Officials of the Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, one of Egypt's leading Islamic groups, have called for the establishment of a Saudi-style modesty police to combat "immoral" behavior in public areas in what observers say in another sign of a growing Islamic self-confidence in the post-Mubarak era.
Al-Gama'a has taken part in armed attacks in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, the most famous of which – the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. But now the group, which is officially still outlawed, has indicated its intention to join Egypt's new political arena.
In the political sphere, the Gama’a supported the larger Muslim Brotherhood’s successful drive to get voters to approve a package of constitutional amendments. On the street level, at least 20 attacks were perpetrated against the tombs of Muslim mystics (suffis), who are the subject of popular veneration but disparaged by Islamic fundamentalists, or salafis. After some initial hesitation, Islamic leaders have publicly praised the revolution.
"This is incredibly worrying to many Egyptians," Maye Kassem, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told The Media Line. "The salafis were always undercover in Egypt and now they are emerging as a political force. They are getting too vocal."
Newly freed from the political strictures of the Mubarak era, Egypt has turned into a battleground between those who envision a liberal, secular state and those who advocate various shades if Islam. The conflict mirrors those taking place elsewhere in the region. In Bahrain, unrest has evolved into a conflict between Sunni- and Shiite Muslims and the U.S. has pulled back from supporting Libyan rebels over concerns they are dominated by Islamists.
Issam Durbala, a member of the Gama’a’s Shura council, told the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm on Sunday, that he supported the establishment of a virtue police, or Hisbah, which had existed in medieval Islamic societies to oversee public virtue and modesty, mostly in the marketplace and other public gathering spaces.
But he seemed to stop short of advocating a force along then lines of that which operates in Saudi Arabia today under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. It enforces a dress code, separation of sexes and the observances of prayer times.
"The new police must have a department with limited authorities to arrest those who commit immoral acts,” Durbala told the newspaper.
Nevertheless, liberal, secular Egyptians, who led the protests that brought down President Husni Mubarak and ushered in a new but as yet undefined era in Egypt, regard the proposal as the latest sign that Islamists are emerging as the dominant force in the country.
Sa'id Abd Al-Azim, a leader of the salafi movement in Alexandria, attacked Egyptian "liberals" for waging a media campaign against his movement.
"Despite the attacks against the salafi movement, it is constantly advancing – untouched by the attack," Abd Al-Azim told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "If the Christians want safety they should submit to the rule of God and be confident that the Islamic sharia [law] will protect them."
But it was not only Islamic fundamentalists who foresaw a growing role for Islam in Egypt. In an editorial published in the New York Times April 1, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the country's leading religious figure, condemned the attacks saying they harmed Islamic unity. But he said the world must expect a more Islamic, albeit tolerant, Egypt.
"Egypt is a deeply religious society," Gomaa wrote. "It is inevitable that Islam will have a place in our democratic political order … while religion cannot be completely separated from politics, we can ensure that it is not abused for political gain."
Last Tuesday, Egypt's foreign minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, said his country was interested in "opening a new page with all countries, including Iran," which he said was "not an enemy state." Egypt and Iran have not enjoyed full diplomatic relations since 1979, when Iran's Islamic revolution took place and Egypt signed a historic peace treaty with Israel and gave shelter to the ailing Shah of Iran. On Wednesday, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi welcomed the Egyptian overture and said he hoped to witness an "expansion of ties" between the two countries.
Nagib Gibrail, a Coptic attorney and head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights, said the Egyptian revolution had been kidnapped by Islamist radicals.
"There are areas in Egypt where Christian girls can't walk outside after eight o'clock in the evening for fear of being kidnapped," Gibrail told The Media Line. "Moderate Muslims should be more scared than Christians. It is very worrying that the military regime hasn't issued a statement declaring Egypt a secular state."
Maye Kassem of AUC said parliamentary elections should be postponed in order to allow smaller liberal opposition groups to properly organize. Parliamentary elections are to be held by September, with presidential elections following a month or two later, according to a timetable announced by the government last week.
"We need a longer transition period," Kassem said. "Otherwise, we will revert to a dictatorship which is not what we were fighting for."
In a four-page essay titled "The Tsunami of Change," American-Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, an Al-Qaeda propagandist, referred last week to the popular protest movements sweeping the Arab world.
"I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco?" Al-Awlaki wrote in the English language Al-Qaeda magazine Inspire. "The mujahedeen around the world are going through a moment of elation.”