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The selective piety of Egypt's Islamists

Egyptians need dignity, freedom, and social justice, not cheap appeals to religious sensibilities

Hdeel Abdelhady , Tuesday 25 Jun 2013
Views: 2753
Views: 2753

Picture this. An “Islamist” politician is making his way through Cairo’s bustling streets. The cacophonous sounds of the city’s notorious traffic compete with a muezzin’s call to prayer. Polluted air fills his chest. With each step, his shoes collect more dust. The aroma of freshly baked bread from a nearby government bread oven reaches his nose, but is rudely overtaken by the stench of garbage piled high between Cairo’s tightly packed buildings.

Familiar scenes bewilder his eyes: fellow citizens in queues for government-subsidised bread; jobless college graduates gathered at a café to watch football; a man dangling from the open door of a moving public bus while en route to a low-paying job in the informal economy; and a girl with dishevelled hair and ill-fitting clothes begging from strangers for spare change.

The experience taxes his senses, and his conscience. Fuelled by his newfound political power and confident of his moral authority, he resolves to take action. He rushes to party headquarters. With his brethren assembled, he expresses outrage at what he has witnessed. Wrongs must be righted! His colleagues concur.

Wasting no time, the politician’s party quickly releases a plan to remedy the societal ills that so bruised its member’s senses.

First, government bread ovens will no longer operate within one hour of prayer times. The earthly business of selling affordable bread to the poor must not distract the people from their religious duties.

Second, all qualified unemployed men will be required to enrol in party-provided training for holy war against the Al-Assad regime in Syria.

For those unemployed who are too physically unfit to be today’s mercenaries in Syria and tomorrow’s belligerents in Egypt, cafes may offer only party-sanctioned religious or educational programming. Yes, even the physically-unfit jobless must make prudent use of their time.

Third, for the sole policy purpose of combating dangling from public buses, the government will roll out a fleet of gender-segregated public buses. The government’s acquisition of the new (second-hand) buses is contingent upon the successful conclusion of ongoing loan negotiations with the IMF, as the fleet will be paid for with borrowed money (bus fares will be raised to defray borrowing costs).

Also, the new buses, like those ubiquitous on Egypt’s roadways today, will be subject to strict safety and environmental laws, but will never be inspected. Accidents probably will happen. But conveniently, the new buses will be recognizable from a distance by the exhaust fumes they emit.

Fourth, girls that beg in public spaces must dress modestly. The nation’s dignity must not be compromised by immodest displays. Recognising the likely cost burden of this new dress code, the government will provide acceptable attire for panhandlers who cannot afford mandatory garb, at locations conveniently accessible by gender-segregated buses (again, provided that IMF funding is secured; see item three above).

However, only those that can prove their poverty to the satisfaction of Egypt’s bureaucracy will be eligible to receive the special-purpose garments. Thus, the process may take years and require the occasional payment of a rashwa (bribe), at or below prevailing rates for low-level bureaucrats.  

The fictional scenario is absurd, but unfortunately it is grounded in reality. Since gaining political power, Egypt’s “Islamist” parties, politicians, and political operatives have made public business of their piety, which has proven selective. They are moved to action by the sale and consumption of alcohol, but tolerate the immorality of dehumanising unemployment. They hold rallies in Cairo’s open air, but are unfazed by the pervasive pollution that invades their own and their fellow citizens’ bodies.

On dubious sectarian grounds, they have supported calls for “holy war” against the troublesome Al-Assad regime in Syria, but are complacent in the face of the poverty and illiteracy that oppress millions of Egyptians daily. They participated exuberantly in protests against the former regime, but contend that protests against the current government planned for 30 June would be un-Islamic (a spurious pronouncement rightly repudiated by the learned Grand Imam of Al-Azhar).

Notably, the burden of fulfilling the “Islamists’” more vociferously declared objectives—to refrain from alcohol sale and consumption, to risk life and limb in a murky foreign conflict, and to refrain from political participation—falls to the people rather than to the “Islamists” themselves; a kind of piety by proxy.

All the while, they have neglected their own public Islamic obligations to combat poverty, cultivate unity, provide quality education, and care for the environment (or, incidentally, observe the prohibition on paying or collecting interest as a condition of, for example, an IMF loan).

But why bother? It is much easier to ban alcohol with the stroke of a pen than to develop policy, build consensus, and labour intensively in the national interest of a country on the brink of political and economic bankruptcy.  

Egyptians do not need, and they did not take to the streets in 2011 to demand, religious guidance from their politicians (in fact, many objected to the prior regime’s attempts to control Al-Azhar). They rallied for an accountable political order willing and able to deliver dignity, freedom, and social justice. Disappointingly, they have gotten cheap appeals to religious sensibilities.

As Egyptians assess the current state of their government and politics, the durably wise words of Omar Ibn Al-Khattab (ra), a statesman and the second of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, are apt: "There are two (types of) men I do not fear for you: a believer whose faith is obvious and a kafir whose kufr is obvious. Rather, I fear for you the hypocrite who hides behind a show of faith but strives for some other purpose.” Egyptians should be fearful. 

Hdeel Abdelhady is an Egyptian-American lawyer and an occasional contributor to a number of publications on matters of law, development, and politics.   

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16-10-2013 08:01am
Such a creative way to talk about a very important issue in our society. Thank you very much
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27-06-2013 12:46pm
Felicity comes ones deen
The serenity of a human is Islam. Fill in your heart with Islam you'll see the difference. People in the west who worship money even though many have achieved worldly gains in their own standards. You'll find many millionaires seem to be committing suicides. We would rather take an hour off for prayers and stop baking bread rather than get drunk and take time off work until mind returns.
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27-06-2013 06:49am
great writer!
I am happy to read articles like this from intelligent bright Egyptian people, men and women, who can see and make things transparent in such way! The comment below re religion proofs that low political education makes people reduce everything down to religion. The writeress didnt say to bann people from religion in order to improve Egypts situation?? Simply politics is something public, should be concern and interest of all of us, religion is something private, a dialogue between God and each individual, nothing to do with politics and state. One should give me any sample of a democratic operating non-secular state with entire freedom for people??? Saudia, Iran?? Religion should give positive impuls and effect rules and law, but should not be mixed with politics and state affairs. edond the lack of political education and lack of understanding that democracy, politics etc. has to be seperated from religion, however this doesnt mean that both cannot complete each other in many question of day to day life just as its written in Qu'ran. To run a mega company need a good brain with managerial skills and a hand to choose the right people for certain position. Characteristics such as morality and ethics are positive human nature, but
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Dr. Layla, AUC
25-06-2013 09:50pm
Egypt can't survive without religion
With religion, Egypt would morph into a a jungle of promiscuity, disbelief and anarchy. Is this what the author wants?
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Hdeel Abdelhady
28-06-2013 09:36am
Response to Dr. Layla, AUC
Thanks for commenting. My article does not argue for less religion. The argument is for less selective, self-serving use of religion by politicians and more honest and effective governance and dialogue. Religion should not be confused with individuals or groups that claim political legitimacy on religious grounds. As to your concern, it seems there is no precedent to suggest that Egypt will “morph into promiscuity and disbelief” (chaos maybe, given the persistent lack of security). Surely, Egyptians can maintain their religiosity without guidance from politicians, as they have done for centuries.

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