One Nile Valley Town Is A Study In Egypt's Tensions

Beni Suef is a microcosm of Egypt. The Nile Valley city south of Cairo is divided and everyone is on edge. Christians worry about attacks by Islamists. Muslim Brotherhood members are in hiding or at least keeping quiet as the military fills the streets. Charities that took money from the Brotherhood no longer acknowledge it, worried they'll be shut down and some companies owned by Brotherhood members are quickly selling to new investors to make sure they don't get raided or shut down.

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To Egypt now, where the government crackdown on the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood is causing rifts across the country. NPR's Leila Fadel traveled some 70 miles south of Cairo to a city on the banks of the Nile where everyone is on edge.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The walls in Beni Suef tell the story of the battle that has engulfed Egypt since the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3rd.

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FADEL: Graffiti scribbled on one wall vows that Morsi will come back, another calls the head of the army, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a traitor. But the word traitor has been crossed out and replaced with the word hero. Like Egypt itself, Beni Suef is divided and a sense of defiance and fear permeates the streets. People here voted overwhelmingly for the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing during the parliamentary elections of 2011. Then, a year later, they voted for the Brotherhood's presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

Now, many here feel they're being punished for those votes. On almost every street corner, there are military tanks, and some residents say their city looks like an army camp. But to those who oppose the Brotherhood, the presence is comforting after the wave of violence that swept the country in August.

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FADEL: We visit a clinic that until recently was owned by the local head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party. Like most of the Brotherhood's leadership, he's on the run. This clinic was sold to a new investor to avoid being shut down after the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in a court ruling last month. That same ruling says any organization that takes money from the Brotherhood is also banned. Charities that were once part of the Muslim Brotherhood's vast social network for the poor now deny any association.

We walk up a dusty, narrow staircase to Hussein el Sayed Mohammed's home. He's in mourning for his cousin who was shot and killed in a protest against the military last month. Hussein blames street thugs for the murder.

HUSSEIN EL SAYED MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says some people were saddened by his cousin's death, but others said he deserved it. He shouldn't have protested, they told Hussein. He should have stayed home and backed the military which now rules Egypt.

MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Everyone is scared now, he says, scared the neighbors might report on them as members of the Brotherhood. The Islamists ruled Egypt just a few months ago. And now, on state television, they're being called terrorists. Pro-Brotherhood protests continue in Beni Suef, as they do across the country. And the arrests of Brotherhood members and sympathizers also continue.

MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Hussein says people are even afraid of going to the mosque these days. You might go and talk to a few clerics, he says, and then people will tell the police you are a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. If you watch Egyptian TV, he says, you'd think anyone with a beard is a terrorist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: We drive through the streets of this city of more than 200,000. The local courthouse is in ruins. It was set on fire over a month ago. At least three police stations were also torched, as was the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a Christian school. No institution has been spared in this bitter, bloody fight between the Brotherhood, its sympathizers and the military.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: School is just letting out for the day when we meet the headmistress of the Christian school that was attacked, Sister Manal Fayek. They're in a new temporary location and can only teach the children, both Muslims and Christians, for two hours a day.

MANAL FAYEK: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: She tells me that on August 14th, men surrounded the school and threw firebombs at it. Some climbed through the bathroom windows and set fire to the library. Sister Manal tried to lock herself and the other employees in the residence above the school, but the men forced them to leave. They paraded them through the streets, screaming words like infidel. Some Islamists condemn Christians for supporting the military coup. She finally found refuge in the house of a friend. Sister Manal blames the Muslim Brotherhood for the attack on her school. And with the military here now, she says, she feels safer.

FAYEK: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The Christian headmistress says that all the trust in neighbors and friends has gone in Beni Suef. Some of those men who attacked the school, she says, were neighbors.

FAYEK: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The school will be rebuilt, she says, but even then it won't be safe. She wants bars on the window and a high metal gate to keep out neighbors whom she now views as enemies. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

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