CAIRO Jan 9 Many Egyptian viewers were
horrified when preacher Hisham el-Ashry recently popped up on
primetime television to say women must cover up for their own
protection and advocated the introduction of religious police.
That an obscure preacher could get publicity for such views
was seen as another example of the confused political scene in
Egypt since the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak gave birth to
a cacophony of feuding voices.
"I was once asked: If I came to power, would I let Christian
women remain unveiled? And I said: If they want to get raped on
the streets, then they can," Ashry told Nahar TV last week.
Introducing a Saudi-style anti-vice police force to enforce
Islamic law was "not a bad thing", he said, and added: "In order
for Egypt to become fully Islamic, alcohol must be banned and
all women must be covered."
Few take Ashry, who admits he flew to the United States
dreaming of a Western lifestyle and romance but instead found
truth in preaching, seriously. But his views have stirred
With the economic downturn and rising food prices putting
pressure on the government, moderate Muslims, Christians and
others worry their new-found political freedom is at risk of
being exploited by hardline Islamists bent on imposing their
values on a society that has been traditionally moderate.
Watching a recent television interview in which Ashry
expounded his ideas on women and sharia law, members of one
family jumped to their feet in outrage.
"Look at this crazy man! Where do you think we live! In a
jungle? Or are all men like you, animals, unable to control
their instincts?" Mona Ahmed, 65, shouted at the television
screen in her living room.
"If I see him annoying any unveiled woman on the street I
would punch him in the face. Wake up, man, this is Egypt, not
Saudi Arabia," she yelled as her children tried to console her.
Ahmed, like many women in Egypt, has chosen on her own to
cover her hair with the Islamic headscarf.
Egypt's top Islamic institutions, such as al-Azhar, the
highest authority in Sunni Islam, and Dar al Ifta, the central
authority for issuing religious rulings, have long said
religious practices should not be imposed on people.
Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's most senior Islamic legal
official, has dismissed the self-styled preacher's views.
"This sort of idiotic thinking is one that seeks to further
destabilise what is already a tense situation," Grand Mufti Ali
Gomaa said in a statement to Reuters.
"Egypt's religious scholars have long guided the people to
act in ways that conform to their religious commitments, but
have never thought this required any type of invasive policing."
The Muslim Brotherhood of President Mohamed Mursi, who was
brought to power in an election last year, has also distanced
itself, if somewhat cryptically.
"The case of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is
within the jurisdiction of the authorities and not individuals
or groups," said Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. "It is
not anyone's right to intervene."
Mursi has pledged not to impose Islamic codes of behaviour
and to protect adherents of all religions equally. But he has
also enacted a new constitution that has more Islamic references
than its predecessor and that critics say fails to protect
freedoms and the rights of Christians and other minorities.
Activists say although Mursi's camp is not keen on religious
austerity, stronger condemnation is required at this sensitive
"As long as such actions are not seriously condemned by the
officials in public speeches, it leaves room for radicals to
freely act and impose things on people," said human rights
activist Gamal Eid.
The image of Egypt's bearded leadership flanked by their
fully veiled wives sends a powerful psychological message that
may belie their official words, they say.
"Islamist officials need to take a clearer stand on their
views about rights and freedoms and act strictly if those rights
and freedoms were threatened."
Ashry left Egypt for New York in the 1990s, when the country
was still firmly under Mubarak's rule, in search of a better
"I went there with a dream to get a blonde girl and a big
car," he said in one of his televised interviews. "(But) I was
advised on the plane to cherish my religion and not get taken by
the USA or risk being spoiled and losing my faith."
His religious convictions grew stronger over the next 15
years in the United States, he said.
"I had, thanks to God, guided many Christians to Islam. I
can't tell how many as I stopped counting when their number
exceeded 100," he said.
It was when he was working at a men's clothing factory in
New York that he became convinced that Egypt needed a
Saudi-style anti-vice force.
"(My goal was) to make all Egyptians love it," he said.
A few find him inspiring.
"He advocates what I believe is right," said Ahmed Mahmoud,
18, in Cairo. "It is about time to enforce God's law in order to
be rescued from all the corruption we live in."
Ashry is just one conservative influence among many. In the
six months since Mursi came to power, preachers and vigilante
groups have been flexing their muscles on the streets.
In July, a young man holding hands with his fiancé was
stabbed to death in Suez, and in October, a face-veiled teacher
cut the hair of two 12-year-old girls who were not wearing
scarves. Just last month, an Islamist group in Egypt's Sinai
Peninsula threatened to launch a campaign against cigarette
smoking and drug use in the lawless desert region.
Radical Salafi figures called for Muslims not to greet
Christians at Christmas, celebrated by Egypt's Copts on Jan. 7.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 84 million
population, which is majority Sunni-Muslim.
"Such comments scare us to death of course," said Christian
activist Peter el-Naggar.
"But we don't think such people are right or will have any
strong grassroots support. Egypt has always been home to
moderate and tolerant Islam. By God's will it will remain so."
Those who rely on the tourism industry in Cairo and at the
luxury beaches of the Red Sea are defiant and anxious at the
"Only we can control ourselves," said taxi driver Waleed
Mahmoud, 36. "No human being can force another to pray or beat
them to pray. It doesn't work."