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Less than three years after the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, the democratically elected government has been overthrown and the Egyptian military is running the state. GlobalPost and FRONTLINE have been on the street from the earliest days. GlobalPost's Charles M. Sennott again partners with FRONTLINE on the documentary “Egypt in Crisis” airing September 17, 2013 on PBS.
Though father Saad and son Ahmed demonstrate on opposite sides, religious tradition brought them back together.
CAIRO — A crescent moon appeared through a cloud of tear gas and offered thin light over a column of tanks, security forces and idling ambulances. Rival demonstrators were hurling rocks and insults at each other on darkened streets where a father and son stood on opposite sides of a country that felt like it was coming apart.
It was July 12th, the first Friday night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, a time on the Islamic calendar when it is believed the Koran was presented by God. This summer, the month presented mostly violence and left Egypt teetering on what sometimes felt like civil war. The Ramadan rituals of fasting and prayers framed yet another historic and bloody chapter in the country’s still-unfolding revolution.
And throughout Ramadan, Ahmed Douma, 24, a secular, pro-democracy activist, and his father, Saad Douma, 58, a lifelong member of the Muslim Brotherhood, were regularly attending rival demonstrations and found themselves shouting across the barbed wire and the police barricades.
But like the stories of all fathers and sons, there is a history here, and their harsh words in opposing protest marches and their struggle to stay in a personal dialogue with each other seems to embody the struggle of Egypt, a family deeply divided but trying its best to stay together.
I arranged a meeting with the father and son on a mid-July night in a poor neighborhood of Cairo in a five-story, walk-up apartment. An oppressive heat and the blaring call to prayer of a nearby mosque filled the two rooms where three generations of an extended family were coming together in the end of the day just before nightfall when the Ramadan iftar, or breaking of the fast, occurs.
A FAMILY HISTORY
The Douma family hails from the Nile Delta where the father, Saad, first joined Muslim Brotherhood, when it was an outlawed movement that thrived underground in Cairo’s slums and in rural hamlets like the one they lived in.
In these communities neglected by Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood provided a network of social services, such as health clinics and nursery schools, and grew a loyal following which included his son, Ahmed Douma, who says he remembers handing out leaflets after Friday prayers with his father. Ahmed said he was supportive until he was about 18 and began to join in a more secular movement that was coalescing on the web around Facebook pages and blogs that were intent on exposing the brutality of Mubarak’s police state and directly challenging a dictatorship.
On the night we met up this summer, Ahmed Douma was sporting a yellow t-shirt and tight jeans, and looked his part as the well-known and outspoken pro-democracy activist that he was. He had invited his father Saad Douma to his apartment for iftar. Saad, who works in the Education Ministry in the Nile Delta, was sporting a thick gray beard and clad in gray pants and a matching, loose-fitting shirt buttoned to the top, a style favored by the Muslim Brothers.
Ahmed had played a prominent role in Tahrir Square in the initial civil unrest of early 2011 known as the ‘January 25 Revolution’ amid what came to be known in the region as the Arab Spring. And back then, Ahmed was joined in those protests by his father as the Muslim Brotherhood hesitantly — and then decisively — joined in those mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir — or “Liberation” — Square.
Tahrir Square came to symbolize the heart of the heady early days in this still unfolding revolution, a traffic circle that had become a tent city for protesters who were Islamists and secular activists, men and women, young and old, Christian and Muslim and fathers and sons.
They were all coming together to topple President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of brutal and corrupt rule. And it worked. Mubarak stepped down on the night of February 11, 2011 and Saad the father and Ahmed the son joined the vast majority of the country in rejoicing for a new future for Egypt. In the months ahead, both father and son welcomed the first free and fair democratic elections in the country’s history.
In those elections in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and other Islamist parties took more than two-thirds of the