Rough justice for Egypt’s Brotherhood
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the country’s most popular political movement, despite a 1954 ban. It won one-fifth of the seats in the People’s Assembly in 2005, becoming the largest opposition bloc in Egypt’s history. Stunned by their success, the regime has come down hard on political opponents. Zahraa El Shater is the daughter of Khairat El Shater, the Brotherhood’s third-highest ranking member. Her husband, Ayman Abdel Ghani, is a member too. Both men are standing trial at a special military tribunal, where the verdict has been postponed until late March. Meanwhile Zahraa struggles to explain the world to her four children and to keep them focused on a peaceful future
My husband has been arrested four times since we got married. They take him away every time there is an election.
Everyone was happy when the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections in 2005. I was happy too, of course, but I was also upset; I knew that they would come and arrest my husband. And that is exactly what happened. They took him away for six months.
We were all in the car when they took him. We had moved house and the police didn’t have our new address, so they were looking for him in the streets. We had just collected the children from school when suddenly there were officers jumping on the car, screaming: “Stop trying to escape!” My husband wasn’t trying to escape; he hadn’t even known that they wanted him. If he had he would have gone to see the prosecutor by himself.
The officers pulled him out of the car in a very violent way. My children were screaming: “They are trying to kill my father! No, don’t kill him!” One of the officers was crying as he did it. (Afterwards, many of them asked me to forgive them. They said that they were just following orders. They went and bought sweets for my children.)
The officer in charge insisted on taking me and the children with them to the State Security station. My husband said to them: “Let her take the children and go; she knows how to drive. I am the one you want. Let her leave.” But they refused. My husband asked them to let us go in the same car so the soldiers would not do bad things to me, but the officer made us go in different cars.
All of my children were crying and screaming, and my husband started to shout to passers-by in the street. It was 3pm and there were a lot of people around. They were gathering to see what was happening. My husband gave people my father’s phone number and asked them to call it. He was afraid that no one would know what had happened to us. The police didn”t want anyone to know, so they beat him harder.
The police usually arrest members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep. The first thing they do when they attack a house is take out all the phone wires so the inhabitants can’t call anyone.
When they brought us to the State Security station they kept my children and me inside our car in a big garage for seven or eight hours. My children were shocked and scared and have not been the same since. My son soiled himself out of fright and since then has had the same problem when he is sleeping.
They kept asking me questions: “Why did they take him this way? What did he do?” I had to try to calm them down, but I needed someone to calm me down too. I couldn”t really do anything for them because I was too upset.
When we left I asked the officer to please give me back my mobile phone – and he did. This was very kind of him. I think he was upset as well. He was a human being and thought what was happening was wrong.
When they let us out I called my father. No one knew that we had been taken from the street. He sent a friend to come and collect us because I was too shocked to drive.
My husband spent six or seven months in jail. After that he was free for only three months before the police came back to arrest him. I was so surprised; we weren’t expecting them to come back. We were planning to go to Mecca to make our pilgrimage a week later, but of course we couldn’t.
Then my father was arrested. I never thought they would arrest him; he’s a very moderate and diplomatic member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, it”s unusual for the Supreme Guide or his deputies to be arrested, and this was the first time it had happened. It was a big shock.
It was 3am when I heard the phone ringing. I was scared something bad had happened so I tried to ignore it. I said to myself: “OK, just keep sleeping.”
A minute later there was loud knocking at the door, but my husband did not wake up. I wasn”t veiled, so I ran to the door to say: “Wait, please let me get veiled.” My younger brother Saad was with them on the other side. I asked him what was happening and he said: “It’s State Security. They’re here.”
When I opened the door my husband asked: “Why me? I have only been out for three months. I haven’t had a chance to do anything new.” The police officer said: “Show me where you keep all your books and papers.” But they had taken everything the last time they came and we had nothing for them to see. It had only been three months. We didn’t have time to buy anything new.
When my children woke up and discovered their father been taken again, and their grandfather, they were shocked. In the Muslim Brotherhood, we try to bring up our children with peaceful values. We want them to live in a good way. But now my oldest daughter Sara – she is 10 – asks me dangerous questions. She says things like: “You are so weak. You couldn’t defend our father. Isn’t he a strong man? He should not allow them to take him so easily every time. You are weak people.”
It is astonishing to my children that their father should be taken if he is a good man. I try to explain to Sara how things are, but she does not understand. I told her: “Your father and grandfather are good people, but the problem is this government.”
She asked me once: “If they put good people in prison and let bad people go free, then why should we be good people?” I explained it to her from an Islamic point of view. I told her that in order to make our community a good community we should be patient and try to be good people. We have to make sacrifices and do the right thing.
My children have begun to understand that we are living in a mess and I’m afraid that they will learn bad values from it. I try to tell them that their father is political prisoner, not a criminal. In Arabic, I tell them that he is mo’ataqal, a detainee; not masgoon, which means prisoner. I tell them there is a special kind of prison that is not for bad people, that sometimes good people can become mo’ataqal.
Every now and then I bring my children with me to protest against the trial. But it just convinces them that peaceful ways don’t work. Now, when we go to demonstrations, my children say to me: “Nobody hears you, nobody is listening to you.” Knowing that my children think this way makes me afraid.
The Muslim Brotherhood wants to change society in a peaceful way, not in a violent way. But I am convinced that pressure produces pressure. If the government is violent there will be violence in society. What the government is doing makes a lot of young people feel upset and that the peaceful ways are useless.
If my husband and father were found guilty by a civilian court it would mean they had done bad things and I would not try to defend them. But to watch them go to jail when they haven’t done anything wrong, when they were found innocent by [three separate] civilian courts? The government thinks that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t deserve to have justice. Criminals in Egypt have justice, and we deserve it too.
• Zahraa El Shater was talking to Liam Stack in Cairo.