Are Islamists being scapegoated as the new ghoul of Egypt?

Sarah El-Rashidi, Tuesday 8 May 2012

Since the Islamist parliamentary victory, many fear creeping infringements on freedom of expression and social freedoms, while Islamists claim they are being scapegoated by liberals and remnants of the former regime

Tahrir square
File photo: Islamist friday in Tahrir square. 29/7/2011 (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Events following the January 25 Revolution have indicated increased limitations on social freedoms in Egypt, which many fear will escalate under Islamist rule. Since the Islamists’ parliamentary victory last year, numerous rumours and court cases involving Islamist lawyers restricting freedom of expression continue to plague Egyptian society.

 “We are going back to the darkness of the Middle Ages.”

So articulated Alaa El-Aswany the liberal author of The Yacoubian Building on the micro-blogging website Twitter in reaction to the case brought against the celebrated actor Adel Imam. Imam was first convicted in February of “contempt of religion” by ultra-conservative Islamist lawyer Asran Mansour who accused him of blasphemous mocking of Muslims and Islam in three of his films.

In Egypt’s eminent art scene, there was an outcry from liberal and secular figures. In a public statement the Egyptian Creativity Front said that “the ruling would limit freedom of expression and lead to restrictions on art.”

Considering the fallout of the charges brought against Imam, entertainment reporter Tarek El-Shinnawi wrote that “Imam's case will make any writer, director or actor think before considering the role of a Muslim figure”.

A similar indictment was brought against business tycoon and founder of the Free Egyptians Party Naguib Sawiris by Islamist lawyers in January. The case revolved around a cartoon Sawiris had tweeted of a cartoon of Mickey Mouse with a long beard and Minnie Mouse with her face covered. The case was finally dismissed, but adds to the alarm of many liberal spectators.

In the light of such cases, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) conveyed its disappointment concerning the recent deterioration of freedom of expression. Hafez Abu Seada, the head of EOHR,asserted that these cases reflect an infringement of freedom of expression in post-revolution Egypt. Moreover, according to EOHR the sentence against Imam is not legally sound since the complainer was not directly damaged or even affected.

These controversial lawsuits were brought by Islamist lawyers and so the Islamists stand accused of seeking to limit freedom of expression. In defence of the Islamist front, the spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Yahiya Hamad asserted, "Adel Imam was not judged by any Islamic court he was judged by a civilian judge."

Nevertheless, such claims have not assuaged the fears of Egyptian artists who were shocked by comments made by the notorious Hazem Abu-Ismail, the former Salafist presidential candidate. Abu-Ismail said that according to Salafist teachings the depiction of faces is haram and so Pharaonic antiquities should be covered.

According to Nadar Bakkar, member of the Supreme Committee of the Salafist Nour Party and party spokesperson, "No one can claim art is haram. However the portrayal of faces and any vulgarity such as pornography is of course unacceptable."

Bakkar tried to calm fears surrounding Pharaonic antiquities which he says are exempt from this rule, since Amr Ibn Asr who lead the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 left the ancient relics intact.

"In line with sharia law there are many types of permissible art," he said providing examples of permissible modern art works on his iPad.

In terms of cinema, Islamists have generally reflected similar views as they have on other art, stating the need for increased restrictions. In relation to film, FJP spokesman Hamad said, "like abroad there will be specific guidelines, as certain types of films affect youth negatively. Pornography is not art; it is haram [forbidden] and is not part of Egyptian culture."

Following a similar stance the more extreme Salafist Nour Party emphasised that film must improve morals and loyalty to the country; only films improving society’s morals will be supported.

Bakkar of the Nour Party describes Khaled Youssef's film Heena Maysara (Till things get better) renowned for its lesbian scene as obscene and scandalous and says films such as this would be forbidden.

He explained that art which normalises unorthodox behaviour within society will be prevented at any cost." Films which go against beliefs and customs will be forbidden,” he asserted.

In relation to other art forms the Nour Party says Salafist teachings consider music haram. However, the party spokesman assured that the group will not enforce any restrictions on music; it will simply explain its perspective based on the teachings of the Prophet.

Beyond freedom of expression

Aside from fears of Islamist's potential restrictions on freedom of expression; limits on other civil liberties are also at the heart of liberal concerns. Civil liberties seen to be at risk span from women’s rights and minority rights to public consumption of alcohol, gambling and the impact on tourism.   

Such concerns were exasperated by recent controversial statements made by Salafist scholars and politicians that advocate limits on social freedoms. In relation to women’s rights, Abu Ismail announced on Al Mehwar channel's Dia'a talk show in October 2011, that under his leadership wearing the veil would eventually be a legal requirement. The sole exception would be if Al-Azhar issued a fatwa stating that it is not obligatory.

Taking a different stance on the same question, the Salafist Nour Party said that, "a female dress code will not be enforced; the niqab is not a 'fard' [obligatory], it is a choice."

