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Revival of Islamic leadership may not solve Egypt's woes

February 12, 2011 22:17 IST

The dominant version of Islam that informed Egypt's revival seemed to be harsh, fun-less and punitive, and, at the same time, thoroughly incapable of providing a progressive alternative to Hosni Mubarak's regime, says Yoginder Sikand

Signs of 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.

Cairo, home to almost half of Egypt's population, was, I discovered to my dismay (considering what all I had read about it) a rapidly decaying city. I chose to stay in a dirt-cheap lodge frequented by travelling Egyptian door-to-door salesmen, which was located in the heart of the Old City, also called 'Islamic Cairo'.

Densely populated 'Islamic Cairo' consists of a maze of lanes that envelops a dazzling number of ancient Islamic monuments -- mosques, madrasas, tombs and Sufi lodges -- some of which date back to 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, bore, as I saw it then, all the tell-tale 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 ancient tombs in the 'City of the Dead' adjacent to the 'Islamic City' their homes, where they lived in miserable poverty. Only some isolated parts of Cairo, such as leafy neighbourhoods across the Nile, where the country's miniscule elite, many of them tied to the Mubarak regime, lived, were cheery.

Almost every Egyptian I spoke to complained that there were simply not enough jobs for the ever-increasing number of graduates. 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 benefitting the country'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 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, also 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.

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

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 government 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. 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 carted off to jail.

That explained why even in Al-Azhar, which churns out thousands of would-be ulema  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' galabeya, in many cases not because of choice, but 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 more restive against Mubarak's rule, which he had hoped would turn hereditary by passing his 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. 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 traditional 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. 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 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, of that there was 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.

Yoginder Sikand