The life of a Muslim sister

A woman looks at a graffiti of a quote from the Quran, Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photo by Issandr El Amrani.

A woman looks at a graffiti of a quote from the Quran, Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photo by Issandr El Amrani.

Nadia is a former Muslim Sister with a gummy smile. She has run out of reasons to show it after the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, which took the lives of 63 of her friends and acquaintances and a part of her that she can only describe by grabbing the air, her head or her chest.

Although she often finds herself in a depressive trance – remembering the overly-friendly girl she befriended during the sit-in who gave her a necklace as she had requested a few days before the dispersal, and how Asmaa el-Beltagy had promised to tell her an exciting secret upon her return to Rabaa – Nadia tries and likes to think that she derives strength from the bloodshed. “The sound of gunshots doesn’t frighten me,” she said, more to herself. This enables her to join the regular student protesters clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, something many of her friends and relatives can’t do. “They would freak out at the sound of fireworks or any loud noise... and drive around all of Nasr City just to avoid Rabaa,” she added, before admitting that she too has only been there twice since the dispersal and had failed not to sob in front of the Central Security Forces (CSF, the riot-control police) leaning against their black vans outside the mosque on both occasions. But, to be fair, one of the outbursts was aided by a CSF van that followed her home (which is right down the street), matching her pace and discussing her mother on the way, to the great amusement of onlookers.  

Although she frequently gets labelled a Muslim Sister (and suffers for it), Nadia was among those mostly young men and women who left/were kicked out of the Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 uprising for objecting to what they saw as the leadership's deafness to criticism, political opportunism and betrayal of revolutionary goals in alliance with the SCAF.

That batch, she says, is now divided into two camps. The first camp, to which she belongs, that has seemingly and temporarily returned to the MB out of solidarity and sense of obligation. Others remain resolutely separate. Those who have returned are not always fully accepted and often face accusations of betrayal and abuse, especially if they voice any old or new criticism of the leadership’s actions and how they lead to the state the Brotherhood is currently in.

However, inside the MB itself, resentment is mainly directed at the Anti-Coup Alliance (ACA), which is frequently criticized for lacking organization and the clear hierarchy the MB once had, which allowed one to identify the source of a decision and set blame. A prime example of the ACA’s incompetence, Nadia said, was changing the anti-constitutional referendum protest venues last minute on FB, after many protesters had left their homes and internet connection behind, resulting in confusion and the arrest of over 400 Brothers; or trying to stage a sit-in at  Suk al-Sayarat (the car market), an unfriendly neighborhood that probably wouldn’t leave much protesters for the police to shoot.  “No one really knows who is making these decisions,” interjected Hoda, another young Sister, who was just lost in monologue trying to decide whether she should flash the four-finger Rabaa sign or put on a poker face when suspecting classmates inquire about her political views. “Everybody just ends up doing whatever they feel like, there is no cohesion; no vision,” she added, shaking her head before returning to her monologue and deciding to be safe rather than hungry like her brother, Hamza, who now resides in a 2x2 cell with an unspecified number of people and cockroaches that fly, unable to sit or sleep comfortably. She sees him for exactly one minute a day with an officer present. Some of his teeth are broken and so is his right wrist, she suspects. Hamza, she paused to beam, had tried to convince the police officers, who arrested him, that he was a non-religious, playboy who drinks, smokes and copulates before they did. They gave him a cigarette and asked him to prove it, he let out a telling cough and was summarily given for 15 days pending investigation. "Ah, Hamza," she sighed.

“Many of (those arrested) have wrist fractures and things of that nature, it’s the handcuffs,” guessed another Sister, Gehad, rubbing hers instinctively. She has been recently released after being detained for nearly  three weeks on the charge of “piercing a car roof,” carrying a camera and belonging to a terrorist organization trying to destabilize the country. “[Prisoner treatment] depends wholly on the officers and the jail or department you’re in,” she explained. She, for instance, was lucky enough to fall into the hands of a kind prosecutor, who gave her Nescafe. And she managed to charm the prostitutes and convicted murderers  they routinely detain Sisters with, "as a scare tactic," with her religious knowledge. “They thought that God wouldn’t forgive them, so I recited Quran to them and we prayed together,” she recalled with pride. More importantly, the pregnancy test they forced on her (virginity tests for female protesters -- i.e. sluts -- caused an uproar, but pregnancy tests have reportedly taken their place) didn’t break her as well because she knew it was meant to, Gehad said, speaking at a considerably higher volume intended to prove she was unaffected by the memory. Others, however, she said, had cigarettes put out in them, and if the corporal she bribed is to be believed, they were also whipped with belts, electrocuted, stripped and made to stand in a room with holes in the walls known as the Tellaga (refrigerator). Other reports of abuse include being forced to clean the police department, sexual harassment, spoiled food and denial of family visits (and harassment of family members and friends who came for them). 

