It always appears to be the case that various phenomena in Cairo are more visible than anywhere else in our Arab world. The political and cultural scene is more vibrant and with little focus, one can make a wealth of observations; it is Egypt after all!
Away from the battles between the opposition and the government, which occupy the front pages of daily newspapers, it is noticeable that the volume of Egyptian voices dealing with issues other than Egypt’s regional role, the Israeli enemy, the future of the region and the like, has increased.
These are voices that tend to be youthful in the way they express their concerns: a swift narrative style using an expressive language that falls somewhere between modern classical Arabic and the lighthearted Egyptian dialect. It is a language that passes through that which is spoken to express intelligent and deep meanings most of the time. Using blogs as their platform, some young men and women have developed swift and up-to-date content through audio and video clips with the aid of press content.
Reputable publishing houses in Egypt, such as Dar al Shorouk, have transformed the content of these blogs into books that have become best sellers, for example Ghada Abdelaal’s book entitled ‘Ana Atagawez’ [I Want to Get Married]. Ghada Abdelaal, an Egyptian pharmacist working outside Cairo, decided to tackle marriage and its complications in the usual lighthearted Egyptian way. In one year, the book has reached its fourth edition.
However, this article is not about young Egyptian bloggers; it will look at the images of Cairo that indicate what is taking place away from prying eyes.
In one of these blogs, a young Egyptian man, sarcastic and humorous like most Egyptians, created an audio file containing witty observations of how many Egyptians try to exploit religious texts in order to market their products and services from members of parliament who cram Quranic verses and Hadiths on their banners during election campaigns to the man selling sweet potatoes on Cairo’s streets. They all rush to use religious texts to grab people’s attention and add a touch of sanctity and purity to their product.
Similarly, in one of the barber shops, the owner had the following Quranic verse written on a small board: ‘We narrate to you the best of narratives,’ [Surat Yusuf; 003] next to a drawing of a pair of scissors despite that there being no link whatsoever! The owner of a grocery store wanted to express his disdain for loans and debt trading so on his board not only had he written, ‘No Lending; please do not ask,’ but he added the following verse of the Quran, ‘Repel [evil] with what is best,’ [Surat Fussilat: 034]
Even in a run-down fast food outlet selling Koshari (a popular Egyptian dish), which was hardly attractive to customers as flies buzzed above the take-away boxes, the following Quranic verse was written above the unclean glass cabinet: “Come forward and fear not; surely you are of those who are secure,” [Surat al Qasas; 031].
This demonstrates that religious sentiment in Egypt, like in many other Arab societies, is strong. This is exploited by some people as a pathway to people’s hearts and minds. This deep religious sentiment that distinguishes the people of this region, if not carefully protected, in many cases, can be considered a weak point leaving people susceptible to emotional, as well as economical and political blackmail.
If we distance ourselves slightly from the simple tactics used by the “poor” whether barbers, grocers or Koshari sellers, in exploiting religion, we find that these strategies are followed in a more skillful and harmful manner in spheres that affect the public interest.
We all know how the savings of many investors were lost by companies that used money they did not have, by employing Islamic slogans. They used the slogans of halal investment and “pure” banking systems with a dash of positive ambiguity so that the savings of investors who dream of “halal” wealth would come pouring in. These dreamers do not burden themselves with looking into the possibility that this “halal” system they speak of could be even more prohibited [than conventional banking] if it leads to the loss of wealth and the destruction of the economy and trades in religious slogans. They did not go to the trouble to seek advice from religious scholars or experts, who are eager to defend this kind of “Islamized economics,” which after a while, came to resemble conventional economic apparatus. The sole difference lies in terminology and the manipulation of words to give a new name to an old practice. But the whole issue is surrounded by a halo of infallibility and the psychological intimidation of whoever dares question or criticize the sanctity of the economy.
By the same token, the “Islamic media” that has exploded over recent times, in reality, is nothing but publicity for partisan programs aimed at the public to support parties and movements that claim to be Islamic and push society in its entirety towards an ideal lifestyle according to its magical recipe. But if you look closely, you would find that the ulterior motive of those leading this type of “pure media,” just like the people of “pure money,” is to keep these societies under the control of the vanguards of these movements. After all, who would want to let go of these masses that follow close behind? And who could tolerate those who want the public to hear different voices?
Interestingly, many of these channels or forms of media that claim to be Islamic and attack any opposition describing it as evil, corrupt and apathetic, are borrowing the exact methods but adding an Islamic flavor. Just like the barbers or Koshari sellers of Cairo, we now see Islamic “video clips,” Islamic “rap” and Islamic “cartoons”. In politics, it is much worse.
At the end of the day, this is nothing but a game that is being played by multiple players. The masses follow anybody who sells religious slogans, and the sellers, willingly or unwillingly, raise those slogans to keep them close behind, arguing that that they cannot change the nature of these people. They say, “This is just the way of our society.”
There is no escaping the game without breaking this vicious circle; everybody must distinguish between the confined circles of the sacred and profane and movement must remain within the wider circle of experimentation and exploration that is based on removing any presumptions about sanctity and desecration. However, this circle, at present, is so small that it is barely visible to the naked eye.