Egypt’s Silent Revolution Challenging Religious Taboos

Egypt’s Silent Revolution Challenging Religious Taboos

Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

By Koert Debeuf and Ayman Abdelmeguid 

Four years after Egyptians succeeded in ousting long time dictator Hosni Mubarak, many people, especially in Europe, seem to have lost hope in possible progress in Egypt and the entire Arab world. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the military, and parts of the Mubarak regime are back in power with a vengeance. Many of the leaders of the protests in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising are now in jail and with them, the idea of political freedom and democracy.

But what is happening now in Egypt is much deeper than a so-called Arab spring or winter. Hidden from the public eye is a silent revolution, shaking the foundations of Egypt’s society.

For the first time in fifty years, women have started to take off their veils. Every Egyptian knows at least one woman in his/her family or circle of friends that committed this small, but significant act of revolt. This is not the only ‘secular’ act becoming popular among Egyptians. In private, more and more Egyptians talk about taboos like atheism or even sexual identity.

This silent revolution seems to contradict the daily news we get from the Arab world. Today all eyes are focused on the Islamic State. After the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda, the world is shocked to see an even more extreme and barbaric version of Islamist rule carry out a reign of terror.

However, the question is, are more people becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme? No doubt, some Egyptians have become more extreme after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi. A few hundred new recruits reportedly also joined the Islamic State.

Nevertheless, much more important is what is happening to Egypt’s silent majority. Here, the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear: fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car, more women are taking off their veils, and the young revolutionary generation are also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism.

As there are no reliable surveys on these trends and the reasons behind them, we can for the time being, fall back on personal stories that might be representative of what is unfolding in Egypt.

One such story is about a conservative family in the city of Port Said. Two sisters in their thirties, Marwa (36) and Heba (31), discovered just after the fall of President Morsi that the books with which they grew up reading are books printed and distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Shocked to learn this, they began to rethink all the ideas they had formed and questioned the very basis of their religion. “Only after Morsi fell, I discovered that Hassan Al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood,) wrote the foreword of the book Living along the Sunni Lines. I grew up with this book. Now I begin to doubt about everything,” Marwa said. Their veils started to become ‘trendy,’ then to disappear.

This is not the only story. Ahmed, a 34 year old homosexual, came out in 2011. He struggled a lot with his family and their acceptance. At one point Ahmed even tried to gain sexual asylum, but being the fighter he is and believing in freedom, he stayed in Egypt and ended up becoming a very famous artist. Eventually his family accepted him and embraced his lifestyle.

The Egyptian regime doesn’t like this trend. The government and its supporters see themselves as the guardians of the society they know and do everything they can to halt this transformation.

In Alexandria, a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists. On the 10 January, Karim Al-Banna, a 21-year old student was sentenced three years in prison for writing on Facebook that he was an atheist.

In December of last year, the police arrested 26 men in a bathhouse for debauchery, after being tipped by a prominent television anchor. They were only acquitted after an anal examination proved the men were not involved in homosexual activities. In the same month, the police closed a bar in downtown Cairo because “it had been housing groups of atheists.”

These stories of crackdown as well as the stories of Marwa, Heba and Ahmed are just a few of many. They demonstrate what is happening on the ground in Egypt and perhaps even the Arab world. It is a battle between a conservative establishment and a young revolutionary generation.

While the establishment is using the old tools of dictatorship, the youth is using the hardly controllable new communication tools such as social media and closed groups to discuss their identity. It is a battle between a society that is used to telling people who they should be and a generation that wants to be who they are.

To make things clear, it is not wearing the veil that makes one conservative nor is having no veil that make one progressive. It is the act of change and rebellion that makes the difference. In Europe putting a veil on is rebellious, while in Egypt where the veil is rather the standard, the act of rebellion is taking it off.

The 2011 revolution in Egypt might have failed on many levels. However, it succeeded in convincing a young generation that they can be free if they really want to – at least in their minds, and the personal decisions they make.

This generation of people younger than 25 is not a small group. It consists of 50% of Egypt’s population. This revolution is a silent one, so far, but it will lead to a deeper transformation than anyone might expect.

This article was edited and was originally published on Eutopia.

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