Rick Steves in the Middle East

Muslim Brotherhood rules?

Rick Steves

8:31 PM EDT, April 11, 2013


With the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, I can’t help but wonder about changes creeping into public life here. (To envision this in the USA, imagine if Pat Robertson won the presidency and his friends controlled Congress.)

Like Christianity, Islam is based upon a beautiful message. And, like Christianity, its adherents can reside anywhere along a wide political spectrum. Throughout the Muslim world, you can measure the political pulse of a country by how much women cover their heads. Displaying hair can vary from a head of hair partially covered under a colorful and stylish scarf; to a black scarf carefully covering all hair; to a black headdress with eyes looking through a slit about the size of the helmet eye-slit on medieval European armor; to completely shrouded, with eyes peering through a one-way window of black fabric. As more and more Egyptian women wear scarves in public, I think of the tension between respect for women (and the accompanying Muslim “modesty standards”) and each woman’s own personal freedom. I found myself fascinated by a woman entirely shrouded in black, munching under the tent of her head covering while sharing a picnic with her children.

And yet, amid the rising tide of state-sanctioned moralism, sexy mannequins dangle and dance in the commotion — a reminder that modesty standards only apply to women in public, and that even the most conservatively attired women dresses any way she likes in the privacy of her own home. Women who want to be both devout and fashionable in public wear scarves, but with vivid colors and built-in pleats. Some tuck their cell phone between the scarf and their ear for hands-free chatting.

For men, there are other indicators of individual religious style. The most conservative Muslim men grow beards without moustaches. And, to show how devout they are, some proudly sport a callus on their forehead — earned through lots of prayer (in which a Muslim rests his head on his prayer carpet). Cynics I met suspect that many of these calluses are aggravated by the intentional rubbing of foreheads against prayer rugs by those wanting to look particularly pious. I’ve never noticed these forehead spots before. But now, I can’t avoid seeing them everywhere — and wondering if this or that person really prays that much.

Since the revolution, the economy is in shambles. And there’s a new problem: Electricity goes out routinely. The waiting list to buy a generator grows as the trend is expected to worsen. Visiting a souvenir shop, I spend $6. The owner tells me that my purchase doubles his gross for the day. He turns lights on and off as I wander from room to room through his shop. With each flip of a switch, he grumbles about how the government is charging more and more for electricity. Businesses pay four times the residential rates, as electricity, like bread, is subsidized to keep the people from going off the deep end.

The government subsidizes baladi bread, which costs a penny a loaf. When you see a commotion crowding into a shop, it’s likely a local bakery with subsidized bread available hot out of the oven. The IMF is pushing for Egypt to cut back on such subsidies. Some locals predict that if the cost of bread and power goes up, the current government will be brought down.

While Istanbul — which I see as Cairo’s rival Muslim megacity — is evolving into a great metropolis, it seems Cairo is devolving into an urban jungle. If Cairo’s urban planners and city officials took a jaunt to Istanbul, they’d see what their city could become. But freedom and lawless chaos are confused in post-revolutionary Cairo. Rare was the person I met who’d prefer to go back to the dictatorship of Mubarak. But just as rare was the person I met who approved of today’s government.

While Turkey also has an Islamic-leaning government, that government is acting pluralistic and has gained the respect and trust of its people — even Turkey’s secular Muslims. People I meet on the street in Cairo say that the government that replaced Mubarak has so far abused its trust. They tell me the new government says one thing (for example, promising pluralism and respect for all beliefs), but does another (shutting down TV comedians who satirize them). It sees the government on a power grab, aggressively infiltrating all dimensions of society with its values — similar to how, back home, both Democrats and Republicans tend to overreach when they’re in power.