Egypt’s Secularists Mobilize Against Growing Power of Islamists

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi
Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's President. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As Shaimaa Hamdi rode with a woman friend through a crowded intersection in Cairo’s upscale Mohandesin district, their car came dangerously close to one driven by a man sporting a bushy beard.

The near miss was common in Egypt. It was the man’s reaction that left the women stunned.

“Don’t your husbands know how to control you?” he yelled out his window, recalled Hamdi, a teacher. “What are you doing out of the house, anyway?”

To Hamdi, it was one of many signs in the almost 18 months since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak that Islamists are becoming emboldened in advancing their agenda, unofficially and independently. The push is opposed by secularists who say they have no intention of allowing Egypt to move in the direction of Iran, which became a theocracy after the 1979 revolution that ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

President Mohamed Mursi, who says he wants to appeal to all Egyptians, described female circumcision as a private matter in a television interview before he was elected. The day after Mursi was sworn in, a 20-year-old man in Suez died from stab wounds inflicted by three men who challenged him for being in public with his fiancee in a park. Comedic actor Adel Imam was sentenced in April to three months in jail with hard labor and fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($164) on charges of mocking Islam.

Secularists, women and minority Christians are fighting back by forming organizations to protest and monitor what they see as the growth of Islamism. While political officials preach moderation, the real struggle for Egypt’s Islamic identity is playing out as acutely on the streets as it is in the government, Hamdi said.

‘Pieces of Meat’

“They want to drag us back into the past,” she said. “We’re seen as pieces of meat in the street. If we aren’t harassed by youths saying disgusting sexual things, then we’re ordered to stay home by the Islamists. We were part of this revolution, too.”

The incidents are worrisome, said Hani Sabra, Middle East and Africa analyst for the Eurasia group in New York.

“A Mursi victory has emboldened figures who feel that Egypt should be Islamized and feel less threatened” about intimidating others, he said in a phone interview. Even so, “what protects Egypt from being a theocracy is the Egyptian public,” since Mursi secured a narrow victory that came with help from secularists and youth activists. “If it’s a binary question, do I think Egypt will turn into an Iran, then the answer is no.”

Islamist Majority

Still, the shift is visible in politics. Parliament’s upper house, which like the lower house has an Islamist majority of more than 70 percent, is under fire by journalists for its recent push to determine how editors-in-chief of the state-run news organizations are appointed.

“These violations are not new,” said Amr Ezzat, head of the freedom of religion and belief program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo. “But, now, everyone is on alert since the political discussions are focused on efforts that curb liberties.”

After the conviction of Imam, writers and other artists established a group called the Monitor. The intent is to watch for efforts to limit freedom of expression and thought by Islamists. Coptic activists also set up what they call the Christian Brotherhood, aimed at countering what they see as a push by Islamists into all sectors of society.

And the National Front, a group that had supported Mursi and includes Wael Ghonim, the former Google Inc. executive who rose to prominence during the 2011 uprising, says the president hasn’t been engaging his secular supporters. Instead, he has made decisions in an isolated and non-transparent manner, activist and group member Wael Khalil said by phone.

Theocratic State?

The groups, which are still in their infancy, reflect the broader push by secularists against a theocratic state. Secularists on the committee charged with drafting the new constitution, for instance, are boycotting the process over concerns Islamists on the panel are seeking to marginalize differing views.

Others, like a political party set up by Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, say their efforts are better spent on challenging the Islamists in the coming parliamentary elections.

The changes in Egypt are reflected elsewhere in the region, with fundamentalist Salafi groups in Tunisia growing increasingly unruly, including smashing up bars. While the Egyptian incidents remain largely individual acts, whether they evolve into a larger phenomenon is tied to the country’s so-far fitful transition to democracy, according to Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

Empowered Citizens

“Democratization empowers citizens and citizens now feel empowered to impose their views on others in a more public, aggressive way,” Hamid said in a phone interview. “If the transition continues to run into problems, then frustration will only mount.”

The secular push to organize, said poet Shaaban Youssif, a member of the Monitor, is aimed at ensuring that at least some of the goals of a democratic Egypt aren’t undercut.

“The ruling on Adel Imam was a real alarm for every intellectual,” said Youssif.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose political arm Mursi headed and which won a majority in Parliament before the legislature was disbanded by court order, has vowed to embrace a national program that doesn’t impose strict Islamic law on all.

Mursi said repeatedly he wants to appoint a Coptic Christian and a female deputy as advisers. As prime minister, though, he selected little-known irrigation minister Hisham Qandil, who says he doesn’t belong to any political or religious group. He does sport a light beard and a mark on his forehead often seen among very devout Muslims.

Apology Lacking

The Brotherhood and other Islamists condemned the fatal attack on Ahmed Eid, the 20-year-old student in Suez, though Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, expected to be replaced under the new government, said the incident could have been avoided if Eid had “apologized” to the men.

“These kinds of incidents and comments are nothing more than an attempt to sully the image of the Brotherhood, in particular and the Islamists, in general,” Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, said by phone. “We are not about forcing women to take the veil and under no circumstances is it acceptable to intimidate anyone” into taking a step that should be taken out of conviction.

Still, the events have put the Brotherhood and Islamists on the defensive at a time when they are locked in a power struggle with the military and the country is facing some of its worst economic challenges in more than a decade.

Foreign Reserves

Since the start of 2011, Egypt has run through more than 50 percent of its foreign reserves while unemployment has climbed. A $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan remains unapproved, even though the financing is needed to restore investor confidence after foreigners pulled out most of their holdings. Meanwhile, labor strikes and near-daily protests stall economic productivity and growth.

Other indications of greater religiosity in the country include the recent establishment of a television channel run by women wearing the all-covering face veil, or niqab.

Travel companies also appear to be capitalizing on the trend, with Shouq Travel offering trips it says are Halal, or religiously permissible. The firm’s website says the trips include accommodation in hotels that don’t serve alcohol or pork and offer covered pools for women. The site shows a photo of a bearded man riding a jet ski while his wife, wearing a black cloak and niqab, rides behind.

Hijab and Home?

“A lot of women are now looking fearfully over their shoulder at the increasing Islamification of Egypt, that they might be forced to wear hijab or stay at home,” said Sally Zohney, a founding member of the Bahiya ya Misr women’s rights group. While the harassment was not entirely new, it was important to not show fear as this would “give them feeling that they’re powerful. We should stand up for our rights.”

Even Egypt’s beer drinkers are voicing concerns. In the Cairo district of Maadi, where many foreigners live, bars were smashed and their customers attacked by groups of men whom the patrons described as Islamists.

On the day Mursi was sworn in, a small group of youths led by activist Ahmed El-Bahar called on their Facebook page for a march to the presidential palace dubbed “Beer is our right.”

It preceded a decision by Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour to further tighten controls on the serving of alcohol to Egyptians from just during the holy month of Ramadan to all Islamic holidays.

“If we don’t seize our rights and practice them now, we will slowly turn into the Brotherhood state,” el-Bahar wrote on his Facebook page.

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