The two brothers were the nearest they had been in years, a 20-minute drive apart.
Mohamed Shobeir had been eager to join the protest outside United Nations headquarters in New York against the visiting Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. But, Mohamed recalls, all he could think about was seeing his younger brother Ahmed, a sports celebrity and prominent talk-show host, who was close to the government and was part of Sisi’s delegation on that autumn day in 2017. It had been seven years.
“It is a hurtful feeling to learn that you are hundreds of metres away and we don’t meet,” Mohamed wrote on Facebook, addressing his brother. “I miss you very much.”
Mohamed prayed that Ahmed would read the post.
Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising, which took place a decade ago, and its violent aftermath, had left the brothers fiercely divided. For Mohamed, the democracy that emerged following the ousting of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak had represented his country’s greatest hope, and showed the way forward for an Arab world long weighed down by repression and neglect. In Ahmed’s view, the Arab Spring had produced a government that put Egypt in peril and required Sisi’s 2013 military coup to save the nation.
These profound differences sundered not only the Shobeir family but the Egyptian people more broadly, including the millions who rose up in the Arab Spring. Indeed, the divide between the brothers reflects what has now become perhaps the most fundamental fissure in the Middle East: the dispute between those who advocate democracy over authoritarianism and those who advocate stability over changes that they warn will bring chaos and extremism.
When the Arab Spring uprisings first erupted in Tunisia at the end of 2010, spreading to Egypt in January of the following year, Mohamed and Ahmed were already on opposite sides of the political divide.
Mohamed despised what Egypt had become under Mubarak, and, after studying in France, had settled in Queens, New York, where he taught computer science. Ahmed had turned his fame as the captain of Egypt’s national football team into a successful political career, winning election to parliament as part of Mubarak’s party and growing close to the president’s powerful sons.
Yet for a time, after protesters surged into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011 and captivated the world with their demands for Mubarak’s exit, the two brothers appeared to have found common cause.
Mohamed kept flipping news channels, he recounts, watching with awe as the protesters grew from thousands to millions over the next two weeks. He kept calling friends in Tahrir for updates. He called others in the coastal city of Alexandria, and in his hometown of Tanta, to learn of the revolts there.
Over FaceTime, he watched the boisterous crowds clutching banners and flags and heard them singing and chanting. “It was like a festival, every day waiting for Mubarak to step down,” recalls Mohamed, now 61. “We felt a fire underneath.”
As public sentiment in Egypt turned against Mubarak, and the government responded to the demonstrations with lethal force, Ahmed too expressed sympathy for the revolutionaries.
A week after they had first raised their banners in Tahrir, Ahmed described the protesters in an interview on an Egyptian television talk show as brave, honest and patriotic, and said he considered those killed by security forces to be “martyrs”. He denounced government forces, saying they had “had no mercy and killed them as if they were enemies”.
“My daughter has been to Tahrir Square more than once,” Ahmed said. “I imagine that these martyrs – one of them could have been my own daughter.”
Mohamed was driving in Manhattan when he heard the news, on 11 February 2011, that Mubarak had resigned. Mohamed says he nearly crashed. He pulled over and started calling friends. It was time to celebrate.
In elections the following year, Egyptians chose Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as their new president. Mohamed Shobeir says he was not a member of the Brotherhood – which called for rule according to Islamic tenets – but could not support Morsi’s opponent, former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was widely seen as a relic of the Mubarak regime.
When Morsi won, “we thought we had achieved victory”, says Mohamed. “We were waiting for new changes in Egyptian political life.”
He soon made plans to return to his homeland, sending his wife and three children back to Egypt in the early summer of 2013, and prepared to enroll the kids in school there. His brother Ahmed sent a car to Cairo to take them to a Red Sea town to stay with his own family. “They received them well,” says Mohamed. “They loved my kids and my kids loved them, too.”
