Tyranny of the zealots
The rise of vigilante violence in Egypt is a worrying sign as President Mursi makes rash unilateral moves, writes Ayman El-Amir
It was in 66 AD that Jewish settlers of Samaria, now the West Bank, rebelled against the Roman Empire that dominated the region and killed both Romans and fellow Jews whom they regarded as less fervent. When eventually defeated by the Romans, the Zealots, or defenders of the faith, took refuge in an ancient Roman fortress on top of the Masada mountain, where they all committed suicide in 73 AD, before the Romans could capture them.
The 20-century-old story of the Zealots has recently been revived, albeit with a caveat, in Suez, Egypt, where three bearded young men confronted a man with his fiancé. The argument that followed ended with the stabbing to death of the young man. The accused said they were only admonishing and offering guidance to the victim about his appearance in public with his fiancé. When the young man protested about their interference he was stabbed with a knife, serving as a tool of religious guidance. Historically, Jewish Zealots were known to have carried daggers, just in case of confrontation. The chances are the three bearded young men in Suez were acting as religious vigilantes with the self-styled role of watching out for any improper social or moral behaviour. The implications are quite grave.
Another pseudo-religious phenomenon propagated by self-appointed religious advocates is non-contractual marriage by possession -- a form of slavery that was gradually banned as Islam progressed. Instead of the modern Islamic practice of marriage, of "I do" (take you as a husband/wife to hold and to cherish) in the presence of witnesses, agreement on a dowry, signing a document of conditionality, and presenting by both would-be husband and wife of medical certificates of clearance of any communicable disease, it is sufficient for the girl to offer a verbal, undocumented statement saying "I give myself up to you," instead of the usual "I thee be-wed." There are no witnesses, no document to sign and no conditions of dowry. The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs has condemned this as a form of adultery based on slavery, as slavery in the early days of Islam and before provided legal grounds for possession. It is therefore known as "a marriage of possession." It is mostly practiced and accepted by Salafis who believe that everything laid down by the "Salaf" (the predecessors) is irrevocable.
The Salafis stomped on the political scene after the victory of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Their following suddenly increased, their funding boomed and their impact produced a 22 per cent representation in parliamentary elections. These are telling figures in a country where 26 per cent of the population is illiterate, 22 per cent suffer abject poverty and unemployment is estimated at 13 per cent (30 per cent among university graduates). Salafis in Egypt are emulating the puritanical Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, their most generous benefactors, where the 4,000-man strong religious police known as Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) monitor and enforce Sharia law. Sharia is one of the long-term objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the immediate objective of other ultraconservative groups, like the Salafis. That is why the Salafi Nour Party offered no word of reprimand for Sheikh Ali Wanis, a member of the dissolved People's Assembly for the party who was recently caught in a compromising position with a girl in the back seat of his car, off the Agricultural Road. The act could have been preceded by a non-contractual Salafi marriage, which also condones "pleasure marriage" -- a form of sexual interaction claimed to have been common in the early days of Islam before it was phased out.
In the words of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Sharia law may not be enforced until it is generally accepted by a consensus of Egyptians. It also means that the Brotherhood and other parties will work hard in every way to inculcate the Sharia mentality patiently and persistently over the next few years. While Sharia law itself has not been introduced or enacted, the swift access of the Brotherhood and Salafis to legislative power, professional unions and the presidency will embolden religious vigilante groups to interpret the spirit of the anticipated law, take it into their own hands and enforce it in line with their own fatwas, of which there is no shortage. For one thing, there will be no adequate law enforcement officers in every city, town and hamlet to ensure that harassment of people by vigilante groups in the name of Sharia is prohibited. This will trigger daily confrontations between Muslim zealots, acting in the name of religion, and average citizens who believe they have voted for a civic state. In a society obsessed with the female figure to cover its own weakness, law enforcement and other state officials will blame the resulting violence on the usual suspects: women. The prevailing argument will be "it's the fault of the girl who dresses so provocatively" and invites such violent reaction.
Egypt will be drifting towards extremism. As the new zealots take over state institutions in the name of religious guidance, law enforcement will take a back seat. The business of law enforcement will be conducted and the administration of justice will be determined by whether the claimant is a "Brother" or a "Salafi" or the power of the religious denomination to which he or she belongs.
In this semi-state of lawlessness, religious vigilante groups and advocates of "the right path" will compete with each other by raising the measure of true faith to attract a following. The battleground will not only be limited to the Brotherhood and Salafism, but may attract Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Al-Takfir wal Higra, Harakat Al-Jihad Al-Islamiya and even Al-Qaeda. Raising the bar will not only be limited to intimidation by promising disbelievers hellstone and brimfire in the other world, but will go far beyond, probably all the way to carbombs that rocked Egypt in the mid-1990s.
Egypt was believed to be transiting to the stability of a democracy when the newly elected president, Mohamed Mursi, shocked Egyptians when he recalled parliament into session, thus defying the Supreme Constitutional Court that had disbanded it as unconstitutional. Mursi was testing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that had handed over powers to the president only a week ago, but retained some privileges to protect itself and provisions for ensuring a civic state.
Developments are moving in a confrontation direction for Egypt. The president seems to have issued his surprise decree without consultation with any political or judiciary authority. It would seem that the decision was the brainchild of the highly secretive Shura Council of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Mursi remains a member. This dual loyalty to the interests of the Egyptian people, which Mursi swore to uphold, and the narrow interests of a religious group, which remains illegal, spells trouble. The creeping implication that the Muslim Brotherhood controls decision-making at the highest level and that the country is slowly moving towards an Islamic state opens up a Pandora's box with external forces vying for control. If the Muslim Brotherhood holds the upper hand in the name of religion in a bid to turn the country into a theocratic state, why not Al-Qaeda, or cloaked Wahhabism? And in this competition how far could religious groups go to enforce their own version of Islam?
The president of Egypt and SCAF are turning to face on another. President Mursi was elected as the first civilian head of state of Egypt after almost 60 years of pseudo-military rule. SCAF is struggling to preserve its own interests and to control the transition of Egypt to a civic state. Both sides are not known for adapting to the culture of compromise. The present crisis is a clear example of the conflict of interest President Mursi has between the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he swore obedience, and the oath of office he took before the Supreme Constitutional Court and before the Egyptian people. He cannot have his cake and eat it too.
The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.