Image: Basilios Bessarion's beard contributed to his defeat in the papal conclave, 1455.| Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2013

Egypt: When Beards Become ‘Warning Lights’

By Maha Ezzat Elkholy and Lorenzo Kamel*

IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

CAIRO (IDN) – A huge amount of analysis on Egypt have been published by Western news outlets in the last few weeks. Most of them were focused on violent clashes: the country is facing a sort of war of “each against all” – government against opposition, lay against Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood against “literalist” salafis – in which only the army seems to remain a pillar of stability. What the TV and the main media networks do not show, however, is how this polarization is affecting the everyday life of Egyptian men and women.

While women as one of the most marginalized sectors of Egyptian society are suffering most from the precarious situation, – “women’s conditions were indeed better before the revolution”, Samah Anwar, a 24 years old young girl from Tahta (Sohag Governorate) told us – the story of the politicized situation in the country and its contamination of everyday life might best be told with another example, a seemingly trivial one, the example of the beard.

Usually a very intimate and personal question of style or cultural belonging, the beard has turned in such a decisive political symbol that every man in Egypt is now forced to think twice over having a beard or not, since his family, neighours, friends, colleagues, or fellow citizens will not only be immediately tempted to put him into one box, but since this will also expose him to daily political reactions, even violence, on the street. Indeed, to tell the “story of the beard” is to tell the protracted story of the current revolutions, their roots and their impacts on the personal life of Egyptians.

It is very common that people belonging to a certain group express their identity through a symbol, a sign, or even a specific way of dressing. This is certainly the case for the many “universes” that compose the Egyptian landscape.

For example, despite not being an absolute rule, most of Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (the Muslim Brotherhood) followers consider the beard as a way of expressing their belonging and identity. Indeed, to have the beard became such a common “practice” that former President Hosni Mubarak tried for a long time to show that people with beard are not trustable, portraying them as individuals that oppose the law and the country’s welfare.

Mubarak’s state security body even started a widespread imprisonment campaign that, sometimes subtly other times brutally, aimed at threatening any person with a beard. As the beard came to be seen as a symbol of opposition to Mubarak’s autocratic rule, several persons were unjustly imprisoned by the state security body.

Mamdouh and Muhammed, two men from Sendibis village, in the Qalyubia governatorate, were arrested by the state security with no charge other than their beards. Both of them did not belong to any specific political party: they simply considered their beards as a way to better express their increasing devotion to their religion.

Many people witnessed the contestation of the beard even in their own families. It became increasingly common that sons of different ages felt the desire to let their beards grow. A number of fathers were against it. They were not opposing it on religious grounds, but simply because they were worried that their sons could be arrested. Even more so in consideration of the fact that students and young workers are particularly monitored subjects. When the January 25 Revolution came and toppled Mubarak’s regime and his state security body, many Egyptians had the impression of witnessing a new wave of freedom and, among many other phenomena, also the number of bearded men increased.

This new feeling did not last long, however. Soon Egyptians split into two main categories: “Islamists” and liberal. The different sides started to attack each other, often fueled by TV channels that, beside advocating one of the two views, did not show middle ways which would have made less news: many Egyptians got lost in a black and white reality.

Even though newly elected President Muhammed Morsi had initially promised an inclusive government based on the idea of freedom, people didn’t see any change, except for the growing economic crisis and the cultural struggle that not a few women started in their own houses. Millions of youth, “the soul of the revolution”, felt that all the efforts that they made were in vain. Others became increasingly suspicious that the orphans of the previous regime wanted actually to get rid of Morsi: the real “sin” of Morsi, according to them, was not that he failed to work with liberals, but that he failed to cooperate with the old regime. Whatever the truth, most of the persons started to realize that Morsi would not have kept any of his promises: Egyptians started to feel deceived and angry.

Life became harder for almost everyone under Morsi, but especially for women. Two months before the anniversary of Morsi’s first year in power, a grassroot movement called Tamarod (“Rebellion”) started to collect signatures with the aim to outst Morsi and his little circle of power. Tamarod’s approach enabled a kind of mobilization that could not have happened otherwise, with just another call to head to the squares. Their campaign was warmly welcomed also in many rural areas in Upper Egypt: a result without any historical precedent.

During these days, however, a number of persons in the streets started again to harass any person with beard: if a man has the beard, this is the common assumption, is certainly affiliated to Al-Ikhwan. In the course of the time it has become increasingly common to hear comments from bus drivers and passengers that associate beards with problems such as fuel, economic crises, raising prices and so on.

These instances are repeated on a daily bases and are now part of the daily life. The ouster of Morsi has further radicalized this situation. After isolating Morsi, those who were opposing him started to take their private revenge; any man with a beard was and is considered a symbol related to Morsi’s “democratic regime”. Several check-points have been placed on the roads; bearded men have been subject to repeated insults and, in the most furious cases, their cars were smashed. These phenomena started on the Cairo-Alexandria Agricultural Road, specifically at the entrance of the city of Qaha.

The news of these harassments spread among the people in a number of villages, in Upper as well in Lower Egypt, and numerous men took the decision to shave in order to avoid problems. The feeling of being under threat was further strenghtened following the vast operation through which many Ikhwan’s leaders have been arrested and after which many TV channels have been closed: a flashback of Mubarak’s regime time.

In the present-day Egypt, beards represent just one of several symbolic “warning lights”. In such a precarious scenario, it is extremely hard to image what will come next. But one question rises above all the others. It is a question that particularly the women of Egypt, the ones that suffered harassments the most, have the right and the duty to pose: is there no third way? Is Egypt back to the same point before January 2011 Revolution?

*Maha Ezzat Elkholy is an Egyptian teacher from Sendbees (Qaliubiya Governatorate). She graduated in English language, literature and simultaneous translation from Al-Azhar University and is involved in research projects related to gender issues and gender-based violence. Lorenzo Kamel is author of two books and about twenty academic articles on the Middle East. He is an historian from Bologna University and currently (2013/2014) a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s CMES. In the second half of 2012 he was based at ‘Ain Shams University, Cairo. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 29, 2013]

Image: Basilios Bessarion’s beard contributed to his defeat in the papal conclave, 1455.| Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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