CAIRO (Reuters) - Mohamed Talaat didn’t like the fact Christian music was being played at a party to promote interfaith harmony in the Egyptian town of Minya south of Cairo, so together with a group of like-minded Islamist hardliners, he showed up to put a stop to it.
It was simply un-Islamic to broadcast Christian songs, Talaat explained.
“Egypt is Islamic and so we all have to accept Islamic rules to halt any strife,” he said by telephone.
Four months since Egypt elected veteran Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohamed Mursi as president, human rights activists say hardliners are trying to impose Islamist ways on society.
Although reliable data on social trends is hard to find in Egypt, many people believe that cases of religious intimidation have increased.
“There is no doubt that the rate of strange and violent practices by strict Islamists has increased tremendously since the election of Mursi,” said Gamal Eid, founder of The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, a human rights group.
“We have in a few months seen many more of such incidents than we have seen in years before Mursi,” he said.
Seemingly sporadic incidents are turning into what rights activists describe as an emerging pattern of abuses in the street by radicals, defying both the authority of the state and Mursi’s own promises to protect personal freedoms.
From the fatal stabbing of a young man who was out with his fiancée to the case of a conservative teacher who cut schoolgirls’ hair because it was uncovered, the examples are stacking up.
Such actions have grabbed local headlines and fuelled the worst-case-scenario fears of moderates worried by the rise of Islamists who were tightly reined in by Hosni Mubarak but have emerged as a major force since he was swept from power.
In Cairo, it seems little has changed. The capital is still a place where teenagers hold hands in public, Egyptian-brewed beer is sold and pleasure boats cruise the Nile blasting out the kind of pop music frowned upon by the hardliners.
And importantly for a tourism industry that employs one in eight Egyptians, it is business as usual at Red Sea beach resorts that are a major draw for Western tourists.
Yet, say activists, the hardliners are flexing their muscles more than before, particularly in some of the more far flung corners of a country of 83 million.
Egypt’s Christian minority, the Middle East’s largest, has lived with increasing fear of sectarian violence, which worsened in Mubarak’s final weeks and the early days of the interim military rule that followed his ouster in February 2011.
Weeks before Mubarak was ousted, 23 Coptic Christians were killed in the bombing of a church on New Year’s Day 2011. Five months later, with generals still in charge of the country, several churches in Cairo were torched and Christian houses and businesses destroyed. Fifteen people died and hundreds were wounded in the May 2011 religious unrest.
The period since Mursi took power has so far been spared violence on last year’s scale, but there have been flare-ups, such as in August when about 16 people were injured in attacks on a church in a village near Cairo.
Christians say overall the atmosphere has become increasingly menacing as the presence of hostile Salafi Muslim hardliners in public life has grown more pronounced.
“Extremists’ actions are worrying all Egyptians and not only Christians,” said Karim Goher, a Christian and one of the organisers of the halted interfaith celebration in Minya.
Since a group of youths killed a young man while he was out with his fiancée in the port city of Suez in July, there have been a steady stream of reports in a similar vein.
This week, a Suez grocer filed a legal complaint against a group of Salafis, or ultra-orthodox Muslims, who had threatened to enact religious justice against his son by cutting out his tongue. The Salafis accused the boy of insulting religion, according to Gharib Mahmoud, the grocer.
Self-appointed “committees for the propagation of virtue and elimination of vice” have surfaced elsewhere. The name evokes the religious police of Saudi Arabia, whose strict brand of Wahhabi Islam has inspired Salafis in Egypt in recent decades.
In Kafr el-Sheikh, a town in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, one such committee handed out flyers in late October warning it would “use force against violators of its instructions”. Similar acts of intimidation have been reported by Christians in the middle-class Cairo district of Shubra.
“We warn you Christian people to give up your filthy trade in filthy statues and paintings,” read a letter warning Victor Younan, an 83-year old Christian shopkeeper, to stop selling images of Jesus. Eight other Christians told Reuters they had received similar notes.
During his presidential campaign, Mursi reassured Egypt’s Christians, estimated to represent about a tenth of the population, they would be protected. Yet many remain uneasy.
The same can be said for many moderate Muslims in a country where piety runs deep but a history of violent Islamist radicalism in the 1980s and 1990s has made many suspicious of hardliners willing to take the law into their own hands.
The radicals present a headache for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties that have entered mainstream politics since Mubarak was toppled, such as the Nour Party, a salafist group which has distanced itself from what it describes as individual acts of vigilantism.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, the spokesman for the Brotherhood, said of the vice committees: “They don’t represent the Brotherhood or most of Egypt’s moderates, but only a group of minority, hardline individuals.”
“We hope such incidents vanish soon.”
But the Brotherhood has been criticised for failing to adequately spell out a moderate interpretation of Islam, leaving space for hardliners to propagate their ideas on the rights of women and Christians, for example.
“They say they will not discriminate, but don’t say what that means in terms of actions,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian political analyst and expert on Islamist groups.
The authorities appear to be applying the law where possible: the three youths behind the Suez stabbing were handed 15-year sentences in September. The Christians who received the threatening letters in Shubra reported the incident to the police, though they say there have been no arrests.
The teacher who cut the hair of her unveiled pupils was given a suspended six-month jail sentence by a Luxor court this week.
The police did not get involved in Minya, where the organisers cancelled the interfaith celebration to avoid trouble. Planned for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the October 28 event had been named “Light in Times of Darkness” and marked an effort to ease friction in the shifting political landscape.
Musicians at the event were playing both Christian and Islamic music, before Islamists ordered them to stop, said Alaa Kabawy, a Muslim who was one of several thousand attendees.
“Similar events used to happen during Mubarak’s time and nothing like this happened before. It was so shameful to see that happen,” he said. (Additional reporting by Yousri Mohamed in Ismailia; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff)