A barbershop in downtown Cairo
A barbershop in downtown Cairo
Birgit Svensson

GIZA — The barber is named Wissam Ibrahim. His shop in this bustling city south of Cairo is halfway up Pyramid Street, a road that is now almost permanently blocked with traffic. Clients come down four steps into the small basement salon next to the temple-like water reservoir. Two plush chairs with headrests give the barbershop an aura of the 1960s, a feeling that is heightened by Ibrahim’s traditional method: shaving foam, straight razor and an artisan’s lightness of touch.

“Normally the two chairs are enough,” he says. “But now I need twice as many.”

For a month now, he has been overwhelmed by clients. Although the Egyptian economy is languishing, Ibrahim is earning more than ever before. “It used to be the exact opposite,” he says. “When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, everyone wanted beards. The longer, the better.”

His shop in Giza, a city of 2.6 million with a large proportion of Islamists, often stood empty. Since President Mohamed Morsi’s July 3 ouster and the violent break-up of protest camps six weeks ago, men no longer want their beards.

In Cairo, the streets have never been so full of clean-shaven men. Pale cheeks and chins show where beards used to protect skin from the sunlight. Some men have chosen to grow a little stubble to hide this tell-tale sign.

Prison risk

“The police look at photos or videos of the protests,” one client says as the barber lathers up his face. “Then they come at night during curfew and take you away. It’s mostly bearded men who get taken away.”

Egypt’s prisons are full to bursting with 3,000 suspected Muslim Brotherhood members. After Morsi was overthrown, the military broke up the government and declared a state of emergency, granting itself the power to hold prisoners indefinitely without legal counsel. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, have been officially outlawed. The military has extended the state of emergency to the end of November, citing the “unstable security situation.”

The town of Kerdasa, just seven kilometers from Ibrahim’s barbershop, was stormed by anti-terror police, who went from door to door searching for suspects. Sixty-five men were arrested, and hand grenades and automatic weapons were discovered in the raid. There were casualties on both sides. “It’s no wonder everyone wants to shave off their beards,” says Ibrahim’s client.

The events of Aug. 14 have transformed the promising spring of change into a bitter winter of discontent. At half past six in the morning, the army and police in Cairo stormed the protest camps where Muslim Brotherhood members were demanding President Morsi’s reinstatement. Hundreds of his supporters were killed, and the raid in Kerdasa followed two hours later. The shooting lasted an hour until police ran out of ammunition. Then the militants slit survivors’ throats and threw acid on them, before dragging the commander’s body through the streets.

The video of the massacre, which the militants posted online, has been used by the security forces as justification for the war on “terrorists.” Arson attacks on churches and a car bomb attack in mid-September led to a raid last week on Dalga, another Islamist stronghold.

What future for the Brotherhood?

“It’s wrong to say that we’re all terrorists,” says Ahmed, who doesn’t want to give his full name. A practising Muslim, the 42-year-old says he joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party because he wanted to see state and religion combined. As a businessman, Ahmed hoped for economic reform and reduced corruption, but he soon realized that his fellow members were more interested in ideological debates than concrete plans. After a year, he was also convinced that Morsi was not the right man for the presidency.

“But it shouldn’t have happened that way,” Ahmed says. “It’s worse now than under former President Hosni Mubarak. At least then we could voice our criticism without being arrested. Now no one dares say anything.”

Mohamed Soffar, politics professor at Cairo University, says the Muslim Brotherhood will not recover. “Their first elected president has been overthrown, and their members are in prison. What can they do other than go underground?”

For the majority of the party's 85-year history, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders have been in prison. This created a sense of persecution and paranoia that carried over into Morsi’s presidency. Survival was the watchword and it hindered the Muslim Brotherhood’s political development. Morsi justified any controversial decisions by claiming that he was fighting against conspiracies. “Now his supporters think he has been proven right,” says Soffar.

Yehia El-Gamal is uncomfortable with the idea of the military being in control. His voice grows quiet as he dares to criticize the current situation. “I think there should be reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood,” says the 83-year-old Egyptian. “Is it right to send 40% of our population underground?”

Independent researchers have estimated support for the Muslim Brotherhood at around 40%. El-Gamal was involved in the revolution from the start. He supported opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and joined his party. But when Nobel Prize winner ElBaradei stepped down as vice president of the transitional government in protest of the violence in Nasr City, he was demonized as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter and has since sought refuge in Vienna to escape accusations of complicity.

“At the moment, no one dares open their mouth,” says El-Gamal. “The emergency laws mean that the transitional government’s powers are limitless.” The media is being reined in, with Islamist newspapers and TV channels being banned. Bassem Youssef, the well-known satirist and critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also taking a break, which has already lasted two months. “The beards are gone,” smiles El-Gamal. “What’s left for him to make fun of now?” No one dares to mock military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It seems that Egypt has lost its sense of humor.

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