CAIRO // Moderate has become a dirty word in Egypt.
Since the army removed the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi after days of mass protests, anyone who refuses to support either side uncritically has become a traitor to both.
Polarised attitudes of “you’re either with us or against us” have forced Egyptians in the middle ground to disappear largely from political view, making any reconciliation between Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the army-backed government ever more remote.
This raises the danger of yet more of the bloodshed that followed the fall of Egypt’s first freely elected president in July. Both sides are hardening their positions in what is already the most turbulent period in the internal history of modern Egypt.
Experiences of two one-time members of the National Salvation Front (NSF), an alliance of liberal and leftist parties, shows how moderates can come under verbal or even physical attack from the pro-military or Islamist camps.
One is Mohamed ElBaradei, who served briefly as vice president under the army-backed interim government but resigned after security forces crushed pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14.
Mr ElBaradei, who won wide respect abroad as head of the United Nations nuclear agency for more than a decade, got few thanks at home for taking a stand against political violence. The newspaper columnist Mustafa Bakri described Mr ElBaradei’s resignation speech as a “stab in the back of the Egyptian people”.
Mr ElBaradei has left the country.
The other is Khaled Dawoud, a former NSF spokesman who suffered even worse – but at the hands of the other side.
Even though he resigned from the secular alliance because it had backed the crackdown on Islamists, Mr Dawoud was attacked by pro-Islamists who stabbed him several times.
“Without a doubt, it was an assassination attempt,” Mr Dawoud said at his Cairo home, his left hand still healing after one of his attackers dragged a knife across his forearm several times while he was trapped in his car during a protest.
An absence of established political parties to encourage dynamic pluralist politics has also pushed moderate politicians into the background while the public, weary of instability, mostly backs the army in its “war against terrorism”.
Mr Dawoud rejects any suggestion that his opposition to the August crackdown reveals sympathy for political Islam. “I’m a strong opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re my ideological adversary, but I don’t want to kill them,” he said.
“I’m not against August 14 because I love the Brotherhood ... but because I’m scared for my country. When 400-500 of them die, they’ll have relatives, friends and siblings who say there is no solution but revenge.”
The political scientist Emad Shahin said the Egyptian media ensured that real moderates would be silenced.
“If you’re against the coup, then you’re with the Brotherhood. If you’re with the Brotherhood, then you’re a terrorist. And if you are for democracy, then you are a fifth columnist. That is how it’s calculated,” said Mr Shahin, who is a professor at the American University in Cairo.
When an uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians hoped for an era of democracy that would bring political and economic stability to the most populous Arab county.
Many grew disillusioned with Mr Morsi, the man they elected to replace Mr Mubarak. Mr Morsi was accused of usurping power and mismanaging the economy; millions protested against his rule, prompting the army to step in.
Since then, many Egyptians have associated the army with stability and rejected the views of others. The Brotherhood and its supporters say the repression is worse than the decades under Mr Mubarak, and they worry about the intolerance.
Kamal Aboulmagd, a lawyer who tried to start a mediation effort, lamented a “wave of intimidation” against anyone who takes a moderate line in the crisis, which has severely hit tourism and foreign investment.
“The moderate voices are badly needed and it should be a group of people who are willing to sacrifice,” he said. “I call them living martyrs. They will be condemned and accused by both sides, but if they’re sincere, they shouldn’t care at all. It’s an attempt to save the country.”
The government has said it is committed to reconciliation and accuses the Brotherhood of undermining efforts to resolve the political turmoil. The Islamist group says dialogue is unrealistic given that most of its leaders are in jail.
After decades of political stagnation under Mr Mubarak, many new liberal parties emerged but have failed to become a viable force, particularly against the Brotherhood which has dominated elections since the uprising.
“The majority of Egyptians are still not used to a multiplicity in the political scene,” said Mohamed Menza, the head of the politburo at the Egypt Freedom party, a social-liberal party headed by political scientist Amr Hamzawy.
“This sort of diversity or multiplicity is not welcomed among the masses. Unless you have a conviction of awareness or belief in the importance of a discourse on rights ... you ally yourself with either the military or the Brotherhood.”
Some nationalists accuse the Brotherhood of seeking to build a caliphate across Muslim states. “The Brotherhood’s goal is an Islamic empire, anywhere. That ideology poses a big risk to the national security of any nation and that is the case in Egypt,” an army colonel said.
But Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 movement that played a prominent role in the anti-Mubarak uprising, warned of extreme views on Egypt’s streets.
“People just hate each other. They say ‘let them die’. That never used to be the case before. That really scares me,” he said. “The only thing that will bring these people together is for them to realise the magnitude of the catastrophe.”