A Deeply Polarized Egypt Waits For Something To Give

08/05/2013 04:54 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013

CAIRO -- In a trash-strewn alley in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba, Mohamed Selim sat in the shade of a small shop, taking an afternoon break from his job collecting fees for the state electric company -- or trying to.

For the past year, said Selim, a chummy 37-year-old who has worked in the neighborhood for three years, payments have been harder to collect, as economic woes have constricted the incomes of almost everyone in the country.

"Look at this stack of bills I have!" he said, laughing in resignation, as he flipped through several hundred slips of papers, each representing an unpaid bill, rubber-banded together on his lap. "There are people who haven't paid even once since the revolution."

Among the many problems plaguing Egypt in the two-and-a-half years since a revolution swept dictator Hosni Mubarak from power, economic stagnation has stood out as a leading cause for discontent -- and, ultimately, for the massive protests at the end of June that led to the military ousting the country's first democratically elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi.

"He promised us a renaissance," Selim said of Morsi. "But he came for a year and he didn't accomplish a thing." Selim, who supported the anti-Mubarak revolution as well as the subsequent overthrow of Morsi, said the military's action was the only plausible course.

But if the solution seems evident to some like Selim, finding accord across a highly diverse neighborhood like Imbaba -- as in much of Cairo -- is a more difficult task. In the month since Morsi's ouster, the mundane disarray that helped produce the current crisis has metastasized into something larger, more divisive and without any obvious path to reconciliation.

"It's a very tense environment, a very polarized political landscape at this moment," said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "I only see a political exit from this situation, and there is no political exit."

At its most extreme, the divisiveness that has rippled across Cairo resembles a sort of blood lust, with all sides showing surprising comfort with the violent demise of the other -- and some 300 dead since Morsi's overthrow. At its more subtle, it is almost casual, a matter-of-fact assessment that the salvation of the country lies in the righteousness of one's point of view, and that the other side has simply lost its mind and has to go.

"What is compromise?" asked 30-year-old Ahmad Abdel-Ghani, a supporter of Morsi, as he walked through a shopping corridor in Imbaba. "We'll compromise this: that Morsi comes back to power, and [Gen. Abdel Fattah al] Sisi goes into exile in the [United Arab] Emirates, and we will not prosecute him."

At a pair of Muslim Brotherhood sit-in sites across the city -- Nahda Square and outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque -- the division more closely resembles a standoff. Twice in the past few weeks, the police have clashed with protesters there, leaving scores dead, many with gunshot wounds to the head and neck that human rights organizations cite as evidence of shooting to kill.

Now, the military-backed interim government has declared that it will "take all necessary measures" to end the sit-ins, calling them "no longer acceptable." For several days, European and American officials have scrambled behind the scenes to persuade the military to reverse course and avoid a direct confrontation with protesters at Rabaa and Nahda, but local diplomats and analysts generally seem pessimistic that such a deal can be made.

Protesters, for their part, insist that they will not be swayed by the military's threats of action -- and will quit neither the square nor their demands that Morsi and his government be reinstated.

"I'm loaded up, and I'm ready to stay a long time," a 51-year-old protester at Rabaa, who gave his name as Mugahid, told HuffPost during a recent visit, as he patted a bag of clothes slung over his shoulder. He looked to the heavens, as if anticipating the possibility of dying in a clash with the police, before adding, "Or maybe it won't be a long time."

In a place like Imbaba, a colorful residential neighborhood, the evidence of polarization is everywhere, from the street graffiti to the choice of airbrushed portrait hung in cafes and restaurants -- a handsome, stern-faced al-Sisi, for those who back the military's actions; a smiling Morsi for those who don't -- to the certainty with which each side dismisses the very basis of the other.

For every man like Abdel-Ghani, who said he has spent almost every night at the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, there is another like the Christian government employee who declares the sit-ins "should be dispersed at the nearest moment," whatever it takes.

"It was a huge mistake to let a religious party run the country," the government employee said as he bought fresh bread from a bakery.

"It's not a peaceful protest, and the whole world knows it," said Samah Said, a 34-year-old importer standing near one of Imbaba's Coptic churches. "It's a bunch of terrorists who were planted there by the Americans to divide the Egyptian people."

Selim, the bill collector, agrees the protests should be ended, although he hopes it won't be by violent means. "The protests have to be dispersed," he said. "If you use protests as a tool of democracy, OK, that's fine, but if you are using them to ruin the state, forget about it."

In the meantime, like the rest of Cairo, Selim will go on waiting tensely -- for the military to decide what action to take, for a political process to materialize, for residents to find a way to start paying their bills.

As he spoke, a woman walked by and asked him if he would be around the next day -- she had some money for him, but not today. He assured her he would.

Noticing the activity, the shopkeeper in front of whose store Selim sat popped outside and announced that he owed "a year's salary" to the electric company. He offered no hint that he planned to pay it.

Selim smiled and threw up his hands. "What can I do?"

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