Islamist vigilantes raise fears in Egypt

President Morsi distances himself from Sharia but fundamentalist militants are getting bolder.
Egyptian boys hold posters of Ahmed Hussein Eid, a university student who was fatally stabbed by three bearded men in front of his girlfriend.
Egyptian boys hold posters of Ahmed Hussein Eid, a university student who was fatally stabbed by three bearded men in front of his girlfriend.

CAIRO // In a series of speeches that Mohammed Morsi gave after he was declared the winner of Egypt's presidential run-off last month, he dropped any references to Sharia, a pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.

But that omission, apparently aimed at reassuring less conservative Muslims and non-Muslims in Egypt that he had no intention of imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia, went unheeded by three bearded men in a Suez park only a day after his triumph.

The men, now in detention, approached Ahmed Hussein Eid, a 20-year-old university student, and his girlfriend - or fiancee, according to some accounts - and demanded that they go their separate ways.

If they were not married, they had no business being together, the couple was told. Mr Eid refused, an argument broke out and it ended with one of the three men stabbing him in his upper left thigh. He died of his wounds a week later.

Police last week arrested three suspects and announced that they were radical Muslims but did not belong to any of the Islamist groups that now dominate Egypt's political landscape.

Such attacks are rare in Egypt, almost unheard of. Still, the murder on June 25 has fuelled fears among non-Islamists that, regardless of what Mr Morsi says, the ascent of an Islamist to the presidency could be taken by Islamist militants as a licence to enforce on the streets a strict interpretation of their faith.

Nehad Abul-Omsan, an activist from the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, said Islamist political parties need to publicly assert their commitment to basic freedoms and rights to discourage their supporters, or radical Muslims, from assuming the role of morality police.

"It is a blow to the values of the state and the law. It will turn our society into a jungle," she said of instances of "rogue" Islamists stopping couples to ask whether they are related or married and questioning women not wearing the hijab.

Certainly, the sense of triumph by Egypt's Islamists is understandable. So is their sense of grievance.

The win by Mr Morsi capped more than 80 years of struggle by the fundamentalist Brotherhood under successive governments, during which its members were the frequent targets of repression and abuse, even after the group renounced violence.

The Brotherhood is a relatively moderate organisation when compared with the ultraconservatives known as Salafis or the one-time jihadist groups in Egypt such as the Gamaa Islamiyah.

Islamists of all shades, however, are now looking to Mr Morsi to help them realise the dream of an Islamic Egypt. Some, it seems, are not sitting idly by. On the same day that Mr Eid was attacked, two musicians, who were brothers, were murdered as they travelled home after performing at a wedding in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiyah.

Radical Muslims consider music "haram", or prohibited, because it distracts from religious duties. Two ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis were arrested but officials said it was not clear whether the killings were religiously motivated.

Still, thousands of residents of Abu Kibeer, the victims' hometown, protested the killings, cutting off roads and disrupting train services by sitting on the rails. They also destroyed the local offices of a charity they suspected the assailants belonged to and torched the home of one suspect.

The Brotherhood, the Salafi Al Nour and other Islamist groups denied they had anything to do with the killings. The Brotherhood said suggestions that the murders may have been inspired by Mr Morsi's rise to power are part of a conspiracy against the 60-year-old president.

Rights activists, however, say that without Islamist politicians taking the lead, non-violent attempts to eradicate what is left of Egypt's secular traditions will continue to be condoned.

Those attempts, they say, are tests for some Islamist parties to probe the depth and width of society's readiness for, or rejection of, more religion in government.

Yara Sallam from Nazra, a women's rights group, said that the problem will always be concentrated in rural areas "away from the reach of the central government".

Activists have also noted a rising number of incidents in which women who are not wearing the Muslim veil, or using a colourful one, were being publicly admonished by women wearing the Kheymar, headwear that falls to cover the entire upper body, or niqab, a loose gown that shows nothing but the eyes through a narrow slit.

The activists say most of these incidents are taking place on the "women-only" train cars of the busy Cairo subway.

They also report incidents of Islamists urging the drivers of communal taxis, mostly Japanese and Korean minibuses, to segregate female and male passengers.

The activists acknowledge the Islamic identity of Egypt but say the Islamists' version of Islam should not be imposed on others and must take into account respect for privacy and personal liberties.

"Egyptians, especially women, have long reached a middle ground when it comes to religion - something that blends their faith, modernity and national identity.

"Our women wear colourful Muslim scarves and jeans and lead a normal life. This is how we do it," said Ms Abul-Qomsan, the women's rights' activist.

Egypt's Islamists are keen to take advantage of what they see as a narrow window of opportunity.

Mr Morsi is unlikely to serve long as president because the adoption of a new constitution later this year is expected to result in new parliamentary and presidential elections.

Published: July 9, 2012 04:00 AM


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