Threat of Egypt’s ‘morality police’

Posted on January 25, 2012


from Eva Haroun

CAIRO (Januarty 25).  The fact that the radical Islamist Nour (Light) party scored nearly 30 per cent in the recent Egyptian elections has given rise to a worrying development:  religious vigilantes.  Although the party’s official position is that it supports a democratic order that includes freedom of expression and association, it also qualifies this by maintaining that such rights may exist only so long as they do not violate Islamic Sharia law.

This all comes down to interpretation and the more fundamentalist, Salafi, supporters of Nour have very definite ideas about what this means.   Since Islamists made up the largest bloc in parliament when it assembled on January 25,  the Salafi feel they can enforce a narrow religious agenda based on the system of “morality police” that operates in Saudi Arabia.

Mainly young Salafi men have formed groups in various towns and cities, and are demanding that women in particular abide by rigid dress and behavioural codes.  Female hair is a particular fetish.  According to the strict ideas laid down by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who preached in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century, the hair of a woman is the “ultimate temptation” and should neither be touched nor seen by men.  Hence the veil, the hijab.

The moderate Muslims and the secularists who spearheaded the revolution that last year overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, tend to scoff at such ideas.  But, politically, they are a smaller and more fragmented grouping.  The Salafi are well organised and, having suffered considerable repression for decades in Egypt, claim they are the rightful successors to Mubarak.

Because they also tend to accept the authority of temporal rulers in an Islamic state, they are also extremely well funded.  Although Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has denied providing support, investigations by the justice ministry have found that various Islamist groups in Egypt have been funded by Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

However, it is on the morality police of Saudi Arabia that the young Salafi model themselves.  They have proliferated although they have no legal authority on the street and Al Azhar, the oldest and foremost institution of Sunni Islam, is adamant that they should be stopped immediately. But they have shown no inclination to heed secular or mainstream religious authority.

Carrying bamboo canes to “punish those who contradict God’s law”, they have taken to roaming the streets and threatening shop owners whose produce or advertising they consider haram (unclean).  However, they have not always had things their own way.

When a group of cane wielding Salafi recently burst into a beauty salon in Benha, north of Cairo, and accused the owner, the female staff and customers of “indecent behaviour”, the women turned on the vigilantes.  They grabbed the canes and chased the would-be religious police from the shop.   To cheers and jeers from a crowd of onlookers, the Salafi fled.

However, there have been numerous cases where Salafi groups have administered their justice with impunity.  And, during Christmas and the new year, several shopping malls and stores had their Christmas tress and decorations smashed on the grounds that they were haram.

Now, as the new parliament sits for the first time, the country waits for what might follow.

Posted in: Edited material