CAIRO — Four years after Egyptians ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, many people, especially in Europe, have lost hope in the country. Its elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, was swept from power — and his death sentence was recently confirmed.
Headed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the armed forces, elements of the Mubarak regime are back in power with a vengeance. Meanwhile, many leaders of the Tahrir Square protests are in jail. Egyptian political freedom and democracy seem to be farther away than ever. But what’s happening now is much deeper than a so-called Arab spring or winter.
Hidden from the public eye, a social revolution is transforming Egypt.
For the first time in fifty years, women have started to take off their hijabs. Every Egyptian seems to know at least one woman in his or her family or circle of friends that has committed this small but significant act of revolt.
And this is not the only secular act gaining currency among Egyptians. In private, more and more people are discussing taboos like atheism — or even sexual identity. In this way, they are defying not only the strict fundamentalism of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the “establishment” Islam defended by the current regime.
This silent revolution contradicts the daily news we get from the Arab world. All eyes are focused on the Islamic State. After the horrors of the Taliban and al Qaeda, the world is shocked to see an even more extreme and barbaric version of Islamist rule carrying out a reign of terror.
But are more people becoming extremists, or are the extremists becoming more extreme?
No doubt some Egyptians have become more extreme since the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Some Brotherhood recruits may even be joining the Islamic State or other Islamist groups.
But much more important is what’s happening among Egypt’s silent majority. Here, the opposite trend is becoming clear: Fewer taxi drivers are prominently displaying the Quran in their cars. Hijabs are coming off. And the young revolutionary generation is attending prayers less often.
Egyptian columnist Rana Allam wrote how shocked she was when her “12-year-old suddenly started disrespecting sheikhs” and her friend’s 13-year-old son stopped going to the mosque “because the imam kept slandering unveiled women and the boy couldn’t take any more insults to his mother.” Most only denounce the political Islam that is preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism.
There are no reliable surveys on these trends. A religious institution in Cairo claimed that there were precisely 2,293 atheists in the Arab world, with 866 of them living in Egypt. But Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi has been able to find “over 250 pages or groups, with memberships ranging from a few individuals to more than 11,000,” on Facebook alone.
There are no statistics at all of how many women have taken off their hijabs or how many people who have come out as LGBT. For the time being, we can only fall back on personal stories that might be representative of what is unfolding in Egypt.
One such story is about a conservative family in the city of Port Said. Two sisters in their thirties, Marwa and Heba, discovered just after the fall of President Morsi that the books they grew up reading were printed and distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shocked to learn this, they began to rethink their worldviews and ended up questioning the very basis of their religion.
“Only after Morsi fell, I discovered that Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) wrote the foreword to the book Living Along the Sunni Lines,” Marwa said. “I grew up with this book. Now I begin to doubt everything.”
The sisters’ hijabs became more fashionable and less conservative. Then they disappeared altogether.
Amira, 28, had a less political, more personal story. She told me that she started wearing the hijab at the age of 12 because she wanted to avoid attracting sin. Her upper class parents couldn’t live with this, so she went to live with her grandparents. Twelve years later, her parents have become more conservative. Her mother is now wearing a hijab herself. But Amira has taken hers off, wanting to “feel the wind in her hair.”
Donia, 35, decided to take her hijab off right after the 2011 revolution. After her first swim without it, she said: “I could feel the water on my body — such liberation. It was the second-best liberating feeling after the fall of Mubarak.”
Egyptian youth are now taking this silent revolution to social media as well. Grindr, a dating app for gay men, and its lesbian counterpart, Wapa, have taken the country by storm. Thousands of gays and lesbians are willing to put their names and photos into the public sphere in order to meet each other. We tested this by joining these dating apps ourselves — our mailboxes were full within a single week.
“I felt like finally finding myself,” says Islam, a gay man who just came out. “I’m being accepted, and I’m grateful for this, especially among my female friends.” It’s even becoming trendy among women to have gay friends, especially among those who spent their youth watching the American series Sex and the City.
Houda, a 30-year-old marketing manager, found a way to live as a lesbian even after being pushed into marriage. “I’m finally in love. My girlfriend understands it, and my husband accepts it,” she said. “He literally lit the way for me as I was about to kill myself.”
Ahmed, a 34-year-old gay man, came out in 2011. He struggled with his family and with their refusal to accept his openness about his sexual identity. At one point, he even requested sexual asylum in Europe, but being the fighter he is, and believing in freedom, he decided to stay in Egypt — and ended up becoming a famous artist. Eventually, his family accepted him and embraced his lifestyle.
The Egyptian regime doesn’t like this new trend. The government and its supporters may be the arch enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, they see themselves as guardians of the conservative Islamic society they know and are doing everything they can to halt a transformation they view as going too far.
In Alexandria, a special police task has been created to arrest atheists.
On Jan. 10, Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old student, was sentenced to three years in prison for posting that he was an atheist on Facebook.
Last December, police arrested 26 men in a bathhouse and charged them with debauchery after being tipped off by a prominent television anchor. The men were only acquitted after an anal examination proved they had not “committed” any homosexual acts. In the same month, police closed a bar in downtown Cairo because “it had been housing groups of atheists.”
These crackdowns — as well as the personal stories of liberation — are just a few of many. But they demonstrate what’s happening on the ground in Egypt.
It’s a battle between the conservative establishment employing the old tools of dictatorship and the young, revolutionary generation taking to social media and other innovative platforms. A battle between a society that is used to telling people who they should be and a generation that wants to be what it is.
In Europe, putting a veil on is considered rebellious, while in Egypt, the act of rebellion is taking it off.
It’s not wearing the veil that makes one conservative — nor does not wearing the veil make one progressive. It’s the act of change and rebellion that makes the difference. Egypt’s 2011 revolution may have failed on many levels, especially politically. But it succeeded in convincing a young generation that it can be free if it really wants to be — at least in people’s minds and in their personal lives.
This generation of people younger than 25 is not a small group — it’s 50 percent of Egypt’s population. This was the generation that made the 2011 revolution happen. And now, in a different way, it’s transforming the country again. This social revolution is a silent one, so far — but in the long run, it may lead to a deeper change than anyone would expect.
The article was first published in Foreign Policy and is published in The Brussels Times with the author’s consent.