Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 December 2002
Issue No. 615
Egypt
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Islamists point parliamentary guns

Islamist MPs are readying for a renewed offensive on the government for alleged impiety. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

The Group of 17, a bloc of 17 Islamist MPs acting under the umbrella of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, are planning to flex their muscles in the current session of parliament.

During parliament's last two sessions, Islamist MPs attacked the ministers of education and culture for allegedly distorting Islamic morals and social values. They also tried to discredit Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, by charging him with a deliberate degradation of Islamic curricula, as well as the erosion of the independence of Al-Azhar -- the highest religious authority for Sunni Muslims.

Yet more interpellations (questions that must be answered) are being cooked up by Brotherhood MPs for this session. Topping the list of targets again is Minister of Education Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin. Bahaaeddin's first clash with the Group of 17 was in May 2001. Responding to a series of questions posed by five Brotherhood MPs, charging that the minister was pursuing arbitrary measures against religious and veiled schoolteachers, Bahaaeddin told parliament he would do everything possible to protect students from those who seek to plant extremist ideas in their minds.

The 11 September attacks, Brotherhood MPs believe, have given Bahaaeddin even more of an opportunity to implement what they argue is a sustained policy of uprooting religious teachings in schools nationwide.

In his interpellation, Ali Laban, a Brotherhood MP from the Qotour district of Gharbiya, cited the example of "Al-Geel Al-Muslim" (The Muslim Generation) schools. Established 23 years ago by Laban and fellow veteran Brotherhood member and MP Mohamed El-Azbawi, the schools offer religious education to as many as 7,000 students.

Laban alleged that the governor of Gharbiya, Fathi Saad, acting under instructions from Prime Minister Atef Ebeid and Education Minister Bahaaeddin, tried to dissolve the Brotherhood-controlled schools' board. Addressing parliament's local administration committee last year, Saad said that although Al-Geel Al-Muslim schools were under the supervision of both the education and social affairs ministries, their board had been committing educational, administrative and financial irregularities. Amongst the irregularities mentioned by Saad was a ban on students saluting the Egyptian flag, singing the national anthem and receiving music lessons.

Laban insists that Al-Geel Al-Muslim schools were put under the government's magnifying glass only after 11 September. "These events forced the government to join America in its war on Islam by cracking down on religious schools and revamping curricula to rid them of Islamic teachings," he told the parliamentary committee. His interpellation, he said, is directed not only at Bahaaeddin, but Prime Minister Atef Ebeid and Local Administration Minister Mustafa Abdel-Qader as well. "This is the policy of an entire government and not a single minister," said Laban's interpellation documents.

Last June, Laban failed to get Assembly approval for an interpellation meant to take Tantawi to task for allegedly turning Al-Azhar into a mere government puppet. The Assembly also rejected a draft law proposed by Laban to make Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh position an elected, rather than appointed, office.

Brotherhood MP Mohamed Mursi, meanwhile, is taking aim at information minister Safwat El-Sherif. A professor of engineering at Zagazig University, Mursi has asked El-Sherif to ban the controversial TV soap opera Horseman Without A Horse. The show, Mursi said, should have been called "Horse Without a Horseman" for its "disappointing picture of Egypt's long and historic struggle against invaders". So far, Mursi said, the controversial TV show has given the impression that Egyptians who led the struggle against French and British invaders in the 19th and 20th centuries were mostly cabaret belly dancers and drunkards.

According to Mursi, "the Egyptians who led the struggle against Western and Zionist invaders were primarily Azharite and Islamist students such as [the late] Abdel-Qader Ouda and Youssef Talaat," who were both leading Brotherhood members.

Higher education is also getting the Brotherhood's attention. Gamal Heshmat, an Islamist MP for the Al-Behira city of Damanhour, has submitted a question to Higher Education Minister Moufid Shehab about universities continuing to ban fully veiled students (their faces covered) from entering campuses and attending lectures, despite a ruling handed down by an administrative court in Mansoura. "This ruling -- which gave 110 veiled girl students the right to attend university lectures," said Heshmat, who is famous for the record number of Brotherhood-related "indecency" questions he has raised, "must be respected."

Heshmat has posed questions regarding the publication of "pornographic" books by the Culture Ministry, and the staging of the "Miss Egypt" beauty contest. Last year, Heshmat even accused the Education Ministry of distributing sanitary napkins (made by an American company) to female students, with the intention of disrupting their natural potential for fertility.

Questions such as these have prompted criticism from Brotherhood adversaries. The Brotherhood's focus on such "trivial" issues, critics charge, is at the expense of more serious debate on the country's economic and political conditions. "Brotherhood MPs always try to attract the media spotlight by bringing up such absurd issues in a theatrical manner," Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, a leftist MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"They ignore critical issues such as corruption, economic stagnation and unemployment, and concentrate instead on drinking wine or what they call indecent matters like the publication of blasphemous novels."

El-Hariri contrasted the Brotherhood MPs' outrage on such issues with the mild tone of their criticism of the government in political and economic areas.

The Brotherhood's Mursi, however, defended their focus on issues of "morality" as "only natural", since they consider themselves "the nation's main defenders of Islamic morals and social values". He dismissed as a coincidence that the education and culture ministries seem to be the sole targets of the Brotherhood's parliamentary wrath. "

Our concentration on these two ministries," Mursi said, "is mainly a result of their constantly being rife with issues of indecency and immorality."

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