This notion was supported by Hamed who represents the more moderate Brotherhood viewpoint. To back up his view, he referred to Surat Al-Baraqarat a verse in the Quran. He said that, "everyone has the right to choose what they wear; we cannot enforce anything in relation to God on anyone."

The FJP's vice president and Brotherhood spokesman Essam El-Erian asserted that, "We do not need to enforce a law; 95 per cent of Egyptian women are veiled."

In relation to women working outside the home, Abu-Ismail has said that women should work only if economically necessary. “Women must not be obliged to work outside the home."

Bakkar, the Nour Party spokesman however claimed no infringements would be made on women in terms of their right to work. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood seemingly takes a judicious approach on the matter, claiming to encourage female work outside the home.

Nonetheless, in spite of Islamist attempts to mollify concerns about women’s rights, many remained within moderate religious camps remain worried.

Hanan Shawky, a veiled young professor at Helwan University who refers to herself as a liberal conservative shared her fears: "I am scared of the Islamists, as they say one thing and tend to do another. Recently an Islamist female Member of Parliament said she wants to ban the divorce law ‘khola’ the right for women to divorce."

Shawky’s discontent is clear: "The MP also said she wants to legalise the right for a man to marry again without seeking the permission of his first wife – which the Quran states is a necessary condition for remarriage. Basically she wants to ban anything to do with women’s rights!" 

Views such as these are challenged by Bakkar. "Such allegations are completely false and unfounded; we have no plans to adopt such decrees".

"The Nour Party has a principle: hear it from me not about me!” Bakkar added.

He went on to cite examples of baseless rumours such as the recent false story on Egypt's necrophilia law which would supposedly enable a man to have intercourse with his deceased wife for up to six hours after her death. Bakkar exclaimed that such hoaxes are extremely harmful to the party.

Gender segregation at work and educational institutions is another issue raised by some Salafists. Abu-Ismail professed his aspiration to implement such measures, based on his assertion that no Egyptian man would be content with his wife working within a male office environment. Both the FJP and the Nour Party deny having plans to implement segregation in places of work or education.


Other concerns such as prohibiting public consumption of alcohol appear to be shared by both leading Islamist parties. Political observers have noted some Islamists future aspirations to shut down casinos and ban tourists from wearing two-piece swimsuits. There have even been references to ‘morality police’ in tourist resorts. Such ambitions if put into practice would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the tourism industry.

According to Bakkar some of these rules already exist within the Egyptian law but are not strictly enforced. 

"The law banning the consumption of alcohol and pork in Egypt are already in place."

To quell concerns surrounding minority rights in the case of Christians in Abu-Ismail and other Islamists affirm that sharia law stipulates equality regardless of religion.  

“Whether Muslim or Copt, every citizen should be treated in accordance to what he or she believes in the confessional arena," Abu-Ismail has said.

Erian emphasizes that the Brotherhood also shares this viewpoint on the compatibility of sharia with minority rights. “Islam itself protects the rights of minorities.” 

Copts nevertheless remained terrified of what the future holds for them under an Islamist president.

"We are terrified that we will lose all of our rights; we do not trust any of the Islamists even the 'supposed' moderate ones like Aboul Fotouh," says Ezzat Naem, founder of the NGO Spirit and Youth Association, in Moqattam where the majority of the population are poor Christians.

In response to public outrage from liberal fronts towards extreme Islamist ideals, Salafists in particular have been compelled to take more account of how their ideas are perceived. Following contentious comments from Abu-Ismail, the Nour party disassociated itself from him as well as Sheikh Abdul-Munim al-Shahhat,another very prominent Salafist figure.

Controversially, some liberals are content with the scandals and mounting fears surrounding the Islamists as they maintain it is serving their cause.

"It is good for the liberal cause that they are making mistakes; that being said I do not want lies to be used to justify our cause. I want people to be afraid of the reality!" says liberal activist, Dina El-Ghamry. 

Kamal El-Helbawy former Brotherhood and spokesperson for Europe observed, “The Salafists are the new ghoul that the regime and its remnants are using to scare people after the Brotherhood proved not scary enough.”

Islamists from all camps appear to insist that there is smear campaign against them by supporters of the old regime, liberals and the media. Markedly, the Egyptian and foreign media have tended to describe the Salafists as the bête noire of the new Egypt.

Political analyst Jonathan Brown believes such allegations have resulted in both a rapid maturation and moderating discipline within the Islamist arena, particularly in the Salafist front. Brown cites the Nour Party’s recent engagement of women in the political process and the centralisation of political messaging as evidence of this.

Nevertheless, in spite of Islamist assurances concerning various social freedoms; many remain sceptical of Islamist intentions.

The fears of Ehab Moussa, head of Egypt’s Tourism Supporters Coalition, are typical: “It is not Iran or Saudi here.” He is among those calling for legal assurances from all Islamist parties concerning social freedoms.

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