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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  • cirlura

    Hotep to the highly admired ancient culture ,that influence the world, hey tis Africa Egypt n people roots are ,so free on great people start where u got interrupted with an foreign culture belief.

  • Thanks to the 30 of June revolution , Egyptians who have a 5000 years civilization behind them took the streets to say NO to the religious extreemist sect called the Muslim Brothers and this NO meant that terrorists will not rule Egypt even if USA and Europe have organized this conspiracy , and have befriended with Muslim Brothers. Thanks to Al Sisi who has responded to the Egyptians call .

    • Commander_Chico

      Enjoy your next 30 years of dictatorship and cronyism.

  • elnaser

    to complete the misshaped picture drawn here : Religion is criticized openly by Sisi’s Media who are broadcasting talkshows every couple of days questioning the foundations of Islamic teachings in a hatred-filled tone for the first time in the history of this country (who was once considered to be a core Muslim country) and in direct contradiction with the state-owned clerics of Azhar… Officials in schools burn books attributed to their “bad” version of Islam following Sisi’s own “advice” to change the fundamentals, every mosque in the country is given each Friday a prescribed theme to talk about in the prayers, anyone daring to critisize military and police force used against innocents openly in streets and/or jails is called MB follower in printed newspapers, and so on and so forth. To call this deliberate act of violence of the state against Islamic teachings and symbols a “popular” revolution compared to the 25th of January one is at least … an absurd statement !

    • 123xxy

      Yes keep calling the old and “absurd statements” such as blaming everything on one person instead of opening your eyes to realities. Instead you should blame those people who taught the children – in the name of Islam – that non muslim are infidels you should not befriend not even salute, that you are allowed to kill in the name of Islam… and so on. Are these the proper Islamic teachings? If your answer is NO, then you should accept that Sisi’s call is right because unfortunately this is how many young people today think (look at the thousands who have joined ISIS!) deforming & distorting the real Islam. This is what Sisi cares about (he is a real muslim). But if your answer is YES and you believe that these are the fundamentals of the religion, then the leaders of Islam everywhere should stop proclaiming Islam as a religion of peace and declare to the world that they agree with yours, MB’s and ISIS interpretation.

  • AzzaSedky

    If it weren’t for President Sisi, whom you discredited openly here, this revolution may not be happening today. See “Is religious reform possible?” Well, if Sisi calls for it, it will happen.


    • AgnosticEgyptian

      Sisi talks about religious reform yet his government jails gays and atheists and he allows Al Azhar to “destroy” the Baha’i’ and the Shi’a. He doesn’t seem to understand that Islam itself is the issue. Reinterpreting a thousand year old book is pointless anyway. Better to get rid of it and just accept secular ideals instead.

      • Aya Sallam

        you know , lets just go a long with what you say , that its a”thousand year old book” , but what you don’t know, is that “thousand year old book” has proofs of whats happening today, it has signs of the future , im quite open minded and i was not spoon fed the choice of my religion , explain to me how a book made a thousand years ago knows about everything that’s happening today, explain to me how the Prophet (saw) knew that good deeds will decrease in the future,or people will become miserly,or that will be much killing and murder and that honesty will be lost or how people will start competing with others in the construction of taller buildings like burj khalifa, or the clock building in makkah, I swear to God im not making up stuff, these signs have been there for a thousand years now, our book has been reserved for a thousand years to be the living proof that its the right religion, please don’t judge my religion with some ignorant people who mix their own beliefs in it. Im asking for respect to other religions in general , something a person who calls himself human should have.

        • George Michael

          what proofs and what signs, recite one prophecy in the quran that materialized so far. NON.
          I read it in Arabic and in English, it is full of contradictions and falshoods

          • Aya Sallam

            the ones that materialized so far, are the one our prophet mentioned(saw) and these are the ones i mentioned up, the ones that are mentioned in the quran are called major signs that occur after the minor signs the prophet(saw) mentioned, and some can be found in surat al qiyammah , here let me give you an example, since i figured u cant practically understand what you read.

            When the moon turns murky and dark and gets eclipsed.
            وَخَسَفَ الْقَمَرُ
            When the sun and the moon combine together
            وَجُمِعَ الشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ
            that’s another, and no im not making stuff up, and yes all the signs the prophet (saw) mentioned IS occurring. so if your telling me to not believe in Quran because the signs did not occur yet, then dear, the minor signs are already happening, and later on the major ones are gonna happen, and if both you and I live to the day where any of the major signs occur like when al maseeh aldajal comes (anti-Christ) we can talk then 🙂

          • George Michael

            I am sorry to be the one who tell you the bitter truth, because I know it will make you sad.
            All what you mentioned are predictions not prophecies and it is all taken our of he bible to the letter, someone “stole the bible predictions and put it in the Koran.
            If you want to know what prophecies are, you need to read the bible.
            it is very specific “not vague” and not “general”
            it should make specific references to geographical location, make reference to the name of the country and to the time frame, etc.
            Even the “predictions” that you mentioned existed during the days of Mohamed, he was describing morals and habits that were in existence in his days, how is that prophecies.
            As for the one that will take place at the end of the days, as I mentioned to you before they were taken and modified from the Bible. Please read the bible specially the last book of the bible called revelation.

        • Jesus

          Sorry Aya, but i consider myself as human be and I´m not following any religion. Am I or Im’ not normal? Furthermore, only the religion -my agnostic condition- just bring me problems over here. Should I a great person if i believe, if someone say to me i must do or I’m good one in any of the above?

          • Aya Sallam

            following your own choice of believing or not believing in God is entirely up to you, and i have no say in it, but that does not mean you go and make fun of other religions , that’s the basic rules for any human that wants equality for everyone , i still deeply respect you, even though you are not following my religion, im not telling you to believe in it, im telling you to respect my religion the same way im respecting your decision of not believing in anything. the part where you said you should throw the Quran away was not necessary and very offensive . but you know im with you that some people from my religion as well are very narrow minded and need considerable help in learning what our religion really means. i apologies if my words came as offense to you, but all i really want is respect and equality. thank you.

      • George Michael

        give Sisi a chance, changes as big as this transformation don’t happen overnight

        • 123xxy

          It is unbelievable how some people don’t realise that this change is NOT first priority now for Egypt until it can stands on its feet, and how long does it take for big changes to happen. Why do we need to remind people that these changes in the West took over 200 years?!

    • 123xxy

      Agree. Some people like this writer are very short sighted

  • Leyland Cecco

    Shouldn’t you credit the photographer in the cutline?


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