Muslim Brotherhood Rules?

With the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, I can’t help but wonder about changes creeping into public life here. (To envision this in the USA, imagine if Pat Robertson won the presidency and his friends controlled Congress.)

Posters of President Muhammad Morsi decorate homes and shops of people who support the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (with very close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood).
Posters of President Muhammad Morsi decorate homes and shops of people who support the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (with very close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood).

Like Christianity, Islam is based upon a beautiful message. And, like Christianity, its adherents can reside anywhere along a wide political spectrum. Throughout the Muslim world, you can measure the political pulse of a country by how much women cover their heads. Displaying hair can vary from a head of hair partially covered under a colorful and stylish scarf; to a black scarf carefully covering all hair; to a black headdress with eyes looking through a slit about the size of the helmet eye-slit on medieval European armor; to completely shrouded, with eyes peering through a one-way window of black fabric. As more and more Egyptian women wear scarves in public, I think of the tension between respect for women (and the accompanying Muslim “modesty standards”) and each woman’s own personal freedom. I found myself fascinated by a woman entirely shrouded in black, munching under the tent of her head covering while sharing a picnic with her children.

And yet, amid the rising tide of state-sanctioned moralism, sexy mannequins dangle and dance in the commotion — a reminder that modesty standards only apply to women in public, and that even the most conservatively attired women dresses any way she likes in the privacy of her own home. Women who want to be both devout and fashionable in public wear scarves, but with vivid colors and built-in pleats. Some tuck their cell phone between the scarf and their ear for hands-free chatting.

For men, there are other indicators of individual religious style. The most conservative Muslim men grow beards without moustaches. And, to show how devout they are, some proudly sport a callus on their forehead — earned through lots of prayer (in which a Muslim rests his head on his prayer carpet). Cynics I met suspect that many of these calluses are aggravated by the intentional rubbing of foreheads against prayer rugs by those wanting to look particularly pious. I’ve never noticed these forehead spots before. But now, I can’t avoid seeing them everywhere — and wondering if this or that person really prays that much.

Moms in black can be real swingers.
Moms in black can be real swingers.

Since the revolution, the economy is in shambles. And there’s a new problem: Electricity goes out routinely. The waiting list to buy a generator grows as the trend is expected to worsen. Visiting a souvenir shop, I spend $6. The owner tells me that my purchase doubles his gross for the day. He turns lights on and off as I wander from room to room through his shop. With each flip of a switch, he grumbles about how the government is charging more and more for electricity. Businesses pay four times the residential rates, as electricity, like bread, is subsidized to keep the people from going off the deep end.

The government subsidizes baladi bread, which costs a penny a loaf. When you see a commotion crowding into a shop, it’s likely a local bakery with subsidized bread available hot out of the oven. The IMF is pushing for Egypt to cut back on such subsidies. Some locals predict that if the cost of bread and power goes up, the current government will be brought down.

The government provides a helpline for troubled children. Call 16000 toll-free to report any child suffering from drug problems, homelessness, parental abuse, an accident, sickness, a girl threatened with female circumcision, child labor, or a wife-beating father.
The government provides a helpline for troubled children. Call 16000 toll-free to report any child suffering from drug problems, homelessness, parental abuse, an accident, sickness, a girl threatened with female circumcision, child labor, or a wife-beating father.

While Istanbul — which I see as Cairo’s rival Muslim megacity — is evolving into a great metropolis, it seems Cairo is devolving into an urban jungle. If Cairo’s urban planners and city officials took a jaunt to Istanbul, they’d see what their city could become. But freedom and lawless chaos are confused in post-revolutionary Cairo. Rare was the person I met who’d prefer to go back to the dictatorship of Mubarak. But just as rare was the person I met who approved of today’s government.

While Turkey also has an Islamic-leaning government, that government is acting pluralistic and has gained the respect and trust of its people — even Turkey’s secular Muslims. People I meet on the street in Cairo say that the government that replaced Mubarak has so far abused its trust. They tell me the new government says one thing (for example, promising pluralism and respect for all beliefs), but does another (shutting down TV comedians who satirize them). It sees the government on a power grab, aggressively infiltrating all dimensions of society with its values — similar to how, back home, both Democrats and Republicans tend to overreach when they’re in power.

At Egypt's major tourist attractions, the Muslim Brotherhood has strategically placed racks of free books in English promoting a better understanding and appreciation of Islam.
At Egypt’s major tourist attractions, the Muslim Brotherhood has strategically placed racks of free books in English promoting a better understanding and appreciation of Islam.

13 Replies to “Muslim Brotherhood Rules?”

  1. It must be an exciting time to be there to watch a society evolve (or at least change.)

  2. Thank you for your post. I agree that Istanbul could be the model for Cairo. Your posts are insightful and give me reason to say a prayer for the people of Egypt, a land I long to visit.

  3. Steve, while i like your travel shows, i will have to rethink watching. Are you seriously comparing the muslim brotherhood to pat roberts? Really? i guess you also want to be politically correct and bash Christians. Why didnt you say something like, oh i dont know, compare them to the Black panther’s or Nation of Islam. Oh well, another leftist who just wants to beat up on christians. thanks steve.

