Now Egyptians know

Azza Radwan Sedky
Thursday 3 Aug 2017

After decades of creeping dominance by Islamist thinking and social controls, Egypt has learned its lesson and is pushing back on all fronts

In Egypt, in the 70s and 80s, as men grew beards and women covered their hair, onlookers were surprised but accepting. After all it was a positive thing – was it not? – to adhere to the broader guidelines of religion.

Envious that some could follow God’s wishes better than themselves, many wannabes pursued the same look. Soon, society as a whole had opted for conservatism. Men and women stopped shaking hands with members of the other sex, and “Al-Salam Aleikum” replaced the usual “Good morning” or “Allö”. At social gatherings, in Egypt and abroad, men and women prayed, while Copts and foreigners looked on, alienated.

Social clubs banned alcohol, and many restaurants did the same. Taxi drivers played verses from the Quran, which just a few years before had only been heard at funerals. The traditional dress code for women became a long, loose dress with a hair-covering hijab, while women who didn’t cover their hair stood out.

The less religious and more secular bystanders worried but could not do anything about it. How can one criticise modesty? And at face value, that was what the shift meant. Aware of the constrictions, they were obliged to follow suit: sleeveless dresses were abandoned and shorter skirts became a no-no.

Even Copts and other Christians became less liberal: mass was conducted more frequently and many chose to prohibit alcohol.

Indeed, social norms shifted. The standard became different. The look and feel of society became different.

Soon enough, the beards thickened, men’s white galabeyas shrunk in length, the niqab established itself, and the girls of six and seven years old covered their hair too.

It became unacceptable for a woman from the poor areas of Cairo to be seen in the proximity of her home with her hair uncovered. So to protect herself, she wore a headscarf, even if she preferred not to. That went for many Christians too.

Peculiar and estranging fatwas collided with reason: don’t listen to music; don’t stand up for the national anthem; don’t wish Christians well.

Flagrant disdain for what was considered normal and acceptable hit the society in the core.

The trouble was that no one linked this fundamentalist and often grotesque change to Islamism, whether it be Salafi, Wahabi, or Muslim Brotherhood in allegiance.

No one saw the social change as a link to a systematic political power-grab rooted in cultural and social dominance. What the Muslim Brotherhood gave in aid and support to the needy, it took back in compliance and agreement to a new set of cultural norms.

Few in Egypt, and elsewhere around the world for that matter, saw this slow but underlying shift for what it truly was: a method of keeping the masses in a subservient state, subdued into blind conformity.

It took a stolen revolution, an Islamist parliament, and a Muslim Brotherhood president to make matters explicitly clear: a facade disguising an inherent desire to dominate.

The ongoing war against terrorism in Egypt shows the sheer magnitude of the change that had occurred in society, a change that brainwashed thousands of young Egyptians into betraying their nation and their people – and dying willingly while massacring hundreds of others.

Today, the same Islamist facade that manipulated the unaware, complacent society for decades is utilized to threaten a people and to murder the innocent.

Although to no avail, one can ask the following questions. How can allegiance to an ousted Muslim Brotherhood president entice someone to kill? How can devotion to Islam incite terror?

The answer to both questions is that neither those ready to kill nor the devoted fundamentalists are true Muslims.

Well, Egyptians have learned their lesson the hard way, so they are not taking the manipulation as lightly as they did before. As Egyptians see their innocent die, they are also turning against Islamists with a shift in social and cultural norms.

Society is more accepting today. Some women are removing their headdress or preferring not to adorn the hijab from the start, and some men are shaving their beards. The numbers are very small, it's true, but noticeable nonetheless.

As more scarf-wearing women read the news and present TV programs, more women in sleeveless dresses are visible on televisions too.

The concept of refusing to shake hands with a person of another gender is slowly being eroded, and as I enter a taxi and say “Good morning”, the taxi driver doesn’t assume I’m not a Muslim anymore, even if I don’t cover my hair.

Egyptians not only remember the good old days when neighbours, classmates, and colleagues celebrated both Muslim and Christian festivals together, but they are also restoring the old norms again.

Today Muslims speak out in unanimity with Copts, who remain the prime target for terrorists.

But a more prominent change is in the hatred Egyptians feel towards Islamists as they inflict more pain on innocent souls.

And yet, Egyptian Muslims will remain devout through and through. As they follow the true pillars of Islam, charities boom with an influx of Zakat donations, Friday prayers are the focal point of any weekend, Ramadan is observed diligently and celebrated widely, and the Hajj is a wish for all Muslims.

But if Egyptians have learned anything from the horrors they faced after the revolution, when Islamists enveloped Egypt in a fake Islamist aura void of feelings for others and lacking in inclusiveness, it is the awareness of how entrenched Islamists were in society and how controlling the Islamist disguise was.

Egypt was bound to discover this at one point or another. As it suffers today, the only consolation is that it is better to realise the truth now than later. The earlier Egypt discovers its enemies, the faster it will be able to get them out of its system.

Yes, many are dying in the process – young fathers and sons, leaving hundreds of orphaned children and mourning mothers – but it is a necessary war that must be fought.

Egyptians will hang in there, holding their breath, until Egypt returns to what it once was.

The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.

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