A divided Egyptian family reunites to break the Ramadan fast

CAIRO — A crescent moon appeared through a cloud of tear gas and offered thin light over a column of tanks, security forces and idling ambulances. Rival demonstrators were hurling rocks and insults at each other on darkened streets where a father and son stood on opposite sides of a country that felt like it was coming apart.

It was July 12th, the first Friday night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, a time on the Islamic calendar when it is believed the Koran was presented by God. This summer, the month presented mostly violence and left Egypt teetering on what sometimes felt like civil war. The Ramadan rituals of fasting and prayers framed yet another historic and bloody chapter in the country’s still-unfolding revolution.

And throughout Ramadan, Ahmed Douma, 24, a secular, pro-democracy activist, and his father, Saad Douma, 58, a lifelong member of the Muslim Brotherhood, were regularly attending rival demonstrations and found themselves shouting across the barbed wire and the police barricades.

But like the stories of all fathers and sons, there is a history here, and their harsh words in opposing protest marches and their struggle to stay in a personal dialogue with each other seems to embody the struggle of Egypt, a family deeply divided but trying its best to stay together.

I arranged a meeting with the father and son on a mid-July night in a poor neighborhood of Cairo in a five-story, walk-up apartment. An oppressive heat and the blaring call to prayer of a nearby mosque filled the two rooms where three generations of an extended family were coming together in the end of the day just before nightfall when the Ramadan iftar, or breaking of the fast, occurs.


The Douma family hails from the Nile Delta where the father, Saad, first joined Muslim Brotherhood, when it was an outlawed movement that thrived underground in Cairo’s slums and in rural hamlets like the one they lived in.

In these communities neglected by Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood provided a network of social services, such as health clinics and nursery schools, and grew a loyal following which included his son, Ahmed Douma, who says he remembers handing out leaflets after Friday prayers with his father. Ahmed said he was supportive until he was about 18 and began to join in a more secular movement that was coalescing on the web around Facebook pages and blogs that were intent on exposing the brutality of Mubarak’s police state and directly challenging a dictatorship.

On the night we met up this summer, Ahmed Douma was sporting a yellow t-shirt and tight jeans, and looked his part as the well-known and outspoken pro-democracy activist that he was. He had invited his father Saad Douma to his apartment for iftar. Saad, who works in the Education Ministry in the Nile Delta, was sporting a thick gray beard and clad in gray pants and a matching, loose-fitting shirt buttoned to the top, a style favored by the Muslim Brothers.

Ahmed had played a prominent role in Tahrir Square in the initial civil unrest of early 2011 known as the ‘January 25 Revolution’ amid what came to be known in the region as the Arab Spring. And back then, Ahmed was joined in those protests by his father as the Muslim Brotherhood hesitantly — and then decisively — joined in those mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir — or “Liberation” — Square.

Tahrir Square came to symbolize the heart of the heady early days in this still unfolding revolution, a traffic circle that had become a tent city for protesters who were Islamists and secular activists, men and women, young and old, Christian and Muslim and fathers and sons.

They were all coming together to topple President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of brutal and corrupt rule. And it worked. Mubarak stepped down on the night of February 11, 2011 and Saad the father and Ahmed the son joined the vast majority of the country in rejoicing for a new future for Egypt. In the months ahead, both father and son welcomed the first free and fair democratic elections in the country’s history.

In those elections in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and other Islamist parties took more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, a fact which surprised and worried Ahmed. He feared the revolution could be hijacked by Islamists. In the presidential vote, a relatively obscure Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, triumphed over a rival candidate who was connected to the Mubarak regime and loathed by those who wanted to see change.

Ahmed began speaking out against the newly elected government of Morsi, particularly as he made it clear he was not going to challenge the military leadership or hold it accountable for more than 800 deaths of civilian protesters. And he stepped up his criticism against Morsi as he pushed forward a constitution that sought to institute laws that favored a religiously conservative agenda and enshrined the authority of the military.

Ahmed was eventually arrested for his activities, which included spraying anti-Morsi graffiti around the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters. His father publicly agreed with the decision for his son to be arrested. After Ahmed’s release from jail, the tensions were high between father and son.

On June 30, Ahmed was among the many millions who gathered to protest Morsi and call for him to step down and hold early elections. Ahmed cheered along with many in the country on July 3 when the military moved in to detain Morsi and shift him to an undisclosed location, where he remains facing charges of inciting violence and what is widely viewed as trumped up charges that relate to his release from prison during the demonstrations that overthrew Mubarak.

