Saturday, February 25, 2006

Egypt donning the veil

By Akiva Eldar

CAIRO - Seven or eight women were crammed into the little clothing stall in Khan al-Khalili, Cairo's huge market. Some wore traditional galabias and modest veils, while others merely covered their heads with colorful scarves. The salesman, a bored young man in jeans and a T-shirt, kept his eyes on the hands of the women, which burrowed through the piles of daring nightgowns, sexy panties and see-through bras. That same night, the heads of the women who arrived in shiny Mercedes at a wedding held at the Hilton Hotel on the banks of the Nile, were also thoroughly covered. But their faces were caked in generous layers of makeup, they wore long-sleeve dresses that were the epitome of curve-emphasizing elegance, and they sported glittering stiletto heels on their feet.

Egypt may produce wine, and billboards at road intersections may advertise the local Stella beer, but every year increasingly more restaurants that serve alcohol are closed for Ramadan. In his best-selling book "The Yacoubian Building" (on which a soon-to-be released film has been made), Ala al-Aswani exposes the Egypt under the veil. He describes prudish women by day who are sexually depraved by night, and men who emerge from prayers at the mosque and head to the neighborhood bar to get drunk.

Ayelet Yehiav, who is responsible for the Egypt desk of the diplomatic research branch of Israel's Foreign Ministry, relates that an Egyptian friend told her he could hardly believe that this kind of book was published in his country, mainly because the lifestyles it describes are far from being a figment of the author's wild imagination. The last time she went to a cinema in Cairo, in an auditorium that seated about 400 people, she could spot no more than two bare-headed women, while half-naked women were prancing across the screen.

Six years ago, Prof. Bernard Lewis wrote that women are the most significant of the three factors that can help advance the Middle East (the other two were the countries of Turkey and Israel). The noted Middle East scholar expressed his belief that Muslim countries will never reach the level of the "progressive world" as long as they continue to thwart the self-fulfillment of a group that comprises one-half of the population. He predicted that women would be the most powerful factor working for social and political freedoms in the region. Lewis did not imagine that change could also happen in a completely opposite way. For instance, intelligence analysts have made much of the recent disclosure that the wife of Egyptian defense minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, one of the most powerful men in Egypt, does not leave the house without a veil concealing her face.

Religion is slowly seeping into every avenue of Egyptian society. It does not escape the highest echelons of the political, military and diplomatic establishments. The Muslim movement is making strides, in its own way: cunningly, pleasantly, patiently. In Egypt, the Islamic cartoon affair passed with barely any rioting. Anyone strolling among the embassies in the Cairo neighborhoods of Maadi and Zamalek could understand how the Danish diplomats were able to remain in Cairo even at the height of the furor. Even on an ordinary weekday, scores of armed gendarmes are patrolling the area. Nevertheless, Egypt played a more fundamental role in the affair - even if not in the streets and squares. It was the Egyptian ambassador in Copenhagen who filed the first official protest with the Danish foreign ministry, and provoked the other Arab ambassadors to follow her example. In the past few days, the Danes have begun to point an accusatory finger in the direction of Cairo.

State of Islamic law

Yehiav has been tracking the social and political fluctuations in Egypt for many years, and reports on her impressions to the senior professional ranks of the ministry, and from there to the decision-makers. Had they read her reports, they might have learned a thing or two about the modus vivendi of Hamas, the little sister of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement, which was founded in 1928. Perhaps they would understand that notwithstanding the disadvantages, the secular alternative - Fatah - is inordinately better for the Jews.

A few days before the elections in the territories, Yehiav wrote an article that was published in the journal of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Despite the differences in the electoral system, the nature of the movements and the way they have chosen to conduct themselves, Hamas (like other Islamic groups) draws encouragement from the success of the Brotherhood in Egypt as it heads into the election for the [Palestinian] legislative council," she wrote.

Yehiav explains that there is no difference between the ultimate objective of the two movements, or even between their tactical means of achieving it. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas aspires to create an Islamic state in Palestine. Neither of the two movements is in a rush, and they are both prepared to make compromises. One offers Israel a years-long hudna (cease-fire); the other has found a way to circumvent the law preventing religious parties from running in elections. In the territories, as in Egypt and other Arab states, the Islamic movements do not appeal only to the downtrodden and the hungry (in Egypt there are 10 million people suffering the disgrace of hunger), but to all sectors of the nation.

Yehiav says that the purge of the secular opposition, through the good offices of Hosni Mubarak, made the Muslim Brotherhood the sole alternative to Mubarak's regime. They are attracting academics, members of the free professions and journalists - the middle class that in the West furnishes the foundations for building a democracy. "I doubt whether anyone who cast a ballot for the 'independent' candidates that ran on the Muslim Brotherhood ticket is crying out for the vengeance of a state of Islamic law," wrote Yehiav. "Most people's votes were prompted by their opposition to the regime and the National Democratic Party."

