Egypt’s Islamist revival most evident at the grass roots

Fredrik Persson/AP - Followers of Egyptian Muslim cleric and former candidate for the Egyptian presidency Hazem Abu Ismail protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt.

FA’OOS, Egypt — Hamdi Gamal was interrogated by a district prosecutor last week about whether he believes in God. His girlfriend’s family had insisted that the pair be charged with promoting atheism after they were seen strolling together in public — a humiliation, as far as the family was concerned, in their increasingly conservative town.

Atheism is not technically a crime in Egypt, but that may not stop Gamal and his girlfriend from being tried for it.

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Twenty months after a popular uprising brought an end to the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt still lacks an independent, impartial and clearly codified judicial system.

In the void of justice and security on Egypt’s streets, the directives of law enforcement that once flowed from the top down now increasingly flow the other way as a population empowered by the strength of revolution has sought to define a new society — with or without the central government’s support.

Entangled in that grass-roots pursuit of justice is a rising religiosity that has taken Egypt by storm since Mubarak’s fall. Islamists dominate the assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

But it is outside the halls of government — in the streets, mosques, schools and courts — where Egypt’s Islamist revival is redefining the rights and responsibilities of ordinary citizens.

Blasphemy cases have jumped from one or two per year under Mubarak to at least 18 in the past year and a half, said Amr Gharbeia, the director of civil liberties at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based non-governmental organization.

Egypt’s penal code is vague on the issue of blasphemy, criminalizing only the use of extreme religious ideas “to incite strife.” But court cases that invoke the law increasingly derive less from obvious breaches than from popular “encouragement” by neighbors, relatives and crowds who feel emboldened by Egypt’s Islamic revival and the people power of revolution, Gharbeia said.

“We have also seen large groups of people gathering outside courthouses exerting huge pressure on the lawyers, defendants, and even on the judges themselves,” he said. In one instance, his organization’s lawyers were chased from a trial because the local community already had its own verdict in mind.

For Gamal, a self-described moderate Muslim, the impact of his town’s growing conservatism has been sobering. His girlfriend, Basma, had recently stopped wearing her head scarf, and the two had taken to strolling in public together, infuriating her family as neighbors taunted her for being a “whore.”

“Politically, Islam has always been around,” Gamal said. “But these days, the Islamists are trying to promote themselves. They’re picking fights with everyone, and they’re trying to dominate society.”

Basma’s relatives first tried to beat her into submission, Gamal said. Then they goaded the prosecutor as he interrogated the two about their religious beliefs.

“Instead of standing in front of an organized judiciary, I found myself back in the Middle Ages,” he said. After five hours, the two were released on bail, but Gamal, 17, said he has not seen or heard from Basma since. Gamal, who asked that Basma’s last name not be used, said he fears for her safety.

A week after Gamal and Basma were arrested in the Nile Delta town of Fa’oos, the prosecutor who interrogated them still seemed unsure of whether the two had broken the law, or even what law that would be. The case was still under investigation.

Basma’s relatives could not be reached for comment.

A draft of Egypt’s new constitution, which will replace the 1971 version used under Mubarak, was released last week. The 1971 constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state and that the principles of Islamic law are the primary source of legislation. Most experts say that little is likely to change when it comes to how religion figures into the new constitution.

But experts say the implementation will be critical to watch.

The Muslim Brotherhood leads the Islamist majority on the drafting committee, and Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University, said the group will focus on how it can use the levers of power to ensure that legal interpretations reflect its ideals. The Brotherhood’s approach, he said, is: “We don’t need to write Islam into this. What we need is access to the levers. This constitution will operate differently because we’ll be in some kind of position of authority.”

For the Salafists, a politically influential group that is even more doctrinaire in its approach to religion, the call for change has focused heavily on the grass-roots level.

“Islam changes the system from up to down and down to up,” said Islam Ahmed, whose father is one of Egypt’s most prominent and outspoken Salafist preachers.

Ahmed and his father are standing trial for allegedly violating Egypt’s blasphemy law after the pair burned a Bible at a protest — a rare example of a case that involves blasphemy toward a religion other than Islam.

But Ahmed was confident that society — and thus the court — would rule in his favor.

“The people want Islam, and they want it seriously,” he said.

Just recently, he said, his neighbors begged him to enforce Islamic law by severing the hand of a local thief. He turned the thief over to the police instead, but he said the societal change they were calling for is inevitable.

Policemen have begun to grow beards, and soldiers are now allowed to pray during their training, he said. He dismissed Egypt’s new constitution as inconsequential.

“We tried democracy. We tried terrorism. We tried everything,” he said. “Nothing will stop the people from putting Islam” into practice.

Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

 
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