* Rights activists see pattern of abuses by hardliners
* Islamist vigilantes emboldened by Mursi win
* Incidents fuel concerns of moderates, Christians
By Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO, Nov 7 Mohamed Talaat didn't like the fact
Christian music was being played at a party to promote
interfaith harmony in the Egyptian town of Minya south of Cairo,
so together with a group of like-minded Islamist hardliners, he
showed up to put a stop to it.
It was simply un-Islamic to broadcast Christian songs,
"Egypt is Islamic and so we all have to accept Islamic rules
to halt any strife," he said by telephone.
Four months since Egypt elected veteran Muslim Brotherhood
politician Mohamed Mursi as president, human rights activists
say hardliners are trying to impose Islamist ways on society.
Although reliable data on social trends is hard to find in
Egypt, many people believe that cases of religious intimidation
"There is no doubt that the rate of strange and violent
practices by strict Islamists has increased tremendously since
the election of Mursi," said Gamal Eid, founder of The Arabic
Network for Human Rights Information, a human rights group.
"We have in a few months seen many more of such incidents
than we have seen in years before Mursi," he said.
Seemingly sporadic incidents are turning into what rights
activists describe as an emerging pattern of abuses in the
street by radicals, defying both the authority of the state and
Mursi's own promises to protect personal freedoms.
From the fatal stabbing of a young man who was out with his
fiancée to the case of a conservative teacher who cut
schoolgirls' hair because it was uncovered, the examples are
Such actions have grabbed local headlines and fuelled the
worst-case-scenario fears of moderates worried by the rise of
Islamists who were tightly reined in by Hosni Mubarak but have
emerged as a major force since he was swept from power.
In Cairo, it seems little has changed. The capital is still
a place where teenagers hold hands in public, Egyptian-brewed
beer is sold and pleasure boats cruise the Nile blasting out the
kind of pop music frowned upon by the hardliners.
And importantly for a tourism industry that employs one in
eight Egyptians, it is business as usual at Red Sea beach
resorts that are a major draw for Western tourists.
Yet, say activists, the hardliners are flexing their muscles
more than before, particularly in some of the more far flung
corners of a country of 83 million.
CHRISTIANS FEAR VIOLENCE
Egypt's Christian minority, the Middle East's largest, has
lived with increasing fear of sectarian violence, which worsened
in Mubarak's final weeks and the early days of the interim
military rule that followed his ouster in February 2011.
Weeks before Mubarak was ousted, 23 Coptic Christians were
killed in the bombing of a church on New Year's Day 2011. Five
months later, with generals still in charge of the country,
several churches in Cairo were torched and Christian houses and
businesses destroyed. Fifteen people died and hundreds were
wounded in the May 2011 religious unrest.
The period since Mursi took power has so far been spared
violence on last year's scale, but there have been flare-ups,
such as in August when about 16 people were injured in attacks
on a church in a village near Cairo.
Christians say overall the atmosphere has become
increasingly menacing as the presence of hostile Salafi Muslim
hardliners in public life has grown more pronounced.
"Extremists' actions are worrying all Egyptians and not only
Christians," said Karim Goher, a Christian and one of the
organisers of the halted interfaith celebration in Minya.
Since a group of youths killed a young man while he was out
with his fiancée in the port city of Suez in July, there have
been a steady stream of reports in a similar vein.
This week, a Suez grocer filed a legal complaint against a
group of Salafis, or ultra-orthodox Muslims, who had threatened
to enact religious justice against his son by cutting out his
tongue. The Salafis accused the boy of insulting religion,
according to Gharib Mahmoud, the grocer.
Self-appointed "committees for the propagation of virtue and
elimination of vice" have surfaced elsewhere. The name evokes
the religious police of Saudi Arabia, whose strict brand of
Wahhabi Islam has inspired Salafis in Egypt in recent decades.
In Kafr el-Sheikh, a town in the Nile Delta north of Cairo,
one such committee handed out flyers in late October warning it
would "use force against violators of its instructions". Similar
acts of intimidation have been reported by Christians in the
middle-class Cairo district of Shubra.
"We warn you Christian people to give up your filthy trade
in filthy statues and paintings," read a letter warning Victor
Younan, an 83-year old Christian shopkeeper, to stop selling
images of Jesus. Eight other Christians told Reuters they had
received similar notes.
During his presidential campaign, Mursi reassured Egypt's
Christians, estimated to represent about a tenth of the
population, they would be protected. Yet many remain uneasy.
The same can be said for many moderate Muslims in a country
where piety runs deep but a history of violent Islamist
radicalism in the 1980s and 1990s has made many suspicious of
hardliners willing to take the law into their own hands.
The radicals present a headache for the Muslim Brotherhood
and other Islamist parties that have entered mainstream politics
since Mubarak was toppled, such as the Nour Party, a salafist
group which has distanced itself from what it describes as
individual acts of vigilantism.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, the spokesman for the Brotherhood, said of
the vice committees: "They don't represent the Brotherhood or
most of Egypt's moderates, but only a group of minority,
"We hope such incidents vanish soon."
But the Brotherhood has been criticised for failing to
adequately spell out a moderate interpretation of Islam, leaving
space for hardliners to propagate their ideas on the rights of
women and Christians, for example.
"They say they will not discriminate, but don't say what
that means in terms of actions," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an
Egyptian political analyst and expert on Islamist groups.
The authorities appear to be applying the law where
possible: the three youths behind the Suez stabbing were handed
15-year sentences in September. The Christians who received the
threatening letters in Shubra reported the incident to the
police, though they say there have been no arrests.
The teacher who cut the hair of her unveiled pupils was
given a suspended six-month jail sentence by a Luxor court this
The police did not get involved in Minya, where the
organisers cancelled the interfaith celebration to avoid
trouble. Planned for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Oct.
28 event had been named "Light in Times of Darkness" and marked
an effort to ease friction in the shifting political landscape.
Musicians at the event were playing both Christian and
Islamic music, before Islamists ordered them to stop, said Alaa
Kabawy, a Muslim who was one of several thousand attendees.
"Similar events used to happen during Mubarak's time and
nothing like this happened before. It was so shameful to see
that happen," he said.