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Salama Abdellatif

Egyptians rise up against 'Islamist police'

bearded egyptians

CAIRO – The newly-established Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has not been met with a favorable response in Egypt despite an official declaration made by Prosecutor Talaat Abdullah, calling on citizens to arrest “seditionists” or any other person “undertaking criminal activity.” Contrary to the government’s intention, this elicited a broad wave of criticism. Opponents argue that this call paves the way for “popular strife” against the existing backdrop of an unsettled political climate.

 

The prosecutor’s decision aimed to curtail rampant truancy within police ranks, which has grown in response to Interior Minister Major General Mohammad Ibrahim’s insistence that the police stay out of political conflicts.

 

With the police in turmoil, government Islamists took the opportunity to establish the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as the ‘Islamic police’ or ‘white police’. The new police force has been met with widespread popular rejection.

 

In one such case, members of Egypt’s Jamaa Islamiyya organized motorcycle marches in their Upper Egypt stronghold in the province of Assiut, during which they wore uniforms similar to those of the traffic police and announced the launch of the ‘Islamic police’. This was met with popular disapproval so strong that the provincial police  summoned officers from their homes, asking them to postpone their strike plans so that Islamist protestors would not benefit from the streets being clear of police.

 

Still, the Jamaa did not lose hope. Tareq al-Zamr, one of its leaders, told NOW that his group does not seek to replace the police, but rather to assist it, adding that the commissions to be formed “will take part in preserving security all over Egypt” and that membership of these commissions “is open to all movements rather than for Jamaa supporters alone.” Zamr explained that these commissions will not be armed, which should dispel the fears of those who fear they might turn into “militias,” saying: “We are preparing a draft law to be submitted to parliament in order to set a legal framework for the operation of these commissions, which will be affiliated with the presidency.”

 

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice handled the wave of controversy over its establishment by issuing a statement that invited all those who wish to take part in implementing the prosecutor’s decision to join as volunteers. The Commission called “for closing shops during prayer time and closing down any venue that promotes the propagation of vice.” The Jamaa Islamiya argued that the Commission is not based on any official or legal text justifying its existence; it “will seek to promote Allah’s law.”

 

The mood prevailing among ordinary men and women, however, is set against such calls. In two notable incidents in the northern province of Alexandria and the province of Suez, citizens beat bearded men who tried to impose their presence on the streets in order to preserve security. When the men tried to yell at women for what they saw as indecent clothing and threatened them with punishment if they ever wore those clothes again, the women yelled back at them and started hitting them with their shoes before passersby rallied, caught some of bearded men and beat the ones who were too slow to escape.

 

The same scene took place in Alexandria as the inhabitants of a low-income neighborhood took to the streets with sticks and clubs, going after bearded men who tried to search passersby while invoking the pretext of being commissioned by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to preserve security.

 

Hisham al-Aashiri, the unknown figure who established this Commission, said that Egypt’s public opinion will eventually come to accept the Commission’s action once they realize the good it brings them. Aashiri told NOW that “what happened in Alexandria and Suez does not indicate that the people rejects the Commission’s action. Rather, the media are focusing on these facts to prove a particular point. In other regions however, people respect the Commission and are cooperating with it, but the media is not reporting on these models. The Commission is now in a period of ‘warning’ during which it will introduce people to its activities before moving to the ‘implementation’ stage. No one will be able to reject our action then or s/he will be punished.”

 

This article is a translation of the original Arabic

Salafists demonstrate over a lack of enforcement of a recent court order permitting bearded police officers to serve in Cairo. (AFP photo)

“What happened in Alexandria and Suez does not indicate that the people rejects the Commission’s action. Rather, the media are focusing on these facts to prove a particular point. In other regions however, people respect the Commission and are cooperating with it, but the media is not reporting on these models."