Geopolitics

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 â€" 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 â€" carts, rubbish and car wrecks among other things â€" 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 â€" 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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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