CAIRO, Egypt — When a Cairo architect sat down with a client on Wednesday morning to discuss renovations for a house in one of the moneyed neighborhoods downtown, he found to his amusement that he had been politically stalked. After an hour-long political discussion about what the client called "the situation," she confessed that she had felt comfortable hiring him "because I checked your Twitter page."
Such political vetting has become a peril of doing business in an Egypt more polarized than ever, where a bloody campaign to suppress supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi has pushed people to choose between either secular authoritarianism or the Muslim Brotherhood, with little appetite for reconciliation between them.
"Being in the middle has become extremely hostile," the architect explained. A person's stance on the crackdown, which has seen more than 1,000 Egyptians killed since the July 3 coup, has become the moment's essential barometer of personal and political morality.
Egyptians once scoffed at the binary rhetoric of George W. Bush's America; now the spokesman of the military-backed interim president paints the lines of conflict on the basis of "who is with [Egypt] and who is against it," and the authorities are joined by most of Egypt's privately owned media outlets in proclaiming the campaign against the Brotherhood as a "war against terrorism." The absolutism on both sides has drawn battle lines so sharp that they cleave friendships and political alliances, producing a growing despair among those clinging to an increasingly fanciful middle ground.
"I've reached the point that I just want to get out," said Mohamed Mahmoud, a software engineer for a multinational corporation who returned to Egypt recently after a three-week training program abroad. "I've personally given up hope. I just don't see a clear path to Egypt getting better."
Political space for a dissenting third way began to shrink earlier this year as the economic crisis sharply escalated, with popular anger driven by fuel shortages, price hikes, political violence and the apparent breakdown of government bureaucracy. Many of the secular forces that had joined the revolution against Hosni Mubarak began calling for Morsi's ouster, even if that required a military intervention. Prominent liberals, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and leader of the National Salvation Front, publicly suggested that the military was a better option than what ElBaradei called rule by Islamist militias.
A few liberals looked on uneasily as General Abdelfattah el-Sisi announced Morsi's ouster on July 3 after days of massive protests; many cheered enthusiastically. The pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa el-Adaweya, which began in the days leading up to the coup, was virtually ignored by Egypt's media until 51 protesters were shot dead in the early morning hours of July 8 in front of the nearby Republican Guards Club, where Morsi was believed to be held incommunicado. Even then, the privately owned media hewed to the authorities' explanation that the lethal response was sparked by armed protesters, despite the majority of the evidence suggesting otherwise.
The same pattern was repeated when el-Sisi, about two weeks later, asked for street demonstrations to provide a "mandate" to "confront possible violence and terrorism" — a prelude to another Rabaa attack, which left at least 60 people dead. Then came the mass killings.
For many who protested both Mubarak and the military rule that followed his fall, the crisis has revealed who among their friends and colleagues will hold on to principles and who will engage in what they see as cynical pragmatism.
"We call moments like this since the revolution broke out a moment of farz [sorting] … You can call it, negatively, division," said Muhammad Kalfat, a 32-year-old literary and academic translator and socialist who lived in Tahrir Square during the uprising.
Dissent on the streets is a dangerous business these days, but social media have become a major battleground for middle-class Egyptians to wage a culture war that has divided family and friends.
Ahmed Alaa, a 23-year-old business-administration graduate, knew three fellow students from the Sadat Academy for Management Sciences — two men and a woman — who joined the Rabaa el-Adaweya sit-in but left two days before it was dispersed. Another of Alaa's friends, a 25-year-old army lieutenant, was on duty at times for 24 consecutive hours manning an armored personnel carrier at checkpoints around Cairo.
Alaa argued frequently with the classmates he knew at Rabaa, even though he had visited once himself and disapproved of the violent operation to clear it.
"I asked them, 'Tell me one good reason to get Morsi back in Egypt,' and they said it's a coup, and blah, blah, blah,” he said. "They told me [the Rabaa protesters] carried weapons to defend themselves … I deleted them from my Facebook account."
