Egypt: Policing Vice and Virtue

Egyptian guards try to close the gate of presidential palace to the people willing to give their demands personally to President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on 8 July 2012. (Photo: AFP – Khaled Desouki)
Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Cairo – It seems that the recent murder of university student Ahmad Hussein Eid by “bearded men” in Suez City in eastern Egypt is merely the tip of the iceberg.
After dispatching a fact-finding mission to the city, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated in a report that the site of the killing – a park for Suez’s residents – has frequently been a place for harassment of couples.

It said that “several individuals have repeatedly stopped men and women together, questioning them about the nature of their relationship and reprimanding them for what they deem as a violation of Islamic law (sharia) and morals. This caused several scuffles and fights.”

The probe into the killing of Eid – which resulted from an altercation with an “advice and guidance” squad – did not uncover an actual “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” organization. But the three involved suspects confessed that they roam the streets to “guide citizens toward Islamic virtues.”

Political Islamist forces denounced the so-called “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Commission,” which claimed responsibility for the Suez murder in an anonymous statement posted on Facebook.

But the incident quickly recalled a series of post-revolution events claimed by Islamist and Salafi extremists, linking them with the political rise of Islamist forces and the presidential victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Mohammed Mursi.
At first, these incidents drew Egyptians’ ridicule of Salafis: al-Nour (Salafi) Party members covered statues of nude mermaids in Alexandria; Salafi Hazem Shoman tried to prevent singer Hisham Abbas from performing at a student concert in al-Mansoura (northern Egypt); and destroying shrines of revered religious figures.

There were also violent incidents that could not be ridiculed, such as Islamist extremists cutting off the ear of a Coptic man in Qena (southern Egypt) last year after rumors spread that he was involved in a relationship with a Muslim girl.

“Bearded men” also recently killed two musical band members in the northern al-Sharqiya province before fleeing.

Former Culture Minister Imad Abu-Ghazi tells Al-Akhbar that these incidents are not new, as many would believe.

“There were a series of incidents in the 1970s and 1980s, like forcibly preventing a musical band from performing at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine,” he says.

Abu-Ghazi notes that in his memoirs, Abdul-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, former presidential candidate and MB defector, admitted his involvement as a medical student in that incident.

The former minister says that there were also incidents of extremist groups attacking young men and women in Helwan Gardens (west of Cairo) and preventing them from celebrating Sham al-Nessim, an ancient Egyptian spring festival.

Abu-Ghazi suggests that something in the nature of Egyptians may have changed during those years: “Maybe they stopped condemning interference in their personal liberties and the freedoms of others, no longer giving importance to respecting public freedoms.”

Perhaps that is what transpired from the interrogations of the three suspects in the Suez murder, as they did not seem to be directly affiliated to any political Islamist group.

But they could very well be among those affected by the culture hardline Islamist organizations had gradually spread over the years, even after they renounced violence.

Mustafa al-Ghoneimi, a member of the MB’s guidance bureau, says that his group does not see benefit in any party assuming the responsibility for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.
“This does not suit the tendencies and orientations of the Egyptian people, or even human nature that refuses others to interfere in people’s behavior, even if they don’t entail violence (contrary to what happened in Suez),” says Ghoneimi.

He adds that the MB believes that the “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice must be conducted by media and educational institutions, for example, and the people are free to choose.”
Ghoneimi says that if a person “does not monitor himself out of fear from God, there is no point in trying to force him into acts of obedience and worship.”

Meanwhile, Yasser al-Borhami, a prominent Salafi preacher, contradicts himself on the issue. He is quoted as saying in Al-Ahram Online that the so-called “Promotion of Virtue Commission” is a group seeking to harm Islamist currents.

But in a book he authored, titled Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Borhami writes: “Promotion of virtue and prevention of vice in our current conditions is needed for everyone, by word in many cases, and with the hand sometimes.”

Lawyer Noura al-Farra filed a lawsuit against the interior ministry and attorney general, demanding they prosecute the creators of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Commission’s Facebook page, which was set up by unidentified people last January.

Farra says that she filed a complaint to the internet regulation authority against the creators of the page and demanded that they be investigated. But the complaint was shelved due to lack of evidence against them.

She interpreted the decision as part of police laxity and failure to acknowledge the seriousness of the matter.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reached the same conclusion in its report on the incident, condemning what it called “police negligence in intervening and protecting citizens from such attempts.”

Farra explains that the Egyptian Penal Code allows self-defense from attacks on a person’s honor, possessions, or person, even if it leads to the killing of the attacker.

“We fear an outbreak of violence if the page’s creators make good on their threats to use electric taser batons against those they view as breaching the teachings of Islam.”

In January, the commission’s page threatened to use these batons “in response to what happened to the young men in al-Qalyoubia.”

It was in reference to some of its members who were severely beaten up by women in a hair salon in the city of Benha in al-Qalyoubia (north of Cairo) after these men tried to shut it down by force.
The women fighting back in Benha may have been an example of what Abu-Ghazi said regarding “hope that many Egyptian segments will continue to resist; otherwise, the young man in Suez would not have been killed. He strongly resisted attempts of interference in his personal liberty and that’s why they killed him.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!

About uprootedpalestinians

A displaced Palestinian
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