SILAH — The men entered by the window of Silah’s police station. There were maybe 60 of them, their unmasked faces easy to recognize since they all live in the small town.
“Average citizens, aged between 18 and 45,” one policeman says. That mid-August day, these “average citizens” set about sacking the station, taking radio material and weapons, before setting the building ablaze. It was an unusual event in this town of 10,000 people — near the city of Faiyum — where the most common crime is cattle theft.
Two weeks after the attack, when Silah’s police officers went to the perpetrators’ homes to arrest them, they could not find them. “We all know each other, so we warned them beforehand,” says the owner of a stationery shop. “They're sleeping in the fields.” At the police station, a brigadier in flip-flops, a long white shirt and turban takes the situation pretty lightly. “We want peace here. We’ll see about the rest later.”
He says people here seem a bit lost, confused. And indeed the politics do seem muddled and complicated at the moment. “It’s not easy to make sense of the whole situation. We’re about to have our fourth government in two years — as many as we had after the independence in 1953.” His phone interrupts him. “Call me later. I’m making big political speeches,” he jokes.
Where voices collide
Silah is 130 kilometers southwest of Cairo, far from the riots and the violent crackdown that saw hundreds killed and arrested just after the military coup against the Islamist government. For the past two months, both in the capital and in major cities, it has been very difficult to voice any criticism against the military.
There is too much uncertainty, too many fears, but there is also popular enthusiasm for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian Army who is now the country’s most powerful figure. A kind of "Sisimania" has emerged in Cairo, as its inhabitants write songs about him and display his portrait in shop windows and dining rooms. But as soon as you’re outside the big Egyptian cities, al-Sisi fades away, the sound and the fury are muffled, there is no more unanimity, and a different country emerges.
It’s 11 a.m. in Silah, a chunk of desert along the road to Libya. In this region, the Muslim Brotherhood’s charity networks are almost as poor as the people they are supposed to be helping. A teacher in his fifties is the only person around wearing a tie and flannel trousers. He explains that every month the Muslim Brotherhood gives one-third of the families half a liter of oil and a kilo of rice, and sometimes, a few notebooks and medicine.
The region, however, is unlike any other. It is known as an Islamist stronghold. During the 2011 presidential election, since-deposed President Mohamed Morsi won 80% of the vote in this part of the country. Although he doesn’t explicitly say so, the teacher doesn’t seem to be among the 80%. He is probably an unconditional supporter of the old regime, the likes of which the Hosni Mubarak state enjoyed during its 30 years in power.
Suddenly, at the end of the street, two emaciated children appear. A girl and a boy, both barefooted. She is half bald, and he is covered in scabs. A tragic situation but apparently commonplace. “I can show you places that are much worse, if you want.” And what sort of aid does the state provide? “None,” says the teacher, still smiling despite his obvious surprise at the question. “For that, there’s nobody except the Muslim Brotherhood.”
A place no regime seems to help
On a nearby street, the atmosphere changes dramatically when a young theology graduate speaks out against the military coup. He argues that thanks to Morsi, civil service jobs had become accessible to “children from small families” and to those who wore a beard and read the Koran. He himself has “almost been recruited by the Ministry of Religious Affairs” this summer, when the military ousted Morsi.
Quickly but silently, some of the people around him step away, awkwardly, as if to avoid any argument. “Even in our families we have different points of view, but we don't want to fight among ourselves,” one man explains. He is filming the whole scene on his cellphone. “I’m a police officer,” he says.
When the Muslim Brotherhood president was overthrown back in July, all trains to Cairo were suspended, and the central station was placed under the army’s control so as to prevent militants from outside the capital from joining Morsi supporters in the demonstrations.
A few militants from Silah hopped on minibuses chartered by the Muslim Brotherhood. For that, they were paid 200 Egyptian pounds ($30), equivalent to a two-day salary for some. In any case, for most this was their first trip to Cairo. "They were taken to a crowded square. They were given food and water and remained among themselves," a young man with a long scraggly beard explains. On Aug. 14, the army attacked the different areas occupied by Morsi's supporters. "They were incapable of guiding themselves. They didn't know the city." One of them walked the 130 kilometers home alone and by night, to be safer. It took him a whole week, during which he didn't have anything to eat.
That same day in Faiyum, the major city near Silah, the governor's house was attacked and his driver killed in retaliation. Shots were fired from all directions in the streets. The inhabitants locked themselves in their houses with stocks of food. "All we could see on TV was people dying," one woman remembers. That's when "average citizens" attacked Silah's police station.
The woman goes on: "Presidents come and go, but our lives remain unchanged." A rumble rises. "Our lives are worse," shouts a trader in the town, apparently on behalf of everybody else. Those who used to work in Cairo don't dare go anymore, for fear of getting killed there. "We don't care who's running the country, as long as they don't steal and don't kill," says the police officer, who has stopped filming, completely consumed by the discussion.
Another man says: "In any case, farmers count for nothing." The argument heats up, and people suddenly rush from all over the place to take part. Most of them only grow wheat and corn. As for vegetables, they would need fertilizer, which can only be found on the black market at a prohibitive price. A state-run agency is officially in charge of its distribution, "but they only supply big farms that have at least 75 acres of land. They invite them to sit down in armchairs, serve them coffee and give them what they want. We're not even allowed to stand up." Yet another shouts: "Nobody has ever cared about us ever since we were born."
A “shock” when Islamists were elected
In the police station, the light blue color of the walls has disappeared under streaks of smoke from the earlier fire. The telephone took on a distorted, funny shape when it melted. The officer in flip-flops and turban points to burnt papers. "Look what happened to all our lovely paperwork!" Most of it concerned Muslim Brothers — tolerated but only just, under Mubarak. According to the officer, there are about 200 of them in Silah.
"In those days, we would locate them and then arrest them around 3 in the morning, since they were the only ones to go to the mosque for the first prayer of the day," one of his colleagues says with nostalgia. When the Islamists were elected triumphantly in 2011, "It was such a shock," the policeman says. "The day before we could throw them in jail. The next day we had to salute them as our superiors."
Outside, birds are singing. "They were fast-tracked to the head of the country without any experience." He goes on, still bewildered: "They kept to themselves, they were arrogant, and didn't want to learn anything about us." When the government was overthrown, no security forces here objected to going to Cairo as reinforcements.
About 20 people have been arrested in Faiyum, but still none in Silah. The offices of Morsi's Freedom and Justice party were closed down, and rumor has it that new elections will take place. People are waiting impatiently, and it's always during those moments, when people are most anxious, that the Muslim Brotherhood organizes exceptional distributions of tea and sugar.