Assiut - You can trace the aspirations and disappointments
of Egypt's revolution across the walls of the southern city of Assiut.
The most faded graffiti lambasts Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat
who ruled for three decades until a 2011 uprising toppled him. More recent
daubings take on his successors: a council of military generals and civilian
president Mohammed Morsi.
Additions since the army overthrew Morsi this month attest a
new wave of anger - this time from Islamists who feel cheated by his fall.
"Egypt is Islamic, no matter what the Christians think," one reads.
Another calls the army chief "a dog".
Assiut offers a window into what the future might hold for
Egypt's Islamists, who have dominated election after election since the 2011
revolt and, until Morsi’s ouster, constituted a commanding and ever more vocal
force in Egyptian public life.
The poor, conservative region along the Nile has for decades
been a stronghold for both radical and moderate Islamists, who have cemented
their influence by delivering basic services in areas where the central
government has historically been aloof.
The goodwill and logistics networks built up by those groups
over decades - particularly Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood - helped win them
political sway in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall.
But even the Islamists' heartlands have not been immune to
the distrust and suspicion that has grown among many Egyptians during the past
year over what they saw as the Brotherhood's ineffective and divisive rule.
The headquarters of the Brotherhood's political wing - which
took about half the area's parliament seats - was sacked and looted this month.
The governor Morsi appointed has not come to his office for weeks since
protesters blocked him from entering.
The blow has inspired a mix of anger, defiance, fear and
denial among Islamists in Egypt's south. But their history and heavy presence
in the impoverished region also offers an insight into how they might work
their way back into political life.
"The lesson for us has been to interact with the street
more and more. That's all," said Mohamed Senussi, an official in the
Assiut branch of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
"Your most basic power is in the streets."
Assiut's poverty is palpable outside the provincial capital.
Farmers ride donkey carts through fields and harvest crops by hand. A huge
cement factory run by Mexico's Cemex is one of the few obvious intrusions of an
industrialised global economy.
Despite its marginalisation, the region has contributed two
figures central to the struggle between Islamists and the army that has defined
much of modern Egypt's politics: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb.
Qutb, a founder of Islamist thought and Brotherhood leader,
backed Nasser and his "Free Officers" when they toppled Egypt's
monarchy in 1952. Nasser soon turned on the Islamists, imprisoning thousands,
and eventually had Qutb executed.
Islamist groups were rejuvenated under Nasser's successor
Anwar Sadat and were able to expand their influence particularly in poor areas
like Assiut, which became a base for the most radical and militant offshoots.
"The alternative for these societies is or used to be
the Islamic movements, who could provide them with these services," said
Khalil al-Anani, an expert on political Islam at Britain's Durham University.
"They tried to fill the gap of the absence of the
Islamists' influence and organisational strength won them a
dominant voice in post-Mubarak Egypt. The Freedom and Justice Party and the
ultra-conservative Nour Party won big majorities in parliament, and the
Brotherhood was able to push through a contentious constitution.
The military's overthrow of Morsi swept away those
victories. The army-backed interim cabinet formed this week did not include a
single member of either party, parliament has been dissolved and the
Anani said Morsi’s fall had brought the Islamists to a
defining moment. They could end up like their Algerian counterparts, who became
fractured and violent after the army cancelled their election wins in 1992.
Or they could follow Turkey's example, where Islamists
regrouped, reformed and won elections after the military pushed them from power
"You will always have political Islam," Anani
said. "But we don't know what it will be - which version, the progressive
one, the aggressive one, the violent one, the moderate one?"
Guns and votes
Men with the long beards of strict Salafist Muslims gather
nightly for prayers at Assiut's Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque, a hub for Al-Gamaa
Al-Islamiya, a former militant group that later gave up violence and entered
Gamaa Islamiya, which was founded in Assiut, has been a
testament to the ultra-conservative Salafist movement's emergence into the
light since Mubarak's overthrow.
