Egypt's Crackdown On Islamists Spreads To Mosques, Charities

Mohammed is a teacher, and for the past 17 years, he has also worked with an Islamic charity in Cairo. But a little more than two weeks ago that charity was shut down.

Security forces raided its office, took everything and began searching for the head of the board of directors because he's connected to the Muslim Brotherhood — the Islamist group of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

Mohammed, who asked that only his first name be used, fled.

He left his job and his home, worried he'd be arrested. Thousands of people have already been rounded up, some just on suspicion of being connected to the Brotherhood.

This week marked Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar and a time when charities work overtime to help the poor. But Mohammed doesn't know how he can help this year.

The organization he worked for supported 2,000 families, providing school uniforms for the children, a monthly stipend, and for Eid, gift baskets and money.

"We had hoped the political crisis here would not affect charitable work," Mohammed says. "But now, people will suffer. These are dark and depressing days."

Since the military coup on July 3 that removed Morsi, the authorities have been systematically trying to break the Brotherhood and reclaim control of the country. The crackdown, which began with the group's leaders and rank-and-file, has now spread to mosques and charitable organizations.

Mosques As A Political Base

Using its vast social network, the Brotherhood dominated elections after Egypt's 2011 uprising. Mosques and charities were major parts of that network, but those outlets are closing for the Brotherhood.

"All of these charities that are either controlled by members of the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated loosely with the Muslim Brotherhood are now seen as a potential space for organizing politically by the authorities," says Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. "I think that's why they want to go after them and control them."

And they're doing it with the mosques, too. Morayef says under the autocratic leaders of Egypt's past, the mosques were always tightly controlled to ward off opposition political organizations.

But after Morsi was elected president, the Brotherhood began to send its own people to the pulpits. Many Egyptians accuse the organization of using religion to bolster its political standing and control the state.

"We will see a reversal and much tighter control overall over the mosques," Morayef says.

Licensing Preachers, Closing Mosques

Recently, the Ministry of Endowments banned all preachers who are not licensed through Al Azhar, the 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning in Cairo. Already-licensed preachers must now be vetted and re-accredited. And the ministry is shutting down all small, unregistered mosques.

The reason? Officials say it's to distance religion from politics.

As a result, places like Mohamed Atteya's small outdoor prayer space are no longer functioning. A preacher and engineer, Atteya shut it down when the new rules were announced.

Many Egyptians support the new controls; they say they will keep extremism at bay. But 70-year-old Atteya worries.

He has stopped preaching at his makeshift downtown mosque. He says he didn't want any problems as an unlicensed preacher.

"Since there is a decision, whether I agree or I do not agree, I have to obey it," he says. "This is the regulations. ... I am an old man."

But, he says, what's happening is wrong. The mosque is for all Muslims, not just for the state. He says the military-backed government is enforcing stricter regulations than ever before, even during the reign of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011.

"They are afraid of the popularity of the Muslim [Brotherhood]. [It] is not a group, but it is an idea, and this idea, it is very difficult to be taken from the hearts of the people," Atteya says.

When there is a conflict in society, the imam of a mosque should never take sides, he adds. That's because those who pray behind the preacher are from both sides of the conflict, he says, so one side will be angered and the instability will grow.

All those who pray at the mosques are Muslims, he says, adding that the authorities shouldn't have a monopoly on God — nor should anyone else.