But Egypt's divisions are far from limited to the virtual world.
Mahmoud told of how his best friend's brother, a computer-science graduate and outwardly religious father of two, was killed when the Rabaa sit-in was attacked. He was "pretty much like me," Mahmoud recalled, and had patented a system for electronic voting that had been tested in a local union election.
"I have friends on both sides," he said. "The very shocking thing for me was, actually, those who were pro-military — they were very OK with … the death toll. It's acceptable for them because for a lot of people, especially on the pro-military side, they're considering everyone who is Brotherhood a traitor or a terrorist."
The polarization has gone beyond friendships, cutting short political careers and roiling alliances with internecine brawls. ElBaradei, who had been involved in internationally sponsored mediation attempts to avoid more violence, resigned after the Rabaa action. He reportedly departed for Vienna and soon after was sued by a Helwan University law professor for "betrayal of trust." Erstwhile allies in the National Salvation Front privately suggested he might be secretly loyal to the Brotherhood, and on Thursday, Ahmed Shafiq, who served as prime minister in some of Mubarak's final days in power, told a television news show that ElBaradei was "on a mission to divide Egypt."
Khaled Dawoud, who resigned as the Front's spokesman after the coalition issued a statement praising the Rabaa clearing — which he said gave security forces a "green light" to return to brutal, Mubarak-era tactics — said he has since received thinly veiled threats from those he once considered friends and colleagues.
"One person even told me straight in the face that if the soldier gives his back to the battle, he should be shot in the back," Dawoud said. "Because of this hysteric, polarized atmosphere that we live in, the entire strategy seems to be now based on the theory that this is a war on terrorism ... and there’s no way to be in the middle."
The Brotherhood’s "stubborn and crazy attitude" pushed the country into crisis, Dawoud said, but what he saw as the resulting campaign to "dehumanize" its members and their religiously conservative allies seemed to be based on the impossible hope that they could be "eradicated."
"They are not a terrorist organization that can be squashed," he said.
The polarization and anti-Brotherhood campaign have also created a difficult and uncomfortable situation for established human-rights campaigners.
Aida Seif el-Dawla, a prominent psychiatrist with the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said protesters at pro-Morsi sit-ins — and others accused of being Islamists — were going missing and being arrested on an "incredible scale," with less information than ever available about their fate and whereabouts.
But many have criticized Nadeem’s work to identify the detainees and help provide them with legal representation and access to their families, meaning there is little public pressure on the police and military to respond.
"It is difficult, psychologically, when you get shamed and slandered by people who were supposed to be our colleagues and our friends," Dawla said.
Dawla and others traced the anger, as best they could, to two primary sources: the abject failure of the Brotherhood-led government and the sycophantic media that embraced and promoted, rather than challenged, the military's narrative of terrorism, foreign plots and national-security risks.
"It's funny how all the so-called liberal channels all at once are orchestrating with the state security and the ministry of interior," Dawla said.
They're being cheered on by voices — some who were once admired by revolutionaries — that now accept little nuance and paint any attempt to carve out a middle ground as a defense of the Brotherhood, whose supporters for months have been derisively called sheep for their seeming unquestioning loyalty to Morsi and the Islamist cause.
One of the most widely shared pieces of pro-military propaganda was a newspaper front page bearing an image of el-Sisi's head Photoshopped onto more than a dozen bodies, accompanied by the headline "All of Egypt Is el-Sisi." The newspaper, Sawt Al Umma, is overseen by Abdel Halim Qandil, a secular nationalist and founding member of the influential anti-Mubarak Kefaya movement.
But even if the military has cynically reaped the benefit of widespread anti-Islamist anger, many argued that the Brotherhood sowed the seeds of popular resentment with a year of one bad decision after another and would now suffer poetic justice, hard as it was to watch.
"Every herd of sheep follows its shepherd," Kalfat said. "We have two herds of sheep in this country right now."