It is worth noting that Gehad later managed to flee to Turkey, where a small Egyptian MB community has already formed, thanks to the failure of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to update the no-fly lists. She was then given a five-year sentence in absentia. Also grateful for the poor coordination and communication between state institutions is the Kamal Youssef, a father who waits in line to get into Tora for an average of four hours, gets his bag x-rayed, his body aggressively searched and waits in the cafeteria in plain view for the minibus that will take him to el-’Akrab prison, where he will provide all of his personal information to visit his son, although there is a warrant out for his arrest. “They only let first degree family members in, but I sometimes visit about seven non-related people in the same prison and pretend to be their cousin and no one says anything,” Nadia said, grinning for the first time, before reassuming her inscrutable countenance. 

She then begins to systematically list the problems of getting her jailed friends their exams (if they have not already failed the academic year). Normally the prosecution only requires a registration certificate and the exam schedule from the detainee’s university to issue a permit for said detainee to take the exam, but since sending a bruised student handcuffed to a police corporal to take a test among their classmates might win them some sympathy, Nadia has to get a copy of the police report to prove to the university that the student is in jail and get permission from the student to take the test in jail. Only problem is books and papers are generally not allowed in, making the hassle of getting them their exams almost pointless since they can’t study and will probably fail anyway. This process of selecting what is and is not allowed in, like treatment, seems to be governed by whim. For instance, she once managed smuggle in a cell phone with Internet, but failed to smuggle in a pillow to the same person.

When the contempt Nadia receives from law enforcement wears her or her friends down, she comforts herself and them with the knowledge that they are not one of the leaders or the wives, whom the police targets for particular abuse, according to a number of unverified reports by MB activists.The abuse, they say, includes “threatening (the detainee) with his wife’s honor"  to flush him out or to force a confession out of him. The leaders have had to forgo family visits because theirs require them to sit behind a glass partition and talk over a phone that’s monitored. MB leader and former MP Mohamed el-Beltagy  was allowed to keep the poster of his dead daughter, Asmaa, that his wife, Sanaa Abdel Gawad, gave him -- but they wouldn’t give him the tape to hang it on the wall with, Nadia said. Instead of meeting, Beltagy and Abdel Gawad now exchange letters that a bribed officer delivers – and censors. 

“One time [Abdel Gawad] wrote 'I am proud of you and I love you' and the officer insisted that she crossed it out...They don’t allow anything uplifting through,” Nadia explained. “She just lost it and started praying for retribution so hard, one of the officers cried and asked her to stop because he has nothing to do with this. He is just following orders.” However, most officers were not as affected. They started clapping for a visitor who began singing the pro-Sisi song Teslam el-Ayadi, and bellydancing. What salted the wound, Nadia said, was that the visitor was the mother of a horribly treated prisoner. “The same thing happened with Om Hassan, she hadn’t seen or heard of her son in weeks and [police officers and other visitors] sang her Teslam el-Ayadi,” an offended Hoda said, thrusting a hand in my face like I was Mustafa Kamil (the song's writer and composer).

Although the desire for revenge is palpable within the MB, it is almost always accompanied by equally palpable helplessness and frustration. Regardless of the presumed-to-be-MB attacks on police and army officers, Nadia maintains that so far most of the MB’s retaliation has been limited to mean prayers, reciting Quranic verses like “Pharaoh and Haman and their soldiers were deliberate sinners. [28:9]” to necessitate the punishment of every soldier as well as the commanders. Sure, there is a list, whose accuracy and origin are a matter for consideration, of the officers who dispersed the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins but no one has done anything with it – yet. Every Brother and Sister I’ve spoken to recently thinks someone is going to lose it soon and that whoever that person is; no one can blame him/her.

Revenge aside, Nadia advocates (and regularly participates) in the burning of police vans and in doing anything that would “upset” the MOI. When asked to explain how that can fall under the title of “peaceful resistance,” she screwed up her face in bored disgust. “They have guns, gas, cars and water. We have Molotov and rocks. It’s not a fair equation... We’re certainly more peaceful.” Nadia’s definition of peacefulness is popular in the MB (and in non-MB revolutionary circles). Ahmad Hijab, a Cairo University Brother, for instance, spent fifteen minutes explaining how not only are the student protesters completely peaceful, but that they must be because military chief, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, would love an excuse to have them all shot, before he casually added that he had never been to a protest without fireworks, Molotov and rocks. “What, am I supposed to stand there and let them kill me or go defenseless when I know they are going to attack me?” 

As far as the MB youth is concerned, it seems, the only viable course of action now is to aggravate the MOI at every opportunity. The future, many believe, will likely hold what the present is already offering: politically ineffective, routine clashes with the police like those of Al-Azhar University and Alf Maskan, deaths, injuries, arrests, broken bones, prison visits, uncomfortable body searches, deliveries of exams and medical supplies, police bribes, etc. “Things have to and will get much, much worse for everyone... everyone has to and will taste humiliation and injustice, it has to become unbearable, so they will revolt again,” Nadia hopes. “Or they will apologize and sing Teslam el-Ayadi,” Hoda told the ceiling, resentfully.

So while things get worse, Nadia is just going to deliver some food to detainees and continue to rearrange the digits of a cellphone number an MB prisoner scribbled on her hand, to reach his parents and tell them he has been in jail for the past month. “Is this a seven or an eight?” she asked no one in particular before deciding to try a six.

The names of the people interviewed for this post have been changed to protect their identity.