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Bound By Blood, Divided By Politics: Three Egyptian Sisters

Egyptian women queue outside a polling station during voting on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of then-President Mohammed Morsi, in Giza, Egypt, last December. In a country divided by a political crisis, families are not spared.
Nasser Nasser
Egyptian women queue outside a polling station during voting on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of then-President Mohammed Morsi, in Giza, Egypt, last December. In a country divided by a political crisis, families are not spared.

Nagwa, Dina and May are sisters. All three are married, all three have children. All three had always been close — until now.

Egypt's political crisis is changing those relationships. Nagwa and May sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. Dina, on the other hand, supports the military, arguing that the generals are just keeping extremists at bay.

It is a division that is echoed in almost every Egyptian household. And the polarization has grown since the popularly backed military coup on July 3 that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power.

Nagwa: 'People Look At Me And Think "Extremist" '

First we meet Nagwa at her home in eastern Cairo. (All three women asked us not to use their last names, or take their photos, for security reasons.) She usually wears a face covering, or niqab, favored by ultra-conservative Muslims. But today she is inside, among women, so she's dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

Nagwa, 39, is a devout Muslim. Although she didn't support ousted President Mohamed Morsi, she says she feels pain over what's happened in her country: an elected Islamist president forced from power with the backing of much of the population.

And she worries that she'll get caught up in the wave of popular anger toward the Islamists. Hundreds of people are being arrested, often just on suspicion of links to the Brotherhood.

"Of course now I am scared," she says. "I am not willing to change the way I voice my views, but of course I am scared. ... People look at me and think 'extremist.' "

Her husband drives her to work now. And she wonders if people know she visited the pro-Morsi sit-in camps twice before they were forcibly dispersed.

When Hosni Mubarak's secular, autocratic regime was toppled in 2011, Nagwa felt safe enough to wear a face veil. Her job at a partially state-owned company never allowed it before, but after the uprising she felt the space for freedom of religious expression was opening up.

"A woman wore the niqab and no one asked her to resign or punished her," she says. "So when she wore it, I put it on."

Now she's afraid again. There are rumors at her office that the company directors are now labeling each employee in one of three categories: extremist, moderate or non-religious.

Based on her attire, Nagwa is sure she's been classified as an extremist.

She tries not to walk alone anymore, worried that her niqab may invite reprisals. She says when she hears people in the street condemning Islamists, she walks the other way. Sometimes she hears people condemning her, based on her dress.

But the family, she says, doesn't all agree.

"We are somehow divided," she says.

Dina: 'I Believe In The Army'

Nagwa's sister Dina supports the military and loathes the Muslim Brotherhood. But the third sister, May, is a fierce supporter of the Islamists who joined street protests against the military after the overthrow of Morsi.

May, 29, refused to speak to us for personal reasons.

But we caught up with Dina in Beni Suef, a city on the Nile south of Cairo. She is also a devout Muslim. The 36-year-old wears a flowing abaya and a scarf over her hair but she doesn't cover her face.

Dina's husband was a member of parliament during the Mubarak era and her brothers-in-law are police officers. That, her sisters say, explains Dina's opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood — though she insists she has her own take on the Islamists. They were seeking total control of the state, Dina says, and they were responsible for the wave of violence that followed the military takeover.

And, she adds, the forced dispersal of the sit-in camps on Aug. 14, when hundreds died, was sad. But the Muslim Brotherhood was warned, she says.

"It was like a state within a state," Dina says. "Were they really unarmed? No, they were armed. Then what? It was not a peaceful protest. They were taking away other people's property. They were using electricity, and lighting up the place, and they were about to start having running water. We were all suffering."

She has just returned from picking up her three sons from school.

Dina coaxes her 5-year-old son Marwan to sing a pro-military song that he's memorized. It's called "Bless Your Hands, Bless My Country's Army."

"I believe in the army," Dina says. "Yes, some people were arrested unfairly but the army is fighting terrorism."

No More Talk Of Politics

Then she talks about her sisters. She and Nagwa have tried to avoid fights. But between Dina and May, there is no common ground.

Dina says May curses anyone who backs the military. May says Dina is supporting people who could have murdered her and her husband simply because they participated in protests against the generals.

"This is what made me cry," Dina says. "I told her I would not speak to her as long as she's says things like that. I was not happy to hear such things from religious people."

To save their relationship as sisters, they stopped talking about politics.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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