  4. As an Istanbul resident, I enjoyed reading your comparisons of Cairo and Istanbul. Egypt and Turkey used to have economies of the same size. Now the Turks have tripled their economy in relation to Egypt’s economy. Istanbul is full of can-do optimism and energy.

  5. @Richard: I don’t think he’s criticizing Christianity; I think he’s commenting on a particular individual. If you read the next sentence, he acknowledges the beauty behind Christian beliefs and tradition. Even after that, he notes that the expressed faith of one individual does not and cannot represent that of every member of a given religion. To say that Pat Robertson represents all of Christianity is… well, unrealistic, as many people would agree that he is a fringe element who does not reflect many of the basic tenants of the Christian doctrine. Also, Pat Robertson is a self-proclaimed member of the dominant religion in the USA; the Nation of Islam is not. Likewise, Islam (the religion), with which the Muslim Brotherhood identifies, dominates the Middle East. I think the comparison was drawn, in part, to better illustrate the type of cultural impact such a leader would have. (And the Black Panther party is not currently active, and has not been since the 1980s, which would further weaken any comparisons drawn to that.)
    More on topic, I spent 3 years in Cairo (Maadi, specifically) as an adolescent. I have many fond memories from that time; it was a life-changing experience, being an American who had never left the country up until then. I would love to return some day, and I look forward to reading upcoming blog posts on Rick’s travels there.

  6. Until last month our family highlight was a years-ago tour of Europe relying exclusively on Europe through the Back Door. Now we were actually ahead of you in Egypt meeting up with our daughter (studying there, living in Doqqi) on the start of a longer trip. But your reporting remains spot on!

    In most ways now is a great time to visit Egypt – there are no crowds or lines at the tourist sites and you can marvel at these true wonders of the world. And we never felt unsafe. But, you have to deal with the relentless hustle – people seem almost desperate for a few of your tourist dollars. (Even disappointingly, an “official” at the Cairo airport). You can also immerse yourself in the craziness of Cairo – and the blog postings here capture that brilliantly.

    After our own walk through Khan al-Khalili we went into the Al-Azhar mosque (the women through a separate entrance). What a revelation. A huge space, crowded with men, praying, sleeping, discussing. A group asked me to sit with them – one had spent time in England, where I was born. I think we could have had a good discussion, but our world views were so far apart, I certainly had no intention of disrespecting his place of worship, and I had a splitting headache from a day of haggling, spice shops, heat and overall intensity.

    What a relief to arrive back at the palatial (literally!) Marriott in Zamalek to decompress. Thank you Marriott Rewards points.

    We took the sleeper train (fun!) down to Luxor, which is totally dependent on tourism, and so is really hurting. But you get to see the tombs in the Valley of the Kings almost by yourself. And you can drive out to Abydos and Dendera – arguably the most impressive of the temple sites in Egypt. We stayed at a B&B that would fit right in with the Rick Steves philosophy, I think – Mara House – on a back street on the “wrong side of the tracks”, but exquisite inside with a great Irish hostess.

    There is a very real worry that the Brotherhood’s agenda is solely about consolidating power, with no care about what happens to the economy. If true, what a tragedy. There are millennia of history to consider (what about all that Coptic defacement of the ancient sites?!) and western-style democracy may not be the immediate answer, but the people deserve better than this oppression. The position of women is especially troubling. It is one thing for heads to be covered (actually not unattractive, especially with, say, just a little decoration around the edge of the scarf), but that goes along with such an abusive male culture. That attitude seems to get ingrained young – groups of teenage boys are persistent harassers.

    I’m looking forward to your continuing reports.

  7. “even the most conservatively dressed woman dresses any way she likes in the privacy of her own home”

    Maybe, maybe not. If she’s in full black she likely has a conservative husband whose wishes take precedence. Also, she may only wear “what she likes” in part of the house, or only in front of other women. Again, if she is fully covered in public, she will be fully covered in front of any unrelated males, and maybe even some who are related. The same goes for head scarves.

    The omens for Egyptian women are bad. How many women did you see with bare heads?

  8. Rick,

    Thank you so much for your perspectives on what Cairo has become. I am a American born Egyptian who has recently relocated from Houston, Texas to Sharm El Shiekh, Egypt so that my American wife and I could “live the dream” as Scuba instructors. I wanted to say that I completely agree that Cairo has devolved considerably.

    I do ask that you take a look “outside of Cairo” to see what direction Cairo is taking. Cities like October 6th and Maadi, (two of the first “planned communities” in Egypt), and more recently New Giza, and New Cairo.

    Cairo is over 7000 years old and has been ruled by either a Pharaoh, a King, or a Dictator for nearly the whole of those 7000 years. There are some places in Cairo that having plumbing several thousand years old. My aunt who lives along the Nile River in Cairo first requested a telephone land line in the late 70’s, she finally received it two years after she got her first cell phone.

    Cairo is changing, and Egypt is also changing. When you turn off the television, and leave downtown Cairo you will see that there are MASSIVE planned communities being constructed. There is a new museum being built near the Pyramids that will rival places like The Louvre and The Guggenheim Museum in architecture. Even among the chaos of Tahrir Square construction continues on the Cairo Ritz Carlton Hotel.

