Essay: The election of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi has prompted a round of stories about harassment and even murder at the hands of Islamists. Copts and women are particularly worried. But the history is neither new nor as simple as it might see
AL MASRY AL YOUM/Worldcrunch
CAIRO - Various news outlets circulated a story on July 2 about the killing of a young man from Suez, allegedly at the hands of bearded men who stabbed him "for walking with his fiancee." This story comes after a series of similar news stories about bearded men attacking hairdressers and harassing unveiled women in the streets, as well as other reports about the prevention of some Copts from praying.
Such stories have proliferated on the Internet in concomitance with the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. These stories reflect justifiable fears that Salafi-oriented Islamists might be exploiting the arrival of the first Islamist president to spread their influence on society and exercise different forms of assault and intimidation.
It might be impossible to tell which of these stories are true and which are rumors fueled by mounting fears of Islamic extremism among middle-class urban dwellers and lower classes. It may be said, though, that Morsi's victory in the election has emboldened some Islamists, who now believe that "the country is theirs," to harass people.
Addressing these incidents or rumors as if they are entirely disconnected from what has been happening in several parts of the country for years — when Islamists were not in power — is misleading, to say the least. Egyptians were exposed to all sorts of harassment and violations of their freedoms during former President Hosni Mubarak's reign.
Sectarian harassment is a daily concern that millions of Copts across Egypt have long had to cope with, as Egypt's police state sponsored diverse types of harassment and sectarian violence in several popular neighborhoods and in rural areas. State security was quite aware of the sectarian sermons propagated by some Salafi sheikhs and perhaps even supported them. After all, despotic regimes feed on the abuse and intimidation of weaker social groups, and thrive on people's fears.
In fact, the state did not spring to the defense of women and Copts throughout Egypt, nor did security bodies take a firm stance against Islamists' harassment of students at Egyptian universities. Confrontations with Islamist groups only began after those groups went beyond their unthreatening practices of social regulation to outright defiance of the ruling power.
My purpose here is not to defend Islamists or to absolve them of responsibility, for they are responsible for practices of sectarian incitement and for feeding the conservative, fascist mood of the public. Equally important, though, is the understanding that Islamists are a social and political product that express reactionary and conservative inclinations within Egyptian society.
The problem is that Islamists embrace conservative values and despotic cultural and social structures; hence, they play a crucial role in besieging society and aborting any possibility for its liberation. That is why Islamists have never contested the nature of the prevailing socio-political authoritarianism, but have sought compromise with the police state, which might explain their ability to survive and grow over the many years of despotism. In fact, the years of stagnation and the state's obstruction of social mobility have created a fertile environment conducive to the Islamization of society, and perhaps also the state, and paved the way for a strong rise for Islamists.
But the question remains: Will the Islamists' rise to power cause that fascist mood in society to grow? The answer lies in the extent to which they are ready to make concessions on ideological and political levels. The pressure heaped on them by opposing political and social powers forces them to make ideological sacrifices, and the Brotherhood in particular is ready to make substantial concessions to gain more power.
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