Specifically, the military alleges that Morsi was helped by Hamas activists in a prison break in early 2011 when many political and criminal prisoners broke out of Mubarak’s crowded jails.

A week after the tumultuous events of early July, this father and son were sitting across from each other in the apartment as Ahmed’s wife and other female relatives prepared a meal, the smell of chicken, rice, okra and rolled grape leaves emanated from a small kitchen as younger children set the table. With the sound of pots and plates clattering in the background, they were locked in a fierce argument that went like this:

Father: The judge should be the ballot box, not the defense minister or the tank. What is happening now is putting the tank, the cannon and the bullets as arbiters of the situation. This is not acceptable democratically, socially and among the people

Son: Why did we accept the judgment of the military after Mubarak’s resignation? There were not ballot boxes then.

Father: During Mubarak’s time, he transferred the authority to a designee, which we forced to resort to democracy. We chose the parliament. 

Son: Mubarak did not give authority to the military. That is because he was toppled from power. If so, then, the January 25th revolution was a military coup as well then?

Father: No, it was a revolution and presidential elections were held afterwards by those responsible for the transitional period.

Son: Whoever rules in the interim period now will hold presidential elections as well? If what was done was based on a wrong, then it is wrong. Either both situations are wrong or both situations are right.

Father: No, the first situation is the election of a new president and the second situation is a military coup.

Son: The 25th of January was also a coup against the elected authority, which won 99 percent in elections.

Father: The revolution was against the police and the fraudulent elections. 

Son: These elections were fraudulent as well. 

Father: No they were not fraudulent. All the news agencies said they were not fraudulent.

And so went with the father and son arguing about everything including the size of the demonstrations on June 30 that according to many news organizations were the largest in the history of Egypt and, at least according to the BBC, the largest in modern history. The father, Saad, insisted that the counter protests by the Muslim Brotherhood were even larger. They heatedly disagreed over the role of the General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who effectively removed Morsi from power and commands the military and many believe the entire country in the interim government.

Father: All past regime officials must be out of power and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should be the first to go.

Father: He did not. He was forced to bring him to power. 

Son: The president of a country, who is forced to appoint a Minister of Defense, is a failure and does not deserve to stay in power. 

Father: The whole deep state is against him and the youth do not understand anything.

Son: No we understand and we taught people about politics. The proof is that the Muslim Brotherhood is sitting now on the streets sobbing over what we succeeded in doing. 

The father called Gen. al-Sisi’s actions against Morsi a “military coup.” But the son countered that by that logic the father would have to say that the toppling of Mubarak was a “military coup” as well since the military played a role in both turning points. They disagreed passionately about everything. Everything, that is, until the imam in the nearby mosque made the call to prayer, signaling the iftar, or the breaking of the fast.

Father: Either way, let us eat and have Iftar.

Son: I’m hungry.

And so the arguing stopped, at least for a time, and they took a seat at a table with a feast of simply prepared and delicious food, starting with figs, a lentil soup and then the chicken and rice and the side dishes of okra and rolled grape leaves and sweet pastries for desert. All of the family observed the fast and so they were all hungry. They ate quietly and with purpose.

At the end of the dinner, the conversation between the father and son continued and they were asked if their own heated dialogue that night and their ability to still come together as a family to celebrate the iftar perhaps mirrored the future of a country that will ultimately find a way to reunite:

Father: Of course, as the family comes together in Ramadan, the country came together and will come together. It came together on January 25th, and against the military council, and on June 30th against Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s authority. It will stay together.

Son: Just as we are gathered together now around the table, despite our differences, the country always returns to being together regardless of any difference. After episodes of change in the country, it gets rid of impurities, whether ideological, organizational, or committed by a group of people. They get punished either by people, law, or morally, either way.

Afterwards, unification brings people back together, and will take place soon after those who committed crimes against the people gets punished. Despite that our problem is always with the leaders, whether Mubarak’s regime, the military council, or the Muslim Brotherhood, the masses always initiate unity and coming together to be one hand so this country can move forward.

EDITOR’S NOTE: GlobalPost recently checked in on the father and son. As the violence escalated over the summer and resulted in the horrific events of August 14 when the military cleared the Muslim Brotherhood protesters from the camp they had set up around a mosque in Nasr City, a neighborhood on the edge of Cairo. On that day, more than 600 people were killed, most of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The father, Saad, said he lost many friends and added that he fears he may face arrest himself by the military as he has been such an outspoken critic of General al-Sisi. The son, Ahmed, has seen the charges brought against him by the Morsi government dropped and he has recently been selected to lead a popular talk show on Egyptian television.