(Stella Bar in Downtown Cairo on a quiet afternoon)
Late last month I wrote a piece for The Sunday Business Post (and reported for Morning Ireland) focusing on the major foreign and domestic challenges facing the new President of Egypt- Mohamed Morsi. I addressed topics such as the economy, Palestine, tourism, the constitutional crisis etc.
But it’s unlikely that these are the issues that most dominate many Western minds, when they contemplate an Islamist coming to power. The "big issues" that people often mention first are- Beer and Burqas.
Well of course, these are not really the "big issues"- but sure I will throw a few words at them anyway.
Alcohol is brewed and drunk in Egypt as a minority pursuit. In Cairo outside of hotels, there are not many bars catering for a city of 20 million.
The downtown bar scene is wonderfully counter culture, bars do not advertise their existence much, and although legal, drinking in them has an almost Chicago prohibition-era feel to it. Places like Stella Bar on Talat Harb, are difficult to find- but have an authentic local (baladi) atmosphere.
My favourite haunt is Hureya, where drinking on a Thursday has to be one of the most interesting experiences in Egypt’s capital. There is a decent guide to the baladi bar scene here on line, but even with the map sometimes it can be difficult to locate the bars. But the searching adds to the fun of an evening and oddly makes the beer taste better as well.
(Walking into Hureya, in Downtown Cairo, on a busy Thursday evening)
I personally think Morsi is unlikely to severely restrict the sale of alcohol, especially when attempting to attract tourists back to Egypt. However it is understandable that bar owners, and their patrons might be a little worried.
But headscarves and the issue of women’s rights is more complex.
When I wrote my book about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and occupation a few years back, I had one chapter entitled “More than one Wall” that focused on women in the region. My own observations of my time in the region were combined with wider reading on the subject. It was by far the most difficult chapter to write- partly because we all carry prejudice into this topic. I might consider myself “progressive” etc- but I am still a product of a patriarchal western society (albeit much more equal than a few decades back), and up until relatively recently a very conservative, religious one at that (Ireland). This might affect my own viewpoint, perhaps on a subconscious level, I don't know. Also the "west" (whatever that is) obviously does not have all the answers when it comes to sexual politics.
However the chapter got the most active (mostly positive) reaction from readers- maybe it’s because I had no very clear conclusions in it rather falling back on the easier position of saying “it’s complex”. (Maybe readers also liked it because I come across a little foolish in parts!)
(Scarfs- the first thing many people think of when they conjure up the image of an Arab woman in their mind. This is a picture from the local market where I lived in Dokki. Really Egyptian women have probably more to be worried about with SCAF than scarfs)
Egypt remains predominantly a traditional and patriarchal society. Undoubtedly the Brotherhood is a socially conservative organisation, and women rights activists will carefully observe every action taken by the new Morsi led government in this area.
Some of the issues women face in Egypt are somewhat specific, like chronic street harassment and female genital mutilation, others would be familiar in Ireland, like embarrassingly low representation in parliament and access to abortion facilities.
Morsi has promised that he will not enforce the wearing of headscarves for instance- but some still worry that if he cannot fulfil his commitment to improve the economic situation he may fall back on implementing “conservative social measures” to please his most religious of supporters.
But if in the context of sexual equality Egypt is not western Europe, it is far from Saudi Arabia either. The vast majority of Muslim women wear hijabs (a much smaller minority wear burqas), however among the young (and more middle class), the brightly coloured headscarves and the accompanying tight fitting clothes certainly do not disguise their womanhood.
For all the problems facing them, Egyptian women participate in media, business, education and many sectors of society.
Any major move to severely restrict women rights further would provoke the revolutionary and women’s movement, something that Morsi could do without considering the mountain of problems which already face him.