Egypt’s Moral Police

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The world watched as the Arab Spring unfolded online. Many of us had hoped that the revolution would bring progress and much-needed economic stability. It was widely considered a success when former President Mubarak stepped down from power. It took a mere two weeks to topple the regime. Those two violent weeks left at least 846 dead and more than 6,000 injured but it filled the nation with hope. After the chaos settled, President Morsi came to power. There were mixed feeling during his June inauguration but it seemed that the future could only be brighter.

It has been almost two and a half years since the Egyptian Revolution and hope is fading. Morsi, the former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, seems to be intent on dragging the country backward. Rumors are swirling about the violence brought by an omnipresent moral police force. While Morsi has publicly condemned the vigilantes who are attempting to enforce Sharia law, they continue to patrol neighborhoods.

The idea of having a group monitoring the behavior of the public is nothing new. Saudi Arabia has a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice as well. The one major difference between the Saudi Arabian group and the Egyptian group is that the Saudis are controlled and monitored by the state. Many Egyptian leaders have come forward insisting that any policing group must be state-run. If state monitoring of the police force would actual improve anything is questionable.

The Saudi Arabian police are responsible for enforcing the strictest codes of Sharia law. Any native Saudi who doesn’t obey the laws is harshly reprimanded. These laws pertain to public as well as private life. Some laws are obvious- Saudis are forbidden from drinking alcohol and women must cover their hair in public. Others have left even the locals baffled. Earlier this year, the Saudi moral police abruptly closed down a dinosaur display for children in a local mall. The display had been traveling the Gulf states for decades until one day the police stormed a mall in the middle of the day, leaving families angry and confused.

The Egyptian moral police have also taken it upon themselves to instruct businesses on how to comply with moral code. Local barbers have reported receiving strict instruction not to shave men’s beards and clothing shops have been lectured on what exactly constitutes appropriate clothing.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice isn’t concerned with their rejection from Al-Azhar, the head of the Sunni Muslims. According to them, the majority of Egyptians welcome their services. They claim that they received approval by proxy when the Salafist Al-Nour Party won the election.

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Like every country, Egypt has their extremists and the now-infamous preacher Hisham el-Ashry clearly fits the bill. He recently created a wave of controversy when he appeared on a major television station saying, “[i]f I came to power, would I let Christian women remain unveiled? …If they want to get raped on the streets, then they can.” According to el-Ashry, “[i]n order for Egypt to become fully Islamic, alcohol must be banned and all women must be covered.” He believes that there is a definite need for a police force that ensures all Egyptians are adhering to Sharia law.

El-Ashry has many critics both inside and outside of the government. Egypt’s top Islamic legal official, Mufti Ali Comaa said that “[t]his sort of idiotic thinking is one that seeks to further destabilise what is already a tense situation…Egypt’s religious scholars have long guided the people to act in ways that conform to their religious commitments, but have never thought this required any type of invasive policing.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, which current President Mohamed Mursi had played a major role in prior to his presidency, is also keeping itself at arms-length from el-Ashry and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention. They released an official statement saying that “[t]he case of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is within the jurisdiction of the authorities and not individuals or groups. It is not anyone’s right to intervene.”
President Mursi has claimed that he wants all Egyptians, regardless of their religious beliefs, to be treated equally. He said that he does not want his government to enforce Islamic code. The constitution written under his government, however, has more Islamic references than any of his predecessors. Many Egyptians argue that his lack of condemnation of the moral police as well as his public image speak to his fundamentalism. His wife makes every public appearance with only her face uncovered while he maintains a traditional beard. Progressives within the country are left wondering how he can possibly represent the future of Egypt. Human rights activists are calling on Mursi to commend Sharia vigilantism and believe that his silence is what allows the problems to continue.
The high hopes that started the revolution are beginning to crack. Religious intolerance and extremism only add to the pessimism brought by the day-to-day economic struggle. Tourism, once a key piece of the economic structure, has collapsed. Gas shortages are common and unemployment has only increased since the revolution. The Egyptian pound continues to fall. The revolution was televised very well and everyone knows about the instability within the country. The foreign investors were scared away and the tourists followed.
This isn’t just a political or economic issue though. Real Egyptians simply going about their daily life are being terrorized by the self-appointed moral police. Over the summer a man was stabbed to death for holding hands in public with his fianceé. Another man had his ear cut off and his car set on fire for renting an apartment to two alleged prostitutes. Christians were recently bombed during a funeral service. A teacher cut all of the hair off of two 12-year-old girls for not wearing head covers. Kidnappings have become commonplace. 150 Christians have been kidnapped in the southern province of Minya alone since the revolution.
Christians account for about ten percent of the 84 million people living in Egypt today. They have always been a minority and have faced many of the same struggles encountered by minorities of any country but it has only gotten worse for them since the revolution. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the remaining 90 percent are pleased with the current state of things. Secular Egyptians and moderate Islams fear that the nation is headed down the path of fundamentalism. Only time will tell what, if any benefit, was truly brought by the revolution.

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