But Egypt’s transition to democracy was becoming turbulent. Morsi’s critics accused him of pursuing an Islamist agenda and becoming authoritarian. On the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, protests broke out around the country demanding that he resign, and Ahmed, whose view of the Arab Spring had already soured, joined the crowds in Cairo. He marched at their front, urging Morsi’s removal, according to a video on the Yaqeen news channel: “I am fed up. I am suffocated. I tell him to leave, leave, leave! Leave means go away.”
In interviews and on the television talk show he now hosted, Ahmed criticized the anti-Mubarak protesters of the Arab Spring for “provoking police” and said the revolution had been “hijacked” by the Muslim Brotherhood for its own political purposes.
With clashes breaking out between Morsi’s supporters and opponents, Mohamed abandoned his plans to resettle in Egypt. His family swiftly departed.
On July 3, Sisi, then chief of the army, went on television and announced that Morsi had been deposed. Morsi was immediately detained and placed under house arrest. In August, military units massacred at least 817 Morsi supporters staging a sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. Human Rights Watch called it “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”.
The lines had been drawn.
Many Egyptians who had risked their lives in 2011 to remove Mubarak felt their uprising had been betrayed by Sisi’s military coup. They remain adamant to this day that Egypt must return to democracy despite – or, for some of them, because of – the Muslim Brotherhood’s success.
Many others who were in Tahrir Square argue that it was the Brotherhood that betrayed the uprising, and that while Sisi’s government is the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history, the alternative would be worse. And for some who were aligned with Mubarak’s regime, or had long benefitted from the military’s influential political role and economic privileges, Sisi’s coup restored them to their dominant position.
This same debate now animates the geopolitics of the Middle East. On one side are countries such as Turkey and Qatar, which remain sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood; Turkey, though increasingly authoritarian itself, has become home for many Egyptian political exiles, including both those who identify with the Brotherhood and those who don’t.
On the other side are highly repressive states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which actively supported Sisi’s coup and had feared that the Arab Spring uprisings could cost their own autocrats their thrones. These countries continue to resist democratic change while warning that they are a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood.
This contest, which in places such as Libya has fuelled outright combat, is one of the Arab Spring’s most enduring legacies.
Mohamed and Ahmed were born a year apart, but they looked so much alike that most visitors thought they were twins. They had the same stocky build, long oval faces, and shortly cropped hair.
They grew up in the cotton-gin town of Tanta, north of Cairo, with two other brothers and two sisters, and were raised under the strict supervision of their father, a school principal, Mohamed recounts. He says he and his brother were inseparable, especially on the football field. But it soon became clear that Ahmed was the prodigy. His talents as a goalkeeper drew the attention of Al Ahly, one of Egypt’s top professional football franchises, which recruited him at the age of 16.
When Ahmed did poorly in his studies and their father banned him from playing football, Mohamed helped him get his grades up. “During his exams, I stood by the school window with the textbook, telling Ahmed the answers,” Mohamed recalls with a chuckle.
In their early 20s, the brothers shared an apartment in Cairo. Ahmed would go on to play for the Egyptian national team and become an internationally recognized goalkeeper. Then, after retiring, he took on leadership roles in Egyptian athletics, became the host of Football with Shobeir, a talk show focused on sports and politics, and ultimately won election to parliament from the brothers’ hometown.
Mohamed went to France to study sociology. Upon graduation, he sought work in Saudi Arabia but didn’t like it there. Ahmed, now well connected, offered to find him a job. But Mohamed declined, returning to France and eventually moving to New York, where he now works at a private school. “Mubarak was corrupted,” he says. “And the corruption was one of the reasons why I left Egypt.”
The brothers remained close, despite the geographical gulf between them. Mohamed named his son Ahmed, after his brother. A few years later, Ahmed returned the honor and named his son Mohamed.
They met again in the summer of 2010 at their father’s funeral. Mubarak’s son Gamal came to deliver condolences. It was the last time Mohamed would have an opportunity to see his brother in Egypt.
