By Haroon Siddiqui
November 21 2010
CAIRO—In eight days here, I took 18 taxi rides. In 15, the drivers were playing tapes or CDs of the Qur'an, or tuned to radio that were broadcasting it. Only two were listening to music and one to talk radio.
People are free to listen to what they want, especially in a state that allows them few freedoms. And the recitations were all splendid, in terms of both diction and melody.
The relevant point is that in an earlier era, the listening choices would've been the exact opposite.
Similarly, most women now wear the hijab, whereas few used to.
And an increasing number are donning the all-enveloping niqab, setting off a debate no less fierce here than in Quebec and parts of Europe.
There are also myriad signs of Muslim intolerance, dressed up in Islamic terms.
The hostility towards Coptic Christians (the largest Christian church in Egypt) we are familiar with, many having turned up in Canada seeking refugee status and also lining up at the Canadian embassy here to apply for immigration. But there's also intolerance of the Baha'is, and even of fellow Muslims of the minority Shi'ite sect.
Older Egyptians who grew up in more cosmopolitan times bemoan this new Egypt. Many speak nostalgically of how Coptic friends were part of their Muslim households, even during Islamic festivals, such as Eid.
A Canadian Muslim of Egyptian origin, returning for a short visit here the other day, related this revealing vignette:
“When I heard that family friend Nagy had died, I asked for Allah's blessings on him. I was at once admonished: ‘You can't do that for a non-Muslim.'
“I was shocked.”
This state of affairs is blamed by Islamophobes on Islam itself. More credibly, it is attributed to various factors, dating back decades:
• The influence of Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states with their strict Wahhabi theology and conservative social strictures, spread by petro-dollar funding or simply by millions of Egyptian expat workers returning home from the Arabian Gulf region;
• Built-up public frustration with Egyptian/Arab inability to free Palestinians from Israeli occupation;
• The American war on Iraq, with its massive civilian casualties of fellow-Arabs; and mostly
• The Egyptian government, which, besides being widely viewed as a client state of the U.S. and Israel, is unrepresentative, authoritarian and repressive.
The virtual one-party state has operated for decades under de facto martial law, with sweeping powers of detention without trial and suspension of fundamental liberties.
Lacking legitimacy, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak and, before him, of the late Anwar Sadat, tried to co-opt or crush the Muslim Brotherhood, the leading grassroots organization.
Failing on both counts, the regime built up its own Islamic credentials.
It was Sadat who made Sharia the principal source of law. It's Mubarak who has presided over the proliferation of religious TV.
The regime routinely obtains favourable fatwas — religious decrees — including some from Al Azhar, the historic institute of Islamic learning.
“The regime and the Brotherhood are competing on the same religious ground,” says Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
“Both need Islam. The government uses Al Azhar to give itself legitimacy. What we have here is not a police state. It's a marriage of a police state and a religious state.”
The more pro-regime fatwas, the less credible the government becomes. The greater its corruption and incompetence, the more attractive is the incorruptible Muslim Brotherhood, which provides social services often better than the government.
She is an American-educated professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. She wears the hijab and abhors the niqab.
“I'm completely against the niqab,” Abla Abdel Latif tells me. “It's not a religious requirement. It's a matter of choice. The Qur'an prescribes no specific dress.
“Some scholars, including women scholars, have spoken out against it. At Al Azhar and most universities, niqabis must show their face during exams (to weed out fraud).
“I tell my students to remove it: ‘I need to see your face to talk to you.'
“I don't tell them this during class or when men are present, but rather separately. And I don't force them to lift it.”
She also relates the story of a bearded young man “who would not look at me in class,” that being against his idea of religious modesty. “Fine. But when I asked him a question, he refused to answer.
“I said, ‘Look at me, I am not dancing here, I am teaching a class. I am writing on the blackboard. Look at me.' He left and never came back.”
Besides theology, Latif cites what amounts to the Muslim PR argument against the niqab.
“As a Muslim, you must represent your religion well, rather than offend non-Muslims. People should know you from your character. When they see you, they must respect your religion.”
Told about the anti-niqab legislation in Quebec forcing niqabi women to show their face or be denied government services, Latif reveals her esthetic prejudices:
“It's a fair request. You do feel very uncomfortable when you can't see a face — the same way I feel towards those Orthodox Jews who wear a black hat and have long locks on the side. It's strange. I don't like that and I don't like the niqab — neither this nor that.”
