Goodbye Egypt, Hello Iran

Muslim Brotherhood sets out to ban bikinis and alcohol.

While the elections meant to turn Egypt into a democracy are yet to be held, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is already turning the country towards an Iranian-like theocracy. The MB announced recently that it wants government officials to adopt stricter regulations, mainly targeting tourists, regarding bikinis and alcohol consumption in public. In a sharia law-ruled state, which the MB hopes to introduce in Egypt, alcohol and certain women’s clothing deemed too revealing would be banned outright. The MB’s proposed alcohol and bikini restrictions probably represent the first step in making this ban a reality.

“Beach tourism must take the values and norms of our society into account,” Muhammad Saad Al-Katany, secretary-general of the Freedom and Justice Party, told Egyptian tourism officials in late August. “We must place regulations on tourists wishing to visit Egypt, which we will announce in advance.”

The Freedom and Justice Party is the political wing of the MB. It will contest elections, scheduled for this November, against 17 other political parties and stands a good chance of becoming the strongest faction in Egypt’s new parliament. But many Egyptians fear that a triumphant Freedom and Justice Party will radicalise Egyptian society, turning it into a strict, religious theocracy like Iran’s.

“This is how things began in Iran,” said Hani Henry, a psychology professor at Cairo’s American University. “The moderate youth wanted to implement changes, but the mullahs hijacked the revolution. The same thing is happening now here in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood. It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Al-Katany says his party will investigate the alcohol and bikini issue and will amend legislation accordingly after the elections. The Freedom and Justice youth director, Ali Khafagy, said the answer to this issue his party finds so offensive may lie in having tourists wear modest swimwear and separate beaches for men and women.

“Bathing suits and mixing on the beaches go against our traditions,” said Khafagy. “It’s not just a matter of religion. When I go to the beach, I don’t want to see nudity.”

But a hardcore Egyptian Salafist group, called Dawa, really stirred fears in Egypt’s tourist industry when one of its representatives, Abd Al-Minim A-Shahhat, told a London-based Arab newspaper that the tourist-attracting treasures of Egyptian antiquity, like the sphinx, pyramids and pharaonic statues should be covered up. Comparing them to idols in Mecca in pre-Islamic times, he called them un-Islamic.

“The pharaonic culture is a rotten culture,” A-Shahhat told the paper, adding the statues’ faces “should be covered with wax, since they are religiously forbidden.”

The idea that Egypt’s world-famous archaeological riches could be in danger is not so far-fetched. In Afghanistan, the sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas, a United Nations World Heritage site, were victims of similar fanatical Islamist thinking in 2001. The Taliban, declaring the Buddhas also “un-Islamic,” destroyed the centuries-old architectural gems with explosives. Defacing ancient statues of Egypt’s pharaohs with wax is not many steps away from a repetition of the Bamiyan Buddhas’ fate.

The MB’s plan to restrict alcohol consumption and bikini-wearing tourists comes at a very inopportune time. The Egyptian tourism industry, one of the country’s main foreign currency earners, was hard hit by the Arab Spring. Earning about $13 billion annually prior to last January, the number of tourists visiting Egypt declined so much due to the political unrest since late January that tourism is expected to take in only $10 billion in revenue over the next year, starting last July. The industry has been losing $862 million a month in addition to the $1.16 million it lost in the month following the uprising last January 28.

More than two million Egyptians make a living from the tourism industry. It accounts for 13 percent of all Egyptian jobs. Tourism is so important to the Egyptian economy that Islamic terrorists targeted tourists in the 1990s and killed dozens in an attempt to overthrow the Mubarak government. The worst attack occurred at a temple in Luxor in 1997, in which about 60 Western tourists were murdered by six terrorists. But this strategy backfired, as it deprived ordinary Egyptians dependent on the tourism trade of their livelihood when the tourists stopped coming. These people then turned against the radical Islamists.

As reported in a German newspaper, an Egyptian statistics office stated in July that tourist businesses were operating at only 30 percent of their normal level. At one popular tourist resort on the Red Sea, for example, all the hotels last week were closed except two. But encouragingly, the statistics office said reservations for fall and winter indicate a doubling of business for the industry. However, more violence and unrest after the November elections could see this fragile recovery disappear and new investments in the Egyptian tourism industry stalled.

Considering the importance of tourism to the Egyptian economy, there are those who believe the MB’s attempt to “Islamise” the industry will fail. One resort hotel owner told the same German newspaper that MB members are “intelligent, capitalistic people” who cannot dispense with tourism if they want to obtain and hold power. Millions of people also would take to the streets again, like last January, if their source of livelihood was endangered.

But this assessment does not take the power of ideology into account, and the willingness of ideologues to ruin countries and economies to realise their dogmatic beliefs. Iran is a good example. Even better examples are communist states, both current and former, that starved millions of their own people to death to set up their secular utopias. Rational, pragmatic thinking, as expressed by the hotel owner, plays no role among true believers, such as exist among the MB.

And neither does any feeling of humanitarianism. Like in Iran and in communist countries, it will be the ordinary people in Egypt who will go hungry and not the unfeeling religious good-thinkers and their families. The fact the proposed restrictions on tourism will affect the foreign currency supply that is used to buy wheat on world markets to feed Egypt’s poor is a strong indication of this lack of concern. The wheat price has doubled in the last year and Egypt, the largest wheat importer in the world, is already facing a large hunger problem without Islamist interference in one of its major foreign revenue generators.

One observer writes that “Islamists have never been enamoured of foreign tourism.” So it is not surprising that this area is one of the first, in which the MB publicly showed its true Islamist colors after last January’s revolution. Confrontation, even war, with Israel and the persecution and possible expulsion from Egypt of millions of Christians and moderate Muslims will also most likely follow.  As for Egypt’s struggling tourism industry, if the MB does attain political power in November, which appears most likely, it can at least help out by opening burqa-renting businesses on resort beaches.