mosque — where many of its leaders are under threat of arrest by the military — anti-Obama sentiment has reached fever pitch.

"The US government funded Tamarod," several of the Brotherhood's officials said. "That means they funded a military coup."

(The US denies it is connected to the recent upheavals and has been careful to neither call it a coup or a revolution, instead calling for Mursi's release and a swift return to civilian democratic rule).

Along with these twin streams of strident anti-Americanism and anti-Brotherhood voices on private, state-run media and social media runs a resurgent nationalism.

Suddenly the military, and the remnants of Mubarak's old guard, the once-reviled "feloul", are being welcomed back into Egypt's political life with open arms.

One high-profile Egyptian to speak out against the rising tide of "hatred and gloating" was television host Bassem Youssef, dubbed Egypt's Jon Stewart, who in April was the target of a government-led campaign against the country's opposition activists. An arrest warrant was issued and he was charged with insulting Islam and the then president Mursi.

Now, he says, the country's liberals are riding on a "victory high" and are behaving no better than the Brotherhood they deposed.

"My dear anti-Brotherhood liberal, allow me to remind you that just a few weeks ago you were desperately complaining about how grim the future looked, but now that you have been 'relieved' of them you have become a carbon copy of their fascism and discrimination," he wrote.

"Kudos to those who have not allowed the victory high to rob them of their humanity," he wrote in an opinion piece published in Al-Shoruk and Tahrir Squared.

In the midst of this chaos, EU negotiators are attempting to work behind the scenes to start talks aimed at achieving a safe exit from this intense situation for the Brotherhood's leaders.

However experts warn any negotiations with the Brotherhood — and any movement from its supporters — will be difficult if not impossible while Mursi continues to be held by the military in a secret location and while police attack and round up his supporters.

Even the Brotherhood's fellow Islamist al-Nour Party deserted them in their time of need, choosing, as their spokesman Nader Bakry told Fairfax Media, "the least evil" path — supporting the June 30 protests and the military's intervention.

Clearly frustrated at the Brotherhood's intransigence, Bakry related some of the many conversations between the two parties while anti-Mursi crowds gathered on the streets as the June 30 protests and, later, the military's deadline, approached.

"We said to them: how do you not realise that millions of people are down in the street angry with you?" he said, shaking his head.

"We said: you should accept that you failed to manage but that is not the end of the world. You can try to share in the parliamentary election, the presidential election and together we can achieve something."

Al-Nour representatives saw the writing on the wall six months ago and began working to convince the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party to listen to their critics, form a broader coalition, or hold early elections.

Their approaches fell on deaf ears.

But amidst the frustration at the Brotherhood, felt by the opposition National Salvation Front, al-Nour, and Tamarod, there is also optimism that in the so-called second wave of the revolution, Egypt may have been spared worse turmoil.

"I believe Egypt has been saved from what was expected to be a civil war, and now the political forces are focussed on taking Egypt forward," said Dalia Ziada, the director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies.

"We have a constitutional declaration which is very, very promising — there is an article in this that gives a quota for women and for youth to be members of all the committees and decision making processes that are going to be taken."

She describes the military as "taking a step backwards ... and not involving itself in the day-to-day decisions".

In the meantime, centres like Ziada's are pushing for Egypt to consider a process of reconciliation to help heal the rifts that have only deepened since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

"It is very complicated," she says. "There needs to be reconciliation between the revolutionaries and members of the former regime (and now we would add the former Muslim Brotherhood regime as well), between Islamists and the Copts, and other religious minorities such as the Shiaa, and also between the non-government organisations and the government."

But with so much hurt and so little trust, when will Egypt's deeply polarised society ever be ready to begin such a process?

"Reconciliation will only happen after you bring justice to the people," Ziada said. "Only at that time people will be able to forgive and forget or be punished, and then we will have reconciliation."