The selective piety of Egypt's Islamists

Hdeel Abdelhady , Tuesday 25 Jun 2013

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

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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