Egypt’s morality police: Islamic fanaticism or elaborate hoax?

Sherif Tarek , Friday 13 Jan 2012

While seeming emergence of Saudi-style 'Committee for Promotion of Virtue' has spooked Egyptian secularists, its existence remains unconfirmed until now

A female anti-government protestor wears a full face veil, or niqab, in Tahrir Square, four days before Mubarak’s ouster (Photo: Reuters)

With Islamist forces reaping the lion’s share of parliamentary seats in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections, the possibility of bans on bikinis, alcohol and gender integration has become a valid fear for many.

Curbing such freedoms, however, is no longer the worst-case scenario for Egypt in the eyes of many liberals, especially given the emergence online in December of self-appointed “morality police” mandated with maintaining public probity. The group, which has maintained its anonymity, has not been granted any official authority to enforce Islamic Law or call for its implementation.

Following the lead of its established counterpart in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, the novel apparatus calls itself the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Egypt.” The group first unveiled itself on Facebook last month, where it provided information about its approach and objectives. Its first official page was recently attacked by hackers before another one was launched to take its place.

“We are youth from the Salafist Calling in Egypt. We announce the formation of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, led by [the example of] the holy lands,” the committee declared in an online statement. “We took this step based on the overwhelming majority’s choice of Islam [in parliamentary polls].”

Because the group used the Salafist Nour Party’s official logo, it was initially believed – wrongly, as it turns out – to have been established by the runners-up in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which wrapped up on 11 January.

According to the page, the committee’s founders are members of the Nour Party, while any “religiously committed” Muslim man between 25 and 40 – with a high school diploma – is invited to apply to join the group for a weekly salary of LE500 and one meal per day. The group also claims to be recruiting women on a smaller scale.

“We are not directly affiliated with the Nour Party, but since we are members of it, we are adopting the same frame of reference,” the page reads. The group also claims to have been founded “under the guidance of the [Nour] party’s leaders.”

The Nour Party, however, has vehemently denied having any connection with the committee and has vowed to take legal action against its founders for asserting otherwise. Shortly afterward, under a new logo, the committee declared its independence from the party, which, it claimed, had caved in to pressure by “secularists” to disown it.

The committee’s origins, therefore, remain unknown until now.

On its Facebook page, the group has reassured critics that it would “not resort to violence, but will depend on debate and preaching to implement Islamic Law.”

Yet despite these assurances, the committee’s appearance has prompted concern among much of the public. Fears mounted after some enforcers of Islamic Law began plying their trade, although their presence has yet to be documented in Cairo or in other governorates.

In a recent statement, the committee declared that it would begin operating by the beginning of next month, with the enforcers wearing white cloaks and carrying recently imported electric batons to defend themselves if attacked while “fulfilling their duties.”

Niqab for women, beards for men

Whether or not they are associated with the self-styled Egyptian Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, some of the morality enforcers that actually hit the streets are said to be adamant about persuading women to wear the face veil, or Niqab.

Aya Hamdy, a head-veiled 27-year-old housewife, says she encountered one of them in the secluded upscale residential compound of El-Rehab in New Cairo. “I was heading to a shopping mall when some bearded man wearing a galabya and jacket passed me and told me, ‘cover yourself, sister!’ and kept walking,” she told Ahram Online.

“I swore at him and then called my husband, who was right behind me. Meanwhile, the guy’s pace became faster; he had left by the time my husband arrived,” she recalled. “I’m not sure if he was one of these alleged ‘morality police,’ but after we left the mall, we found him in the same zone. He appeared to be patrolling the area.

“I wear the veil and always dress modestly, but that was clearly not enough for him,” said Hamdy. “Later, I found out that several veiled girls had been subject to similar situations in other districts.”

Other reported incidents saw Islamist enforcers targeting barbershops because they wanted men to grow their beards in imitation of Prophet Muhammad.

Gender segregation in public transportation and universities is also one of their goals, according to media reports. No use of force has been reported in this regard, although incidents have been reported in the Qalioubiya Governorate north of Cairo and 6 October City on the outskirts of the capital, among other places.

