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A Visit To Cairo's Hardline Islamist Neighborhood

In Ain Shams' side streets and clandestine mosques, diehard members of the Muslim Brotherhood are ready to battle police.

A street scen in Ain Shams
A street scen in Ain Shams
Maurizio Molinari

CAIRO — Bassam sells watermelons in Naam Square, where members of the Muslim Brotherhood gather on Fridays to battle the police. Some 6-ft-5-inches tall, and wearing a traditional white jalabiya Egyptian garment, Bassam is not pleased with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's current president. And for starters, it's not about religion at all.

"Since he came to power, people buy less fruit: Business is worse and prices fall every week," he says.

He points to the food bank behind his stall, where dozens of people are lining up to collect groceries with their food stamps. For five Egyptian pounds (60 cents), every head of household has the right to collect one kilogram of sugar, one kilogram of rice, one kilogram of pasta and a bottle of oil per month.

"Without this food, my family would have nothing to eat," says George, a taxi driver and father of three, patiently waiting in line to receive this month's supplies.

At a mobile tobacco shop set up on the corner between Naam Square and Ain Shams Street, 70-year-old Ibrahim stops to buy two cigarettes. Cigarettes are one of the few products that has not risen in price. Violence, on the other hand, is showing a serious uptick, including a recent bombing at the Italian consulate in Cairo that killed one and injured nine.

"Egypt is falling apart and the government is against the people. Egyptians are desperate, what else do you want them to do?" Ibrahim says of the attack. When asked what anger at President Sisi has to do with Italy, Ibrahim's answer is pithy. "You should know, Sisi is friends with the Italians, isn't he?"

Brotherhood stronghold

Naam Square is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. Here the Brothers feel safe, immersed in a neighborhood in which they have long been popular since the rule of Hosni Mubarak. The quarter's winding, unpaved roads and friendly homes and offices offer infinite ways to escape the army and the police. Some streets are so small and filled with obstacles — carts, rubbish and car wrecks among other things — that they are almost impossible to drive on.

These side streets contain the Muslim Brotherhood's few remaining mosques. But these "mosques" aren't religious buildings with domes and minarets. They are houses of Brotherhood members with banners hung in the front and carpets strewn on the floor, turned into improvised houses of prayer. The large banners display quotes from the Koran, written in red and green, revealing that they are not public mosques approved by the government. The brothers guarding the entrances, dressed in jalabiya and sandals, don't hesitate to ward off any unwanted visitors.

Omar, 26, sells religious decorations next to the Fatma Zahara mosque, named after the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. "I see them pray but I don't know them, I have nothing to do with them," he says fearfully.

In March 2014, a mob of Islamists stormed this street to attack a nearby Coptic church. They burned cars in front of the St. Virgin Mary church, and set fire to garbage bins and religious objects. Mary Sameh George, a 40-year-old woman who was bringing medicine to help the sick, was killed in the rampage.

On guard

Today the church bears no scars of the violence. Sacred icons have been restored and boy scouts play in the courtyard, the Egyptian flag sewn on their sky-blue uniforms. But well-trained Christian guards now man the entrance, when there was no need to before. They stand watch as if the street were a border, eating and drinking during Ramadan to underline the stark division with their neighbors.

The mood is different at St. George's church, just a 10-minute drive away. Father Paul, a 55-year-old former electrical engineer, has some 10,000 people in his parish. They fill the church for every occasion, singing and praying together. "We Christians have been suffering for 2,015 years — the first one to suffer was Jesus Christ. What we're going through brings us closer to him," he says, holding up a small crucifix that he calls "his flag".

Leading a Coptic community in the heart of a neighborhood dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood is a daunting mission, but Father Paul pulls few punches when describing his neighbors. "Something terrible is going on inside the minds of some Muslims, like those in ISIS," he says. "They're convinced that God is ordering them to kill, but that is diabolical and unnatural, it's terrible."

He is surrounded by a threat that he finds inescapable, but one that he feels he must coexist with before ultimately defeating it. "Prayer is stronger than death, and not all Muslims are like these fanatics. Egypt isn't Syria or Iraq because here we have common roots going back thousands of years," he says. In his view, the jihadists of Ain Shams street don't represent Egyptian Islam as a whole.

It's a message shared by the students in front of Ain Shams University, another battleground between Islamists and the police. The students are relaxing on the grass, and ISIS seems very far away. "They have nothing to do with us," says one student.

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