Social transformation comes as a positive side-effect of political change. Even when revolutions happen because of the urgent need for more democracy, less corruption, or getting rid of regimes that have lasted for decades, social side-effects almost always happen. When you renovate your old bathroom, you will probably feel the need for changes in your living room as well.
Living conditions in Egypt are anything but smooth or easy. Living in Egypt over the past five decades has meant a 24/7 attempt to please others, adapt to imported cultures, and minimise friction with the outer world because of the way you dress, walk, eat and sometimes even breathe. This is not to mention the classical cycle of poverty, unplanned population growth, illiteracy, child marriage and labour, and thus more poverty.
Poverty in Egypt in 2019 has been a reason for concern for many non-poor Egyptians. The vicious circle of poor people passing on their poverty to their sons and daughters has been flourishing in Egypt, resulting in chronic poverty. The Chronic Poverty Research Centre, an international partnership of universities and NGOs that provides research and policy guidance for the reduction of poverty, suggests that a defining characteristic of chronically poor people is that they remain in poverty over long periods. This can mean that poverty is transmitted from one generation to the next, with poor parents having poor children who are more likely to become poor adults themselves.
This has been the case in Egypt for decades. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), there is a strong correlation between the lack of education and poverty. Professor of statistics at Cairo University Heba Al-Laithi contends in a UNDP paper entitled “Poverty in Egypt” that education determines the command of individuals over income-earning opportunities through access to various types of employment. Poverty is the highest, deepest and most severe for illiterate individuals and for those from illiterate households in both urban and rural areas, she says.
Starting with a household whose head is illiterate and has no productive assets, the path of poverty can be traced through to the children. These are very likely to be malnourished, in what is more a consequence of the parents’ ignorance than the unavailability of adequate food, as well as a result of poor sanitary conditions. Such children are more prone to disease, which further diminishes their physical capabilities. They also have no places in formal schools. Even if they enter the public-school system, due to the constrained economic conditions of their households they will likely soon drop out to join the labour market.
Al-Laithi concludes that under these circumstances, many such children will likely be illiterate, and in the absence of adequate vocational training facilities they will possess limited skills. The cycle is complete when such children marry spouses with the same characteristics, thus perpetuating poverty across the generations.
But what the paper does not mention is that many such schools have also been infiltrated by teachers, head teachers and administrative staff who are deeply immersed in Salafi ideologies that have been left to grow and flourish in Egypt over the past five decades. These transmit the fanatical concept that Islam forbids family planning.
Over the past year, voices have been breaking the taboo on speaking out against the vicious circle of poverty, the increase in the poor population, and the religious discourse that is choking society. Despite the fact that such voices are still small in number, they have proven to be powerful. Sometimes power can be measured by the horror and panic emanating from others.
These others constitute the majority. They are not necessarily members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis wearing the niqab (the full-face veil for women) or long beards. They are Egyptians who have been subjected to a Wahhabi version of Islam, in which Bedouin culture has been mixed with fanatical interpretations of the Quran and Sunna (religious traditions) resulting in a false version of religion.
OPENING UP: The past year has witnessed many open-minded debates on social-media platforms on issues that have been marked as “no-go areas” since this fanatical version of interpreting Islam first spread in Egypt.
Discussing whether the niqab should be banned or not, whether a niqabi teacher can perform what is required of her from behind the veil, especially with efforts to pave the way for critical thinking and enlightenment in education, whether the veil is really a sixth pillar to add to the five pillars of Islam, whether a person who has committed suicide is a person who has suffered some form of mental disorder or is an infidel who should be deprived of the right of burial among believers, and many other questions are finally being discussed.
As a result, social media is continuing its heroic role of empowering social change. Throughout 2019, it has proven to be a tool of empowerment, not only for the younger generations, but also for the young at heart and active in mind who wish to be enlightened agents of positive change. For positive change is happening, even if the passage can be dominated by tragedy. Tragedies involving young men and women committing suicide because of stress, anxiety and other psychological disorders have opened up a space for more enlightenment.
Is mental health an illness? Or is it a sign of a lack of faith? Those two questions are being discussed on social media and in some traditional media outlets, in addition to in closed circles of friends resulting in revisions of societal norms and the breaking of taboos on questioning rigid religious interpretations. For decades, many Egyptians have been dealing with mental disorders as if they were either a stigma that should be hidden, or a result of a lack of faith that required more prayers and fasting to be cured, or some sort of pettiness and lack of appreciation of the good things in life.
However, the recent suicides of four young men and women in separate incidents, the details of which were related to histories of psychological disorders, have encouraged many to speak out more for mental health. This has entailed a lot of criticism, and it has meant being directed to fatwas (religious rulings) suggesting that those who commit suicide are infidels and are no longer Muslims.
Some ulama (religious scholars) have gone as far as to abstain from giving such deceased persons a religious burial. Formal religious opinion has not changed. Even though the fatwa authority in Cairo, the Dar Al-Ifta, has issued a statement saying that a person who has committed suicide has not necessarily ceased to be a Muslim, yet the crime of suicide should not be dealt with in a way that could encourage sympathy, it has said.
This unsympathetic stance taken by the religious institutions has shed a strong light on the lack of awareness regarding mental health in Egypt, not only among the public, but also among those in charge of the public’s religious well-being. Many voices have pointed to the fact that religion should stop interfering in business that does not concern it, including medicine, art and education.
The public prosecution authorities have also appealed to all segments of society to put the matter in perspective and to look at mental illness as they look at other diseases, noting that parents should spend more time with their children and provide them with help if needed. This enlightened stand has been applauded by many Egyptians.
Many of the latter, like anywhere else in the world, are subjected to bullying at least once in their lives. Obesity, skinniness, deformities, shyness, you name it and there will be someone to bully you for it. Bullying, which is not limited to school, has too often been dealt with as something trivial that does not require a lot of fuss. However, in recent years, it has been proven that such trivialities can lead to depression, aggression, low self-esteem and a whole list of other problems. The right to live one’s life without having to keep up with other people’s nasty comments, tasteless humour and violation of privacy is slowly but surely permeating Egyptian society.
Society is changing and slowly regaining the open-mindedness that was once there before Egypt was invaded by an ultra-conservative version of Islam in the 1970s. At the top of the list of current demands is the liberation of women. The women of Egypt are still paying the price of a fanatical society, with fanaticism pulling society towards recession, backwardness and intolerance, and being a female being seen in some quarters as being a sin walking on legs.
While the political leadership is making leaps forward with regard to appointing female ministers, encouraging women’s empowerment and not sparing an opportunity to point to the role of women in developing societies, formal and semi-formal religious institutions, as well as generations that were born in the darkness of fanatical Islam, are still sometimes doing all they can to ensure that women are kept in dark cells.
Culture and art are the best remedies for minds intoxicated with deformed ideologies. And here lies a great part of what is still missing in Egypt when it comes to social change. What deformed ideologies have spoilt over five decades, culture and art can easily rebuild in a few years. However, we have not started yet, and facilities to do so should be available everywhere. Talents need to be discovered and encouraged, ears need to be cleansed, and above all hearts and minds should rediscover what humans and humanity are all about.
God is beautiful, beneficent, compassionate and gentle, and this is what increasing numbers of Egyptians have found out for themselves in 2019. Social change is happening in Egypt – just wait and see.
The writer is a journalist with Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly