I was interviewing the ‘Bride of Sisi’, as she called herself, when a crowd gathered around me and another journalist and accused us of working for a ‘terrorist’ news channel.
Saadiya al-Sayed al-Sayed, a 48-year-old mother of two from the working-class area of al-Marg, had said she would like General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be her and Egypt’s husband. ‘We are scared for our children, for our country. Those people’ – the Muslim Brotherhood – ‘are coming to set the country on fire. We are a kind-hearted people, and we want those who are going to take care of us. Sisi said Egyptians are his beloved, and we like those who are tender with us.’
The hundreds of women in the crowd around her, many of them with Sisi’s picture around their necks, began chanting, and she joined in: ‘The people want the execution of the Muslim Brotherhood. The people want the execution of the Muslim Brotherhood.’ Over and over, louder and louder.
The Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organisation last month after a bomb at a police station in Mansoura left 16 people dead. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a militant group based in Sinai, claimed responsibility for the attack, but the government chose to blame the Muslim Brotherhood based on a single confession.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has also claimed responsibility for the wave of bombings in Cairo on 24 and 25 January in which six people were killed, but it is the Brotherhood that is being blamed. ‘Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are Hamas and the Brotherhood in Egypt,’ said Amal Hussein, a 44-year-old housewife on her way to Tahrir Square with her friends to show their support for Sisi. A television presenter called the group Ansar Bayt al-Murshid – Murshid is the Arabic title of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘supreme guide’ – and a news website called them the militias of Khairat el-Shater, a Brotherhood leader who has been in jail since July.
No firm relationship has been established between the Brotherhood and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and the militant group was critical of the Brotherhood’s decision to play ballot box politics instead of taking to violent jihad. But the government and the mob aren’t interested in the facts.
In Tahrir Square yesterday a man suggested we worked for al-Jazeera. The Qatari news channel is seen as sympathetic to the Brotherhood; some of its journalists arrested in December have been accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation. An angry crowd quickly formed around us. ‘You traitor, you pig,’ a veiled woman shouted at me. She pulled my hair and grabbed at my scarf, choking me. The police intervened; I showed my press pass. They took us away to a building just off the square and told us to hide there for an hour until the crowd calmed down.
Across Egypt, security forces were breaking up Brotherhood and anti-military, anti-Islamist demonstrations. The Revolutionary Path Front, a coalition including the 6 April Youth Movement and Revolutionary Socialists, called on its members to withdraw from the protests, denouncing the excessive use of violence by security forces. At least 49 people have been reported killed, 176 injured and more than 1000 arrested.
One of those arrested during a peaceful march was Nazly Hussein, a well-known activist who has worked tirelessly over the last three years co-ordinating support for families of political detainees. She joins many others who have been detained over the last few months for organising protests against military trials for civilians and a recent law curtailing freedom of assembly.
Waiting till it was safe to leave, I sat on a bed in a small room and stared at the wall. A small number 4 had been carved into it. The Arabic word for ‘fourth’ is rabaa. In Rabaa al-Adawiya Square last August hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by security forces. Islamists hold up a four-fingered sign, or the number four, as a sign of protest. Students have been arrested for having the symbol on their books and stationery. I have no idea who carved that number on the wall in that room, or why, but to many people in Egypt today it would look like evidence of conspiracy.