The darkness of not seeing

Amina Khairy
Wednesday 11 Jul 2018

Simple interactions on the streets of Cairo have a lot to say about the complex social relationships now at work in the country

When she finally found a spot to park her car in the congested Heliopolis side street in Cairo, the taxi-driver went crazy. He honked his horn, put his head out of the window, uttered many insults, and waved his hands at her outrageously, making a few obscene gestures.

When he was finally on the road again, he kept repeating “I ask forgiveness from God Almighty” and then increased the volume of his car radio. It was the Quran Karim station, and the reciter was chanting “Indeed, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonished you that you may take heed” (16:91) from the Quran.

The conversation that followed shed light on one of the most dangerous symptoms Egyptian society is suffering from. However, what one man calls “suffering” another may regard as “enjoying”.

The joy of watching the diversity of Egyptian behaviour is no longer cause for pure amusement or in order to gain knowledge. It has become a sign of danger and a call for rescue.

The taxi-driver in question, a young man in his late 20s or early 30s dressed in ripped jeans and an “I love America” t-shirt with a few trendy leather bracelets on his wrist, later justified his unjustified fury.

The flow of the traffic in the street full of parked cars had not been affected by the driver who had stopped to park her car. The real issue was that the driver in question had been a woman and one not wearing a scarf to cover her hair. She had been “completely naked”, according to the taxi-driver.

This meant that she had been wearing a sleeveless shirt, which also meant that “she was out for fun”, while he was suffering and struggling to find a way of making a living.It also entailed that the woman driver with her sleeveless shirt had not needed to be there at all at that point of time, as the limited places available should have been reserved to those who are tortured in life, serious about their work, and do not have the luxury of driving an air-conditioned car while being “completely naked”, he said.

This kind of “logic-less logic” is common nowadays. It has become almost a doctrine among those in Egypt who reside at the bottom of the social pyramid. Those who own cars, look happy, are well-dressed, have traces of a smile on their faces, speak clearly without distorting their words, say “please”, “thank you”, “sorry”, and, last but not least, “good morning” rather than as-salam alaykom are cruel, heartless capitalists.

If they happen to be women who do not cover their hair as well, then the stigma is even stronger. They are unquestionably impious, immoral women who deserve to be scolded and even banned from the streets altogether.

One young man, an Al-Azhar University medical student in Cairo, was telling his friends how his “brothers” in France, a secular, kafir (non-believer) country, had managed to “cleanse” whole areas where women were no longer allowed to go.

He cited an Algerian “brother”, a friend of a friend, who was the second-generation son of an immigrant family in France and had boasted about the Muslim-majority Paris suburb of Sevran.

“In Sevran, our devout brothers have succeeded in doing what we in a predominantly Muslim country have been unable to do,” he said. “Women only go out in emergencies. If they have to go out, they have to be covered from head to toe.

Even non-Muslim women cover up and wear baggy trousers and loose tops so that they do not offend our French Muslim brothers,” the student said.

It is sad to see how this ultra-conservative, fanatical and overstated version of religion has entered into a fatal relationship with those at the bottom of the social pyramid in Egypt.

Those who preach an ultra-conservative version of Islam add to it their own kinds of spice, making people residing on other levels of the social pyramid either bad Muslims or kafirs who deserve nothing but hatred and aggression, if not by hand then at least in feelings entertained in the heart.

Yet, at the heart of the current social situation in Egypt have been moments when those same “bad Muslims” and kafirs stood up in Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that rights be given to their fellow citizens residing lower down the social pyramid.

Social Complexity

In a recent paper entitled “Latent Social Classes: The Disappearance of the Egyptian Upper-Middle Class and the Political Transition”, the authors argue that the 25 January Revolution reflected the complexity of modern Egypt, one which has a newly interpreted version of Islam at its heart mixed with chronic political intricacies. 

“The 2011 Revolution resulted from the social and political complexity of Egypt’s recent history. It was a combination of tensions from revolutionary, liberal, Islamic, unionist and military movements. What is missing for its understanding is more insight on how the diverse social classes interacted with these movements. It is believed that the revolutionary youth in Tahir Square was supported by the upper-middle classes, resentful of the wild nepotism of the [former Mubarak] regime and the perception of growing inequality,” they write.

The paper documents how the original igniters of the 25 January Revolution, the middle and upper-middle class youth, managed to attract the poor and less fortunate to the movement. When the latter then became politically empowered under the rule of the Muslim Brothers, they turned against their upper-class, better-off Tahrir Square compatriots.

“It also seems that the social dimensions of the Tahrir Square unrest were what allowed it to seduce and attract the destitute masses and the poor. The following presidential elections were interpreted in terms of class oppositions. Ahmed Shafik, the presidential candidate in the 2012 presidential elections, supporters were viewed as upper-middle class, secular, Christian, Westernised, etc. [Muslim Brotherhood candidate] Mohamed Morsi’s supporters were, on the other hand, viewed as primarily conservative, pious, less-Westernised, working class and predominantly Muslim. However, precise knowledge of what the social classes in fact are seems to be a prerequisite before being able to delve into detailed political analysis.”

A bit of political analysis shows that it has become almost impossible to analyse politics in Egypt without delving into the “modern” yet retrogressive religious discourse that invaded and then ravaged Egypt and other Arab and predominantly Muslim countries in the 1970s. Centuries of civilisation and enlightenment were thrust aside in a few years of concentrated efforts in poor and impoverished areas aided by a bottomless flow of cash.

Eventually, this mixture became so contagious that it gripped even part of the non-needy, presumably well-educated parts of society. The noise of religion, politics and social class colliding has now become so loud that a taxi-driver can go crazy just because a woman wearing a sleeveless shirt tries to park her car in a crowded street.

Some in Egypt might have forgotten the famous “constructive or creative chaos” brought to us by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in a bright idea in 2006. But they are nevertheless reaping its fruit.

However, this “constructive chaos” would not have been possible without a corrupt regime that ignored the fatal effects of Political Islam, even if these were disguised in a charity hospital, a compassionate imam preaching paradise, or a non-violent organisation preaching its own version of religion aided by a few services and breeding supporters for future political reference.

The taxi-driver probably shared his jihad story with fellow drivers that day. He probably told them how kafirs who let women drive around “completely naked” are taking the country’s wealth and damaging the faith as they go around uncovered.

What the driver did not know, however, but will probably find out when a relative faces a heart problem, is that this very same woman who hampered his work and piety while trying to park her car is a doctor who may one day treat his loved ones.

This is what diversity, or the lack of it, is all about. This is the definition of the unbearable darkness of not seeing or not expecting the after-effects of a new version of religion that is being used as a tool to destroy whole societies.

The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The darkness of not seeing 

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