Egypt’s leaders are trying to promote moderate Islam. But do the Egyptian people really want that?
Several hundred Egyptian lawmakers plan to propose a bill to parliament that would ban women from wearing the niqab in public places and government buildings. The niqab, an ultra-reserved form of Muslim headscarf that covers a woman’s entire face, is often considered a sign of adherence to a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam. Amna Nuseir, a member of Egyptian parliament and professor of theology at al-Azhar University, said the ban is part of an effort to “spread moderate Islam.”
This is nothing new. The Egyptian government, aware of the threat radical Islam poses to the state, has been fighting Islamism for years. In January 2015, in a speech to the country’s clerics, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi urged Islam to modernize and reject its radical and fundamentalist tendencies. He has also continued in former president Hosni Mubarak’s footsteps and banned the Muslim Brotherhood. This has resulted in the arrest and prosecution of hundreds of adherents to the Islamist movement, which has been calling for Sharia law since its founding in 1928.
Taken in this context, the proposal to ban the niqab indicates that Egypt’s leaders are pushing for moderation and modernization. It’s a sign they want to move the country away from Islamism and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. El-Sisi might not be trying to lead a religious reformation, but he is trying to take the country toward the Turkish model of a secular state with a largely Muslim population.
What Did the Arab Spring Mean?
The question this raises is whether, four years after the Arab Spring and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people want their government to promote a more moderate version of Islam.
At first glance the answer would appear to be “yes.” The Arab Spring was seen as a repudiation of the 30-year Mubarak presidency and a fight for democratic elections. Western headlines trumpeted the young protestors as a generation demanding freedom and embracing western democracy. Highlighted at the time was the fact that men and women joined together in protests as equals in a country where this is not the status quo.
Yet when given the opportunity to elect a new government, the Egyptian people chose a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, and women reported they were quickly pushed out of the movement. Egyptians’ choice in president revealed that the Arab Spring, at least in Egypt, wasn’t just about a universal cry for freedom. Some part of that rejection of Mubarak was a refutation of the secular state that he ran, and of his persecution, like el-Sisi’s, of the Muslim Brotherhood. This suggests that many Egyptians, while perhaps not radicals, have a strong fundamentalist bent, which bears out in polling.
Egyptians’ Highly Restrictive Views
Egypt is home to the world’s largest Sunni Muslim population, where 74 percent of Egyptians think Sharia should be the law of the land. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are calling for a strict interpretation of Sharia. After all, the same poll shows that most people in Muslim-majority countries feel the same way. However, 81 percent of Egyptians who responded “yes” said they think stoning is an appropriate punishment for adultery, and 86 percent said Muslims who leave the faith should be executed. It appears Egyptians who support Sharia law want a strict version of it in place. Compare that to 44 and 29 percent, respectively, for Tunisians who answered favorably to having Sharia enforced by the state.
Regarding veiling, a 2014 survey found that 96 percent of Egyptians believe women should cover their hair in one way or another, ranging from the full niqab to the more moderate headscarf that covers most of the hair. The most popular choice was for women to have all of their hair and ears covered, with 73 percent selecting it. Only 1 percent selected the full niqab, although an additional 9 percent selected a similar head covering that allows the eyes to show.
What’s notable, however, is that while in Tunisia (a much more liberal country and the birthplace of the Arab Spring) 85 percent of participants think women should cover themselves in some way, 56 percent think a woman should make this decision herself. Compare this to Egypt, where only 14 percent think it ought to be up to the woman. Another poll, by Pew, puts the number at 89 percent for Tunisia and 46 percent for Egypt, still a startling difference. This, more than opinions about whether or not women should veil, is most revealing about the restrictive attitudes of many Egyptians toward the headscarf.
Add to this to another poll from Pew that shows only 22 percent of Egyptians think a woman should be able to divorce her husband, compared to 81 percent of Tunisians, and you have a country whose people fall overwhelmingly on the traditionalist side of the Islamic scales.
An Inside-Islam Fight for Control
Egypt’s leaders are trying to steer the country toward moderate interpretations of Islam. But if the people don’t support that movement, it could lead to serious conflict. It might spark a reaction from Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslims that could end in another overthrow of power—one that might not be so peaceful or produce a stable country. But at the very least, it will continue to fuel Egyptian Islamists in their fight alongside ISIS.
The Sinai Peninsula is, after all, home to ISIS’s Egyptian branch, Sinai Province. This is the group that claimed responsibility for downing a Russian passenger plane last year. They have launched numerous assaults on soldiers, police, and western targets, and the Egyptian government considers it an Islamist insurgency.
This echoes what has happened in more progressive Tunisia. That country managed to steer through the Arab Spring with fair elections and limited violence. It also has had a tradition of being moderate and liberal with its religious laws. Yet Tunisia has watched itself grow into the number-one supplier of foreign-born ISIS fighters. Could it be that the restrictive pockets of Tunisian society are resisting what they see as the moral failings of their country? Could it be that Egyptians are doing the same?
Egyptian lawmakers are using the niqab as a touchstone for debates on fundamentalist versus moderate Islam. El-Sisi and many in parliament are aware of the danger that fundamentalism poses to their country (and to their hold on power). But if they’re not careful, they may end up pushing their people further toward it. Egypt could be the next Middle Eastern country to go up in flames.