As Sisi tightened his grip on Egypt in 2013, Mohamed became increasingly vocal, giving interviews denouncing the military coup and the massacre at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. He joined protests and marches outside Egypt’s consulate in New York and its embassy in Washington.
Mohamed’s siblings, including Ahmed, begged him to stop. They warned that he was endangering them. He felt guilty. But he refused to be quiet.
“I could not see all the killing and bloodshed and keep my mouth shut,” Mohamed says. His entire family in Egypt shut him out. “They got mad and decided not to talk to me anymore.” When his children later graduated from college and got married, there would be no congratulations from back home. Even his brother Atef, who lives nearby in Brooklyn, broke off contact for a time and declined to attend the wedding of Mohamed’s daughter.
In Cairo, Mofeed Fawzy, the host of another talk show, pressed Ahmed in 2016 about his brother, saying that Mohamed had “Muslim Brotherhood tendencies.”
Ahmed responded that he was more loyal to his homeland than to his brother.
“Mohamed is my brother and Egypt is my country,” Ahmed said. “My country is my mother, father, brother… it’s everything.”
“What have you said to your brother?” Fawzy asked.
“I don’t speak to him,” replied Ahmed. “I am sad.”
Ahmed later attacked Mohamed for turning his children against Egypt, accusing him of brainwashing them into thinking the regime was out to arrest them.
But in 2017, Egyptian courts did indeed try Mohamed in absentia and sentenced him to 15 years in prison on charges of spreading false statements and trying to stage a coup against the government. If he returns to Egypt, he believes, he will be jailed.
He says he fears the same fate could await his wife and children if they go back.
In reaching out to Ahmed on Facebook and airing his wish that they could meet in New York, Mohamed acknowledged their grave political differences and then sought to look beyond them. Below a picture on his Facebook page of Sisi, Mohammed added the caption: “Why did they divide us, Ahmed?”
Then he went on to write, in part: “I will not stand against my brother on a humanitarian level. And I will work to keep our blood relationship away from politics. I will never be okay with any insult against my brother, or any attack, be it verbal or physical, against him as long as I am there.”
An hour after Mohamed posted the Facebook message, Ahmed replied on Twitter. “As for me, if I meet you, I will not be able to contain myself and I will throw myself into your arms helplessly,” Ahmed wrote.
That was enough for Mohamed to reach out to someone they both knew in New York and see if a rendezvous could be arranged. Ahmed had accompanied Sisi to the United Nations, where the president was to deliver a speech to the General Assembly. Ahmed, now a prominent television personality, had been effusive in his praise of Sisi, and was impressed, as he would later say, by the president’s promise that “we will not return to the chaos that used to exist in everything.”
When the mutual acquaintance contacted Ahmed, he initially agreed to see his brother, according to Mohamed’s account. But an hour later, the intermediary called Mohamed to say that Sisi’s aides had told his brother not to meet. The aides, however, said Mohamed’s children could see their uncle. So Mohamed sent his son Ahmed, his uncle’s namesake, to the hotel.
Later that day, Mohamed received a call from Samia Harris, another Egyptian pro-democracy activist who had come up from Washington. She urged him to go to Ahmed’s hotel to try to meet him. Harris said she would accompany him.
“I was confused on what to do,” he recalls. “If I go there, I am going to face my brother. What’s going to happen when my eyes look at his eyes?”
Mohamed met Harris at a coffee shop near Ahmed’s hotel. Sisi’s security agents were visible everywhere, they recount. Mohamed called the intermediary and asked to speak with Ahmed.
“He is beside me,” the man said. “He wants to see you.”
Minutes later, Ahmed entered the coffee shop. Harris stepped back to give the brothers space.
“All they did was hugged and cried for a couple of minutes,” recalls Harris. “They promised they will see each other again. It was a very emotional moment.”
Then Ahmed left. Mohamed and Harris went out through another door, she says, “so as not to get anybody in trouble”.
The brothers have not spoken since that day.