CAIRO — An engineering student is killed for walking with his fiancee by men reportedly linked to a group called the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Women are harassed for not wearing veils, owners of liquor stores say they’re being threatened, and fundamentalists are calling for sex segregation on buses and in workplaces.
Egypt’s recent election of an Islamist president has rekindled a long-suppressed display of public piousness that has aroused both “moral vigilantism” and personal acts of faith, such as demands that police officers and flight attendants be allowed to grow beards. Scattered incidents of violence and intimidation do not appear to have been organized, but they represent a disturbing trend in Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Emerging from decades of secular rule, the country is unsteadily calibrating how deeply Islam should infuse public and private life. President Mohamed Morsi, a religious conservative, has called for tolerance, but many Islamic fundamentalists see a historic moment to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on a country left off balance by political unrest and economic turmoil.
Rising religious fervor is the latest echo in the battle between moderate and ultraconservative Islamists to reshape society after the overthrow of autocrats across the Middle East and North Africa. It is particularly pointed in Egypt, where Morsi must appease a powerful, secular military and dominant Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi parties.
The battle lines have unnerved women’s rights groups and Coptic Christians, who, fearing radicalism, have protested in front of the presidential palace. The most extreme case was the recent arrest of three men charged in the killing of the engineering student in the port city of Suez.
Egyptian news reports have described the suspects as fundamentalists angered by the couple’s display of affection. The men reportedly were part of a Facebook group called the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a name similar to that of the morality police in Saudi Arabia. Morsi’s office suggested that the attack was the work of remnants of the secular old regime out to taint his presidency.
Much of the problem stems from a lack of protection from security forces that have been in disarray for 17 months, leaving a vacuum that ultraconservatives have filled. Salafi leaders insist that they have no desire to see the country tilt toward radicalism. But with no central Islamic authority, a wide array of religious voices has found resonance in mosques, television studios and on the Internet.
“The Salafi movement has a fear of extremists,” said Sheik Mustafa Albadry, an ultraconservative preacher on the outskirts of Cairo. “Scholars need to be aware of this rising current. The oppression of the old regime created radicalism because the youth didn’t have proper guidance. And today’s financial problems are making people more prone to extremism.”
Mubarak persecuted and manipulated Islamist groups for decades, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. His secular police state led to anger that inspired terrorist attacks and provoked preachers and scholars who are now restive and unbound. Some former militants have renounced violence and formed political parties.
This new atmosphere has elevated piety — and public expressions of it — to an important social barometer. Egyptian men have been distinguished by the callused brown spots on their foreheads that come from years of prostrating themselves. Police officers and Egypt Air flight attendants are now demanding the right to grow beards, which was forbidden under Mubarak.
But the crucial battle is over how deeply sharia will influence the new constitution.
This has led to intense debate between Salafis and moderate thinkers, such as scholars at Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university. Salafis demand a constitution that mirrors the Koran and its harsh punishments, including amputating the hands of thieves. Moderates call for a document based on the “principles” of sharia, which would be less strict and offer broader civil liberties to women as well as Christians and other non-Muslims.
The Salafis “believe that the ruler’s responsibility is to implement Islam, but they demand impractical and radical ideas that he cannot fulfill,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamists at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He said that Morsi “cannot apply a religious state like in Saudi Arabia. It is not in accordance with Egypt’s international agreements or its culture. So these radicals will rise to the occasion.”
The struggle between ultraconservative and moderate Islamists has reverberated through generations. It is as critical a balancing test for Morsi as his battle to pressure the Egyptian military to relinquish control over the nation. Morsi courted Salafis during his campaign and is now confronted with their agenda and insistence that he not appoint a woman or a Christian as a vice president.
“President Morsi cannot hide from these issues,” said Mahmoud Ashour, former deputy for Al Azhar and a member of the Islamic Research Center.
Ultraconservatives traditionally viewed politics as a distraction from God. But after Mubarak’s fall, they realized they could advance their religious mandate through elections; Salafis won about 25% of the seats in January’s parliamentary poll. But with that came mixed signals on religion and embarrassing foibles inherent in political life, such as the ultraconservative lawmaker found in an uncompromising situation with a woman who was not his wife.
“People have gotten angry with religion, and this is dangerous. It has put the Salafi movement in a predicament,” said Albadry, who sat in a white tunic and skullcap in his office off a prayer room filled with amber light. “Lies and games are not what political Islam intends.”
But the country’s political unrest and economic uncertainty are also drawing more young men to mosques. About 29% of Egypt’s population is between 15 and 29, and many of the younger people, as they did under Mubarak, feel little sense of hope in a shrinking job market. Albadry said they are frustrated and searching.
“Their rising fear is that they worry about going against God. They’re more willing to go to mosques and seek advice from religious scholars,” he said. “But a lot of religious scholars are not necessarily angels and they have not always interpreted wisely.”
Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.