When I told my Egyptian friend Ahmad Kamal that I wanted to go to the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Nasser City, a pallid look gripped him. “Don’t go there!” he pleaded. “They are fanatics who hate foreigners. Americans like you are in danger there.” After an hour of fruitless conversation over endless glasses of sweet tea, I rose, shook Ahmad’s hand, and headed straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured.
But when I arrived at Nasser City, the picture Ahmad painted of long-bearded, club-wielding extremists bent on roughing up secular Egyptians was just as devoid of truth so much else in this divided country. Coups depicted as revolutions, peaceful protesters painted as fanatics, and disgruntled citizens hailed as revolutionaries have transformed Egypt into a circus where the main attraction is the uncertainty of heading into the unknown.
When I arrived at Nasser City, young boys handed me cards that read, “No to Violence, Yes to Legitimacy.” Older men tugged at me, explaining in their best broken English how the country had been pilfered from them. “The old regime stole the power,” explained Hamdi Shobaki, a pharmacist from the Cairo neighborhood of Shobri. It was a refrain I was to hear repeatedly from Brotherhood supporters.
But before I could ask him what it meant for the future of Egypt, several youths seized me. I wasn’t sure where I was going as I passed the blurry mass of headscarves, sandals, and prayer rugs that obstructed my path. When I arrived at the Raba’a al-Adawiyya mosque I saw the back of the stage that has become the soapbox where Brotherhood supporters vent their frustrations with the elites who overthrew President Mohamed Morsi.
As my scout party headed off with waves and smiles, a short portly man with a British accent greeted me. “Welcome to our protest camp,” said Gehad Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman.
Drawing on his vast knowledge of Western liberalism, Haddad explained how the military’s coup contravened the pillars of democracy. “President Morsi was elected by the people at the ballot box,” he noted, scratching his perfectly trimmed beard. “Only there can his legitimacy and position be removed. Not in the streets with tanks and machine gun toting soldiers.”
Haddad’s sentiments were echoed by those in the crowd albeit less articulately and more fragmented. “The people voted for Morsi,” 45-year-old teacher Sa’id Rashwan told me. “Why have a few now decided he cannot rule?’
Such frustrations were the main theme of the Nasser City protests. But others expressed puzzlement with the very fundamentals of electoral politics. “Is this how democracy functions?” asked a 38-year-old carpenter, Salim Moussa. “When people get mad at your president does he have to resign?”
Despite their indignation, Morsi supporters were adamant they would not resort to violence. “We have made our commitment to elections and democracy,” Haddad explained. “We believe violence neither serves our cause nor that of the Egyptian people.”
His avowals were not enough to assuage my friend Ahmad’s fears that the Brotherhood was a violent organization bent on reestablishing itself through force. “They are lying to you. Look at the weapons the police captured at their headquarters,” he said referring to the arsenal of small arms and birdshot the security services seized there.
Ahmad refuses to countenance that the Brotherhood and its supporters have legitimate grievances. Such stubbornness is blocking the path to reconciliation Egypt desperately needs to extricate itself from its security and economic woes. And until Egyptians like Ahmad extend an olive branch to those in Nasser City, Egypt will continue to be mired in a zone of uncertainty.
Steven Sotloff is a journalist reporting from Egypt. He is a contributor to TIME and has also written for The National Interest and Media Line.
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