Sound familiar? She also notes that the recent elections to the People's Assembly, held in late 2005, were prefaced by long months of preparations in which the Brotherhood capitalized on the fact that the public is fed up with Mubarak's regime. Here, too, in order not to deter the voters, the Islamists took pains to obscure their true vision - Egypt's transformation into a state of Islamic law.

After the regime opted not to allow political expression to members of the educated and well-heeled classes, the latter looked around and found the Brotherhood. Traces of the phenomenon may be found in the words of L., a college graduate who easily moves from English to Spanish to German. I asked him if he had tried his luck at the Egyptian foreign ministry. He chuckled. "What are you talking about? I don't belong to the right class." L. may not have joined the Brotherhood, but many of his friends did.

Yehiav finds signs of a new social-political phenomenon among some adherents of the Brotherhood, whom she calls Islamic Calvinists, or Egypt-style New Agers. She is referring to high-ranking businessmen and executives, including more than a few women, who do not have an Islamic education but are drawn to charismatic preachers, contribute to the construction of new mosques and are in the practice of inviting the indigent to their homes for dinner during Ramadan.

At present, these groups are opening their pocketbooks for a fundraising drive for Hamas. Yehiav explains that this is also a way to clear the collective conscience of Egypt, the only Arab state in the region that does not have refugee camps - on the condition that the Palestinians do not cause too much trouble for Egypt, or undermine its stability. Egypt fears that the political center of gravity will shift from the West Bank to Gaza. Mubarak realized that the tunnels running under the border are not one-way, and that given the lethal vision of Al-Qaida's proxies (Islamic Jihad, according to the Egyptians), these tunnels may very well run in both directions.

"Egypt doesn't like those who rock the boat," says Yehiav. "The Hamas victory has breathed new life into the wing of the Brotherhood that is striving to increase its political involvement, and that concerns the regime. They have good reason for concern. The juxtaposition of political repression, economic desperation and the feeling that there is no way out, turn Islam into highly explosive material."

Yearning for a monarchy

Mubarak has grown adept in using the strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood to repulse American pressure on him to step up democratization. He prefers a limited and controlled Islamic Movement to political liberalization that would allow the formation of a non-Islamic opposition. This would be harder to curb through constitutional manipulation, arrests and threats.

The ruler looks down from above at his subjects in the city streets and plazas. He has ruled Egypt for 24 years, the longest period anyone has been in power since Mohammed Ali. Sixty-five percent of Egyptians have never known any other ruler. The state of the 78-year-old leader's health has been a matter of concern of late to his domestic political partners and to foreign supporters of a secular Egypt, mainly the United States. According to recent reports, Mubarak has been suffering from inner ear problems that have caused a lack of balance. Ailing knees have forced him to give up playing squash. He has ruled this large and important country for a quarter- century, but has left no legacy.

L. says his father, who remembered the pre-revolution period well, spoke with yearning for the era of monarchy until his dying day. "True, they built themselves palaces and reveled with women," he explains, "but at least they shared a little of the wealth with the poor people."

So as to prevent any shock to the system, the Egyptian constitution was tailored to the measurements of the heir-apparent, Jamal Mubarak, who is 42. As opposed to his father, who came from a village and to some extent understands the mind-set of the poor Egyptian masses, Jamal has spent his entire adult life in palaces (he was nine years old when his father became vice president).

Will Egypt follow the same path as Jordan and Syria? Will the Islamic opposition accept the coronation of the designated heir - a post-modern interpretation of democracy?

"For the Islamic groups, democracy is nothing more than a channel for establishing themselves within the ruling administration, so that they will be able to annul it when they feel sure of their hold," states the Foreign Ministry's Yehiav.

Similar sentiments expressed by other experts have fallen on the deaf ears of President George W. Bush, the father of the vision of Middle East democratization. What can be done now to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from riding the wave of democracy? One possibility raised by senior Egyptian political columnist Fahmi Howeidi is that the regime will respond to the deeply rooted problems to which the Brotherhood is offering answers: the lack of social-welfare and health services, the corrupt bureaucracy that lacks transparence, and the unfair division of the government pie.

Yehiav believes it is more likely that the regime will "let the Muslim Brotherhood be burned in the blazing sun of political involvement." Given the cracks in the ranks of the movement since it won 88 seats in the People's Assembly, some people in the Egyptian regime are suggesting that the administration wait patiently until these cracks turn into out-and-out rifts - and until that happens, keep them on a low flame. Of course, this option does not exist when democracy has already allowed the little sister of the Brotherhood to turn Palestine into a state of Islamic law.


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