Back in the 1990s, the group waged a bloody campaign against
security forces with the aim of creating an Islamic state. Police levelled
entire sugar cane fields where the militants hid to flush them from their
southern Egyptian strongholds.
After hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests, the
rebellion crumbled. The group eventually renounced violence and still maintains
significant influence in southern Egypt through its preaching and charity
networks and political party.
Morsi’s overthrow has put Gamaa Islamiya in the spotlight
again - this time over the question of whether Egypt could see a reprise of the
violence that wracked it under two decades ago.
So far the group has thrown its weight behind peaceful
protests and vigils calling for Morsi’s reinstatement and has loudly and
repeatedly disavowed violence.
Gamaa Islamiya's spiritual leader, Abdel Akhir Hammad, said
the group had learned its lesson in the 1990s. Still, that did not mean young
members of other groups would be as restrained.
"One of the reasons that made Gamaa Islamiya youth take
up arms in the past was a loss of hope," he said in an interview in his
sparse office in an annex of the Assiut mosque.
"When the pressure and arrests of the group's leaders
increased, the youth were swept up by violent currents. We don't want Egypt to
go back to this again."
The crisis would only really be resolved with Mursi's
restoration and a return to the legitimacy of the ballot box, Hammad said.
Until then, political factions would squabble, and stability would be elusive.
"If we haven't returned to legitimacy, reconciliation
would be like a wound you haven't cleaned and then you closed and bandaged. You
need to clean it first, and this cleansing is the return of legitimacy."
Loss of trust
Assiut is also a microcosm of Egypt's religious diversity,
which critics frequently accused Islamists, led by the Brotherhood, of
neglecting after they took power.
Although official statistics do not exist, about a quarter
of the province's roughly 4.5 million people are believed to be Coptic
Christian, compared with about 10% of the country.
It is not unusual to see Christians out shopping and, within
the confines of church compounds, eating before nightfall during Ramadan, when
many Muslims fast during daylight.
Louqa, a monk and church leader in Assiut, said he was
surprised at the turnout the socially and religiously conservative city saw
during the protests against Morsi in the days before the army ousted him.
He recalled meeting men and women of all ages headed to the
demonstrations. "This was a clear mark of discontent with the general
situation in the country and with the ruling policies during the recent
period," he said.
The problem had been "bigger than Dr Morsi", Louqa
said, pointing to conflicts that arose between Islamist movements and groups
like the media, judiciary and artists who wanted a "civilian state" -
a term often used in Egypt, where "secular" is seen by many as
The loss of faith in Islamist leaders was not necessarily
due to their ideology, he said. Christians, for instance, had been living with
Muslims for centuries and knew Islamist movements were not going away.
"Egyptians are pious by nature, both Christians and
Muslims. If they see religious leaders working effectively in society, they
will certainly rally around them," Louqa said.
But if they fail to live up to their expectations, he added,
"the shock will be severe".
Whither the brotherhood?
For now, the Brotherhood is firmly on the back foot. Senior
leaders have been arrested, sympathetic television channels shut down, and
state media has enthusiastically returned to its old role of demonising the
But in Assiut it is hard to find Brotherhood members willing
to speculate about what the group will do if Morsi does not return. Ashraf
Hussein, the Brotherhood's local spokesperson, looked affronted when the
question was put to him.
"He'll come back. Who said he wouldn't come back? The
people want him back," he said. "The people want to preserve the
gains of their revolution. And they are coming out to the streets."
Recounting the Brotherhood's 85-year history providing
services and standing against authoritarian government, Hussein said the
group's popularity would only grow as people came to see the "obstacles
and conspiracies" that confronted it.
"I am unable to imagine that the dictatorial regime can
come back again. It's over, it's finished," he said.
A few are more contemplative. Mohamed Askalany, a
63-year-old member of the Brotherhood's political party, was willing to
acknowledge the possibility Morsi would not return.
Stressing that he was speaking only about his personal
views, he said he believed the party should participate in elections even if
the president did not come back.
"It should not isolate itself from politics,"
Askalany said. "And it should not isolate itself from the Egyptian