On its Facebook page, the committee also said it would monitor the behaviour of citizens in public places to prevent anything not in compliance with Islamic doctrine. Following the lead of its Saudi counterpart, the Egyptian group also said it would ask citizens to pray at appointed times and call on traders to close their shops when calls to prayer were heard.

How far can they go?

The government-sanctioned morality police in Saudi Arabia enforce a strict version of Islamic Law (Wahhabism) and impose harsh sanctions on natives who break it. For instance, one would have his/her hand cut off for stealing, receive dozens of lashes for committing acts of debauchery, and be beheaded by sword for more serious crimes such as witchcraft or murder.

People in the oil-rich kingdom can be arrested or compulsorily taken to a mosque just for being in the street during prayer times, although those acting as morality police in Egypt have been nowhere nearly as strict as their Saudi brethren.

A couple of decades ago, however, Egypt had its own taste of this sort of stringent theocratic rule. In the 1990s, when Egypt’s Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya was still deemed a terrorist organisation, some of its members established morality police in Cairo’s low-income Imbaba district.

One of Al-Jamaa’s more notorious morality enforcers at the time was Sheikh Gaber, otherwise known as Gaber El-Tabal. According to media reports, he declared the establishment of an “Islamic Republic of Imbaba” by calling for the enforcement of Islamic rules as draconian as those in Saudi Arabia.

Media reports at the time suggested that Gaber was an armed terrorist who had committed numerous crimes in the name of Islam, as he was portrayed in the Egyptian big-screen production Dam El-Ghazal (‘Blood of the Gazelle’).

Many Imbaba residents say El-Tabal’s influence did not go beyond preaching and prohibiting pornography, alcohol and belly dancing. El-Tabal, for his part, who was imprisoned for 14 years, denied in recent interviews the many charges that have been levelled against him.

But El-Tabal does not deny Al-Jamaa’s impact on Imbaba at the time. He also expresses remorse for his previous approach, not unlike Al-Jamaa’s decision in the late 1990s to adhere to a peaceful political route after engaging in terrorism in the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

According to prominent Islamist lawyer Montasser El-Zayat, the appearance of another such extremist Islamic group in Egypt is unlikely. “Egyptians have always been moderate when it comes to religion,” El-Zayat told Ahram Online. “They’ve rejected fanaticism before, and will do so again.

“It has yet to be confirmed that such an organised group actually exists in Egypt, but it wouldn’t be a one-off if it turned out to be true,” he added. “Committees for the ‘promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’ first appeared in Egypt in the 1970s.”

Unlike Al-Azhar and most prominent religious scholars, El-Zayat does not oppose the formation of such a committee in Egypt. All the same, he says, such a group should confine itself to a role like that played by clerics of Egypt’s religious endowments ministry (awqaf).

“The idea of having such a committee is legitimate and in accordance with the Quran – but what’s important is how it works,” El-Zayat elaborated. “And, of course, it would be better if such a committee was run by the government and not by an independent group.

“Such a committee should promote virtue with virtue, and prevent vice with virtue as well. They should not force anyone to do – or not do – anything,” he added. “It should convince people of its beliefs in a respectful, peaceful way.”

Ultimately, El-Zayat believes the committee’s recent appearance to be a fabrication of sorts intended to tarnish the image of Islam and Islamists. “This group in Egypt seems to be a hoax made up by someone who wants to defame the Islamists after their landslide victory in parliamentary polls,” he asserted.

Earlier this week, the committee’s Facebook page announced that its enforcers – armed with tasers – would commence operating in certain districts of Alexandria. Ahram Online can confirm, however, that no such enforcers have yet appeared in the areas in question, further suggesting that the page is a hoax.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) dominated Egypt’s just-concluded parliamentary race. Islamist parties – including the FJP, Nour and a handful of others – are widely expected to command over 70 per cent of the incoming national assembly.

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