    HUGE amounts of money is also being spent right here in Sharm El Sheikh and hotels are being constructed all along the mainland Red Sea Coast.

    Just as Egypt is building a New Cairo and a New Giza, she is also building a new Egypt. It will take time, and money. 7000 years of mentality has to change. People have to get used to the idea of “freedom”, and the realization that freedom does not come for free. There will be compromises that need to me made politically, spiritually, culturally, and socially. Over 90% of Egypt’s 80 million people live on only 10% of the land. That’s a lot of people to move in order to fix some of Egypt’s issues.

    To compare Turkey “rebirth” to Egypt would be like trying to compare spring cleaning in your home to the revitalization of Times Square.

    Egypt is experiencing the post-revolutionary progress that gets omitted from the history books 200 years from now. The best thing that could be done for Egypt though is to see for yourself. This is an amazing time to see that there is so much more to Egypt then just Cairo.

  9. “It sees the government on a power grab, aggressively infiltrating all dimensions of society with its values — similar to how, back home, both Democrats and Republicans tend to overreach when they’re in power.” I was with you until you vastly over-reached with this sentence. I had hoped that the Brotherhood would sincerely look to the AK party of Turkey (who seem to more resmeblee European Christian Democrats than most Middle East Islamic parties) for an example on how to govern, but unforunately, they’ve only confirmed many of people’s worst fears.

  10. Always be suspicious of beautiful messages. From where or whom they emanate is irrelevant. They are all trying to sell you something.

  11. While I enjoyed reading about Egypt from an American traveler’s perspective, forgive me, but I do have a few points to make in the attempts to compare what’s going on in Egypt to what could go on in America; granted, I know you’re trying to get your American audience to imagine what it would be like.

    For example, I disagree with your comparison that “Democrats and Republicans tend to overreach when they’re in power”. When Morsi overreaches, he announces that his decrees are above judicial oversight. Which Democrat or Republican president ever dared make himself above the law?

    When Richard Nixon tried to “overreach” by wire tapping Democrats’ offices, he was impeached. When Bill Clinton committed perjury in court regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he was almost impeached. The truth is, in America, no matter how much a president tries to “overreach”, there are systems in place to hold him accountable. There are limits beyond which he dare not cross.

    When Morsi unconstitutionally declares emergency law without consulting with the elected parliament, when he rams through a constitution without the necessary representation from civil societies and from churches, when he announces in a presidential decree that he now has power above the judicial and legislative branches, and when he orders the use of force (torture, rape, etc. are all welcome) against political activists without any arrests/sentences of the violent perpetrators, that’s not just overreaching. That’s tyrannical oppression.

    Frankly, I do not like comparisons between what’s happening in Egypt and what happens in the West. These comparisons are false and end up doing nothing but trivialize the MB dictatorship as well as dismiss the Egyptian people’s suffering as nothing more than a disapproval of the president’s “overreaching”.

    You have rarely met the person who would rather go back to Mubarak’s era? They may not admit it because it is so politically incorrect to be “against the revolution”. However, I, for one, am an Egyptian who would rather go back to Mubarak’s days. I was a stronger supporter of the Jan. 25 revolution and now regret that it ever happened. There are millions of Egyptians just like me.

  12. CRBG, thanks for putting into words what many us observers of the “Arab Spring” see. As an American, I would have loved to say what you did. However, you beat me to it and did so far more eloquently than I could do. I think Mr. Steves is a wonderful travel writer and TV show producer. However, I think his comparisons of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to Western representative democracy rings hollow. For all our faults in the U.S. — and we have lots of them — we don’t beat, shoot or rape peaceful demonstrators, as we have seen happen during the Tahrir Square protests.

    I also find Mr. Steves’ description of “modesty” laws amusing. I believe President Morsi is dedicated to making Sharia the law of the land. In a speech last May at Cairo University, Morsi said: “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.” In the same speech, he also said: “Today we can establish Sharia law because our nation will acquire well-being only with Islam and Sharia.” With all due respect to the president, about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million people are Christians. Must they live under the oppression of Sharia, too?

  13. Thanks, Brian. Your quotes from Morsi’s speech are spot on. They illustrate well that the distinction–that many Western governments and many left-leaning intelligentsia like to make–between the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups does not actually exist. There is no difference. They all fit under the same general ideological umbrella.

    It’s been less than a year since Morsi became president, and Sharia Law (as interpreted by the MB) has already bulled its way into our constitution, our culture, our justice system, and our banking system. The country is now divided between Muslim fundamentalists and everyone else. The latter group includes not just the 10% Christian minority, but also the secular/moderate Muslims, the Bahai’is, the Shia, and the Sufis, not to mention the growing segment of the population that self-identifies as atheist.

    I would really like to see Western governments hold Morsi’s regime to standards that are at least somewhat comparable to the standards by which Western governments must abide. However, that will not happen as long as well-meaning Americans like Mr. Rick Stevens naively compares Egypt’s autocrats to American presidents.

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