What came before… What lies ahead?

Egypt: Straight from the heart

Signs of the despair and rage of the ‘Arab street’ that have finally burst out into angry protests across the region were in ample evidence when I visited Egypt last year although I must confess I did not expect they would take the form that they now have. Forty days traversing the country, including a fortnight in Cairo and trips to the Mediterranean coast, isolated oases in the Sahara and down the Nile to Abu Simbel and to Aswan near the Sudanese border, were, to put it politely, no relaxed vacation. Egypt, despite being a favourite holiday destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists every year, is not quite an easy country for a lone tramp on a shoestring budget to navigate. 

Cairo, home to almost half of Egypt’s population, is a rapidly decaying city. I chose to stay in a dirt cheap funduq, a lodge frequented by travelling Egyptian and other African door-to-door salesmen which was located in the heart of the old city, also called ‘Islamic Cairo’. It was situated in a narrow lane just off the grand Al-Hussain mosque which, according to local lore (although this is contested), contains the severed head of Imam Hussain, grandson of the prophet.

My Cairene friends were horrified at my decision. A cafeteria in the area, which was once popular with foreign tourists, had been bombed recently and numerous people, including some tourists, had been killed. “All sorts of shady characters lurk in these parts,” they warned. Hardly any foreign tourists, they said, dared to stay there now, preferring hotels in the more upmarket parts near the Nile for safety. The area, they added in order to dissuade me, was filthy. But I had to save money for the long stay I had intended and this miserable funduq was all I could afford. Besides, I wanted to see life in ‘Islamic Cairo’ first-hand. My ramshackle rat-infested inn, which charged me the equivalent of 300 rupees a night for a diminutive room, was the best place to be based in for that purpose. 

Densely populated ‘Islamic Cairo’ consists of a maze of lanes that envelops a dazzling number of ancient Islamic monuments – mosques, madrassas, tombs and Sufi lodges – some of which go back to as early as the eighth century. At the heart of this sprawling quarter is the grand Al-Azhar, considered to be the world’s most influential seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship. Despite its historical importance, ‘Islamic Cairo’, like much of the rest of the city, and indeed all of Egypt, had, as I saw it then, all the telltale signs of despair and discontent that are now being excitedly discussed in the media. Most of the houses in the area, narrow and dingy and built cheek by jowl, were rapidly collapsing; garbage piled up in enormous pyramids along the lanes and even basic civic amenities were conspicuous by their absence.

Overburdened with a rapidly expanding population, with only two per cent of the country’s land area inhabitable (the rest being desert), vast numbers of Egyptians had flooded into Cairo in recent years. Over half a million of them had made the ancient tombs in the City of the Dead adjacent to the ‘Islamic City’ their home where they lived in miserable poverty. Only some isolated parts of Cairo, such as leafy neighbourhoods across the Nile where the country’s minuscule elite, many of them tied to the Mubarak regime, lived, were cheery.

And as for the people, not just in this part of Cairo but across Egypt, I must confess (at the risk of political incorrectness) that I found them rude, gruff and aggressive, with notable exceptions, of course. The country’s dismal economic conditions may have had something to do with that but I suspect that this was not the only factor. There were simply not enough jobs for the ever increasing number of graduates. Prices were skyrocketing although, unlike India, almost everyone I saw, including hordes of beggars who thronged outside mosques, seemed reasonably well-fed. Inequalities were rapidly mounting and the government apparently had done precious little to address the issue. It was apparent that the massive amounts of money that America was supplying Egypt to bolster the Mubarak regime – Egypt is the largest recipient of American aid after Israel – was certainly not benefiting Egypt’s poor millions. Rather, most of it was probably spent arming Mubarak’s army, to be used to quash any dissent, and to prod Egypt to stay at peace with Israel. 

Outside Cairo the situation seemed to be even grimmer. Berbers in the remote Siwa oasis near the Libyan border complained of how they were forcibly denied their cultural rights and how the state was hell-bent on Arabising them in the name of Islam although they insisted they were better Muslims than the ‘Arab’ Egyptians. The more visibly ‘African’ Nubians, denizens of largely impoverished ‘upper’ Egypt near the Sudanese frontier, too suffered neglect at the hands of the government and racial prejudice at the hands of the more Arabised and politically dominant northerners. Violent attacks on Coptic Christian churches in the area (two such incidents were reported during my stay) by suspected Islamist radicals were propelling large numbers of Copts, who long predated the Muslims in the country, to flee to Cairo or, preferably, to the West.

The rapid depletion in the ranks of the country’s religious minorities was having a devastating impact, I was told by Egyptians concerned at where their country was heading, on the country’s economy and on its long-standing progressive traditions, shrinking the liberal space and making the task of those who wanted Egypt to be ruled in strict accordance with a literalist reading of the Shariah all the more easy. 

That task was also being impressively assisted by Mubarak’s dreaded repressive rule. Government informers, I was repeatedly warned, were on the prowl everywhere. Mubarak had brutally crushed all dissent and I was told to stay clear of any political discussions with the people I met. Even mosques, often the refuge of those who have no other space in Muslim societies to vent their opposition, were tightly controlled by the government. Mosque imams had to fall in line with state diktats. To ensure their compliance, they were paid by the state and were thus for all practical purposes its agents. Their Friday sermons were prepared by the governmental authorities. Their task was simply to read them out, whether or not they personally agreed with their contents, without adding or deleting a dot. If they dared to disobey and spoke their minds, they easily risked being thrown into prison, branded as rabble-rousing ‘fundamentalists’.

