CAIRO -- When a bevy of policemen stormed his office last month and arrested four colleagues and him on charges of working for the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahmed, 30, knew he was being arrested under false pretenses: The woman who’d brought the complaint had had a business dispute with Ahmed’s landlord, and this was payback. The evidence was thin enough that the prosecutor who’d at first charged Ahmed with terrorism eventually allowed him to post bail and go free.
In today’s Egypt, the war against the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government classified as a terrorist organization on Christmas Day, has become an opportunity to settle personal scores quickly – by falsely charging someone with being a Brotherhood member.
Having a beard, as Ahmed and his colleagues do, is all the evidence that’s needed.
“If you have a fight with your neighbor, he can wake up and accuse you of being in the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Ahmed, a cartoon animator who asked that his full name not be used to avoid further problems. “If you wake up first, you can accuse him of being a Muslim Brotherhood.”
The campaign against the Brotherhood already has been polarizing. Hundreds of Brotherhood sympathizers have been killed and thousands detained in a government-imposed crackdown that’s remade Egyptian politics since the ouster last summer of Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who became the country’s first democratically elected president.
The government is doing everything it can to encourage average citizens to report Brotherhood members, with state television repeatedly broadcasting numbers people should call to report their suspicions.
The fallout, however, goes far beyond politics. It’s even played a role in domestic disputes.
Because a beard for Islamists is a sign of piety, bearded men have paid a special price, with not only police but also average citizens feeling empowered to hurl insults at them.
The woman who brought the charges wanted to rent the apartment Ahmed used as an office to expand her gym. When she couldn’t reach terms with the landlord, she filed charges with the prosecutor that Ahmed and his colleagues were working on behalf of the Brotherhood. Ahmed and his colleagues spent a month in prison before being released on $7,142 bail, pending a trial, the date for which is still to be set. Police still have Ahmed’s computer, and his office is sealed.
State news media reported the case of a man who called state security on his wife, whom he accused of being a Brotherhood member, and a Muslim cleric issued a religious ruling that said men could divorce their wives if they were jailed for Brotherhood associations.
The widespread detention of those falsely accused is creating a jail system overwhelmed with prisoners held in appalling conditions, often alongside jihadists, as well as murderers and other major criminals.
Islamists, especially younger ones, have told McClatchy they’re embracing violence in retaliation for the arrests, abuse in prison and their branding as terrorists, with Facebook pages emerging almost daily calling for a violent reaction.
During his monthlong stay in prison, Ahmed said, he was among 230 prisoners in a cell built for 70. At times he was forced to sleep standing up, bribing others for a shift to sleep sitting down.
Ahmed said he survived in jail by embracing the religious rhetoric propagated by fellow inmates.
“The worst thing in these kinds of jails is the criminals inside. They like to hear about God. We talked about God. That is the only reason we were treated well,” he said.
Ahmed had rented office space for his computer animation company in May. Next door was a woman who owned a gym and was eager to expand the space into his apartment. She approached the owner, who said the apartment had been rented and proposed a site at another apartment building in a joint venture with her.
They initially agreed. The landlord gave the gym owner $7,000 as a down payment, and he claimed the woman ran off with the money. He went to the police and charged that she was running a prostitution ring out of the gym. The police came and shut down the gym. She retaliated and said he was renting the apartment next door to Brotherhood sympathizers.
On Jan. 7, the police stormed Ahmed’s office. They found five men with beards.
Ahmed’s wife, Nahla, recalled what happened. “I kept calling, five, six times, and he never answered,” she said. Later, a colleague of Ahmed’s partner called to say they’d been arrested.
The police took the computers, the company’s money and the men to the station.
“They accused us of being Muslim Brotherhood and they accused us of keeping devices for the purpose of broadcasting false news on Al Jazeera. They said we want to overthrow the government. And they said we produce movies and cartoons against the government,” Ahmed said.
Inside the prison system, “we were considered political prisoners. Before, they used to keep political prisoner separate but because there are so many in jail, we had to be put together,” he said.
To be sure, Ahmed, while not a member of the Brotherhood, had been a Morsi supporter. He joined the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of then-President Hosni Mubarak and in 2013 went to Rabaa, where supporters of Morsi staged a two-month sit-in calling for his reinstatement to office, before security officials violently broke it up, killing roughly 1,100 people.
“We did not like (Morsi’s) attitude or performance but he was elected,” said Nahla. “He has to do his four years as long as he doesn’t make a big mistake.”
To reach his wife, Ahmed used a cellphone that criminals charged with drug dealing had sneaked into prison. Others sneaked in hash to bribe the guards.“The first time he called, he was OK. We were really happy. He said he was sleeping in a good place. He asked for food, clothes and information about what the lawyer was doing,” Nahla said.
The prison reached its capacity, Ahmed said, around Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the uprising, when thousands protested either on behalf of or against the government, leading to a surge of arrests.
In their phone calls, Ahmed discouraged his wife from visiting. She wears a niqab over her head and face, the female symbol of piety, and Ahmed feared that she’d be harassed at the prison.
A lawyer secured Ahmed’s release on bail a month later, as officials sought to empty their prisons of those who pose no threat.
“They know our case is fake, so that got us out,” Ahmed said.
But with no office or computers, Ahmed and his other colleagues cannot work. Ahmed said he hadn’t confronted the woman for fear she’d issue new charges against him.
These days, he largely stays at home.
“We sometimes think we should leave the country. How will he go back to work? What if they go someplace and someone complains about him again?” asked Nahla. “Every day we think this has to end, the regime, but we don’t know how that will happen.”