News / Africa

Egypt's Islamists Raise Alarms Over Western Freedoms

A girl in the women's section of the audience claps as she watches the filming of a new Islamic version of "American Idol," launched to promote and drum up talent for the Arab world's first Islamic pop music video in a bid to capitalize on a generation of
A girl in the women's section of the audience claps as she watches the filming of a new Islamic version of "American Idol," launched to promote and drum up talent for the Arab world's first Islamic pop music video in a bid to capitalize on a generation of

As Egypt holds the second phase of post-revolution elections, some in the West are alarmed by the front-running status of Islamist parties.  But some Islamists are raising alarms of their own, warning of Western-style freedoms, such as gay marriage, to bring voters to their side.  

Umm Radwan walks beneath the palms on a sidestreet of Mit Rahina, holding the hand of her young son as he practices his recitation of the Quran.   

The boy and his mother, her face concealed by the full veil of the niqab, reflect the deep faith and tradition that pervades much of Egypt, especially in villages like this just south of Cairo.

A Cautionary Tale

The Egyptian village of Mit Rahina is better known to most by its Greek name, Memphis. Founded in 3100 BCE, it was the capital of a unified Egypt for centuries. Little is left of those glory years except a few stones and several stunning, if shattered, statues of Ramses II, one of the greatest pharaohs Egypt ever knew.

All leaders' days are numbered, and the hubris of Ramses' rule is captured in the poem "Ozymandias," by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In a year when political arrogance has felled the long-reigning leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the verse, written in 1817, offers a timely - and timeless - lesson.

"Ozymandias I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed: And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away." -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Conservative values have been a boon to Islamist parties in the parliamentary elections.  Religious parties have taken a majority of seats in the first phase, a shock to some who hailed the liberal, secular values of the revolutionaries earlier this year.

Now in this phase, Islamists appear poised to do even better, with more rural voters having their say in charting Egypt's future.  In a nearby mosque, the sheikh is careful not to chose sides in the political contest.

But he tells the faithful that democracy means respecting everyone's rights, which he says would allow for same sex marriage, or people drinking alcohol on the streets.     

Framed that way, Umm Radwan says she wants no part of it. She says that is impossible; Egypt will never allow it.  Another of Mit Rahina's residents, Saad Darwish, agrees, saying choice only goes so far.

"Islamic people - they can be democratic, but Islamic democratic.  Not people drinking and making problems, making some not-good things, do you understand me?  Here, a man doesn't marry a man, not a lady marry a lady. We don’t like this," Saad stated.

The main Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party and especially the more conservative Salafis' Nour party, have played very well into these cultural taboos.    

Said Sadek is a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. "They talk about alcohol as if Egypt is full of alcohol - wherever you go you will find trees dropping Johnnie Walker and other [alcohol], not fruit.  In addition, they talk about bikinis.  I mean, those people live in squatter settlements and poverty and you don't see bikinis anywhere. As if you would walk anywhere in Egypt and women are walking in bikini.  It doesn't exist," he clarified. 

While bikinis and booze may seem a false argument, the issues resonate not only with the traditionally conservative, but also, Sadek argues, with a sizable portion of a key voting bloc. "The aim of the speech is to mobilize frustrated young men, [the] unemployed," he said. "They talk about alcohol.  They talk about bikini [-clad] women and so the guys are very much interested."  

But there are signs the frustrations of these young men and others in Egypt will ultimately win out over what Sadek considers distractions.  Economic problems were as much at the heart of Egypt's revolution as politics.  

Umm Radwan says any group that makes the economy worse is doomed to fail, no matter what its social and human rights policies.  Villager Darwish agrees on the economic front.  He believes that any turn to a stricter interpretation of Islam would be slow in coming - despite a new constitution on the horizon.  

He thinks voters will correct any mistakes they might make now when they vote in the next election.

"[If] anybody succeeds and helps the people, [they will] come again [be re-elected].  If they don't help the people, they won't come again,"  Darwish explained.

Darwish may have deep commitment to his conservative values, but his words indicate an equal faith in the powers of democracy.  


(16 Dec correction: atribution of the first quote changed from Sadek to Saad)

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