A young man I met at the Al-Azhar mosque told me how he was summarily dismissed from his job at a book booth located inside the mosque simply because he had stocked some titles other than those strictly prescribed by the authorities. Islamically assertive men feared to sport beards, for, as some of them who dared to do so told me, they could easily be branded as ‘fundamentalists’ and be carted off to jail. That explained why even in Al-Azhar, which churns out would-be ulema in their thousands every year, almost every student was beardless. The vast majority of them, like their teachers (widely respected ulema), wore western clothes and not the flowing ‘Islamic’ djellaba, in many cases not through choice but rather because of fear. “Muslims have more religious freedom in your India than here in Egypt,” many an Azharite told me. It was clear that Mubarak, like many other pro-American Arab dictators, found the spectre of radical Islamists useful even as he sought to crush it, it being just the handle he needed to extract crucial western backing for his hugely unpopular regime by projecting himself as a bulwark against ‘Islamic fundamentalists’.

 It was also apparent that as people grew increasingly restive against Mubarak’s rule, which he had hoped to turn hereditary by passing the mantle to his son, Islam was assuming the form of a potent vehicle to articulate opposition to his regime. The increasing public display of ‘Islamic’ religiosity that I observed was clearly a form of defiant assertion of identity, a political statement in the face of a dictatorial regime that was seen as having bartered away Egyptian, Arab and Muslim interests to its western overlords.

The much touted ‘Islamic revival’ I witnessed in Egypt (and I suppose the same could be said of the phenomenon in much of the rest of the ‘Muslim world’) was deeply conservative and in many senses frighteningly obscurantist. Hundreds of ‘private’ mosques, defying the law that sought to place mosques under close government surveillance, had sprouted up all over the country. Satellite television had effectively demolished the state’s monopoly on Islamic discourse, with dozens of ‘Islamic’ channels, many of them peddling a deeply conservative neo-Wahhabi brand of Islam, now being beamed into almost every home. Saudi-funded publishing houses did brisk business, the Islam they advertised being profoundly supremacist and anti-western but without being politically revolutionary. The Muslim Brotherhood continued to exercise a pervasive influence through its many frontal organisations. The hijab had become so ubiquitous, donned even by women who were not particularly pious themselves, that it was said that girls and women without hijab were automatically assumed to be Christians.

 All of these were signs not, I believe, of a sudden mass burst in piety, as is sometimes alleged by poorly informed journalists, although no doubt this might have been true in some individual cases. Corruption and brutality continued undiminished in civil society, even among the more visibly ‘Islamised’ sectors of it. Becoming more visibly ‘Islamic’ did not necessarily mean becoming more socially engaged or even more purist when it came to money matters.

To cite a telling instance, in the vast market just across the street from the Al-Azhar Seminary, the ‘Islamic’ hub of Cairo, over a hundred smart shops (scattered among dozens of ‘Islamic’ bookstores) specialised in shimmering bras and skimpy belly-dance costumes, specimens of which they slung tantalisingly outside their windows and which adorned rows of buxom mannequins. Some of these shops were run by veiled women, others by bearded men with large prayer callouses on their foreheads. This blatant defiance of Islamic morality had not sufficiently stirred the ulema and students of Azhar – who, one supposes, are the backbone of the ‘Islamic’ revival across the country – to protest. It was not just fear that had forced them into silence and indifference. It was probably also that such blatant sexism did not provoke their righteous anger in quite the same way that, say, hounding ‘heretical’ writers – in which the Azharites have taken a leading role – has. 

The public face of the ‘Islamic’ revival that was directed against the Mubarak regime (implicitly in some cases, overtly in the case of underground radical Islamists who have been subjected to harsh repression), which I saw all around me, was by no means a positive one even though its target – toppling Mubarak and his cronies – may have been a laudable objective. The dominant version of Islam that informed this revival seemed to me to be harsh, fun-less and punitive and at the same time thoroughly incapable of providing a progressive alternative to Mubarak’s regime although it definitely had the potency to challenge it.

It sat in the growls, scowls and permanent frowns of the vast numbers of men propelling it. It lay in voluminous tomes and fatwas that prescribed medieval laws for dealing with contemporary problems. It was definitely anti-intellectual, as reflected in the enormous number of books I spotted in Cairene bookstores that (so I learned from an Indian student at Al-Azhar who translated their titles and tables of contents for me) spoke of Islam in terms of empty slogans, offering no sensible guidance for running the affairs of a modern society and economy deeply networked into a globalised world. It was reflected in graffiti scribbled on street walls exclaiming in triumph, ‘East or West, Islam is the best’ and ‘Islam is THE solution’. It was also incarnated in waves of bombings of churches and the growing demonisation of local Christians as alleged conspirators against Islam. 

Mubarak certainly deserved to go, about that there is no doubt, but as to whether those who will now replace him, including possibly the Islamists, will prove to be any better, I am not so sure.

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011,Year 17, No.155- Revolution



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