Just as the regime shuns Islamists but embraces Islam, or pretends to, it does a similar tap dance with Israel.
It's a partner in peace that does not want to be seen as one. Mubarak ships natural gas to Israel but won't go there himself.
He deals with the leaders of Hamas, the political cousin of the Muslim Brotherhood. But he helps maintain the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip by keeping its Rafah crossing into Egypt closed. Under American pressure and reportedly with American money, he is burying 18-metre-deep steel plates on the border to close off the tunnels used for smuggling goods and people. But he wants no public discussion of it.
“Our government refused to divulge it, but was embarrassed into it by the Israeli media that reported all the details,” says Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist. “Just like the Israeli government does not call its security wall a wall, our government does not call its steel wall a wall, but rather ‘an engineering installation.'”
Few Egyptians believe the steel walls would close off all the dozens of tunnels. “Many Egyptians, including, one presumes, police and government officials, are making lots of money from these tunnels,” a Western diplomat tells me. “But the government has to make a show of closing off the border.”
Egyptians are divided on Palestinians, even as they feel for them. They don't want to take on the Palestinian burden. And, at a deeper level, they are grappling with something else.
Ziad Abdel Tawab, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, puts it well: “For the longest time, our society was obsessed with liberating Palestine. Then, we woke up and said, ‘How can we liberate Palestine when we are not liberated ourselves?'”
Where's Egypt headed?
There are eerie parallels to Iran under the Shah in the 1970s. But experts do not see a revolution coming.
A full-fledged democracy doesn't seem in the cards, either.
That just about ensures the ongoing Islamization of society. We have seen this movie before. Amid wars and upheavals, authoritarianism and repression, Islam is used as a vehicle of protest, sometimes in the worst of ways. Conversely, the most moderate Islam is emerging in Muslim societies that are democratic — Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights, therefore, has tried to open up political space between an oppressive government and an increasingly intolerant Islamic opposition.
“We tackled the subject of Islam vs. democracy and showed that Islam is not an obstacle to human rights,” says Hassan, the director. And that the regime need not fear democracy. “The Muslim Brotherhood does not enjoy a majority. Even in a free and fair election, I doubt if it could get 25 per cent of the votes.”
The regime does not want to find out.
Abd El Menaem, editor-in-chief of the Al-Ahram group of newspapers, says the Muslim Brotherhood has lost some of its lustre, being obsessed with promiscuity and such rather than the more pressing economic issues.
Also, its leadership is divided between the conservatives and those who look to Turkey. The latter can “see that the Islamic experiment in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan has not been a good model.”
Menaem thinks change will come to Egypt only incrementally — “a geological change,” spurred by a surging economy and social evolution, including more privately owned, freer media.
“The middle class is expanding, slowly. Out of a workforce of 24 million, 18 million are in the private sector. Four million youth have started new businesses. About 19 million Egyptians have access to the Internet.”
He notes that Egyptians, “historically a river and desert people, are moving to our two coasts, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The sea people are less centralized and more open.”
Why? “The Nile River, the Delta and all the hydraulic systems around it have historically required central authority and governance. Tourism doesn't. Most of it is private enterprise. There are 13 international airports and eight ports, and millions of tourists go there directly from Europe.”
Alex Shalaby is the CEO of Orascom, the telecommunications giant that has invested $750 million in the Canadian wireless company Wind Mobile.
A Copt, he tells me how his people “are increasingly feeling uncomfortable.”
“In the last month or so, the problem has been exaggerated by harsh pronouncements by leaders of both sides. Some TV programs don't help. The power of both the mosque and the church is disproportionately strong. The (parliamentary) elections are coming (Nov. 28), so the rhetoric is particularly heated.
“But we've had a long history of harmony, for centuries.”
He is hoping for a return to it through economic and social change.
“The economy is doing well, even as the gap between the rich and poor is increasing. That must be addressed. We need to create more jobs. And that can only come from the private sector.
“What we do have is stability in a turbulent neighbourhood.
“We also have the manpower. We have enormous potential for tourism. Egypt has more than half the world's great archeological sites. It has 2,000 kilometres of shoreline.
“Egypt has enormous potential.”
But, equally, a very uncertain future.