Egyptians sit in a cafe-shop in the al-Azhar quarter in Cairo, Egypt. Bela Szandelszky /Press Association. All rights reserved.During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise till sunset and behave in ways that compliment the month’s holiness.
At the beginning of the holy month in Egypt, policemen were roaming the streets closing down local cafes (kahawy), kicking customers out and fining the owners. On social media it was reported that the policemen invading these cafes used brutal tactics as well as offensive language, accusing those present of being “Kufar” or disbelievers whether they were Christian or Muslim. However, this is not an entirely new phenomenon: it had taken place once before a few years previously, in 2009, in Aswan.
In one of the videos circulated online, there was coverage of what the police had been doing. This video was obviously approved by security forces, as it painted a completely different picture to what had been reported by bystanders and those present. The coverage portrayed them as virtue groups that ‘command virtuousness and prevent vices’ – similar to those in Saudi Arabia. This went viral on social media and, as on many other occasions, turned into a virtual argument between the so-called ‘conservatives’ and the ‘open minded’.
The main argument of the ‘conservatives’ was that the customers in the cafes were openly showing they weren’t fasting and that this amounted to disrespect to the holy month. They claimed that what the police were doing was the least that should have been done. Moreover, they were astonished by those condemning the police, defending their actions by stating that Muslim youth were wandering away from their “path of righteousness”.
On the other hand, those criticizing the state’s reaction said that it was illegal to dictate people’s consumption habits and that it was a violation of basic human rights. But the most vital question – besides the crackdown – is “who” is trying to make piety so binding in Egyptian society? The Egyptian police force? The police that have such an infamous reputation, till this day, of repression, torture, profanity, oppression, mass and arbitrary arrests, corruption, etc…?
The irony is that while they were supposedly trying to “preserve society’s values” they were themselves violating them verbally and physically, neglecting the holiness of the month they refer to. Moreover, none of the places raided were in affluent neighbourhoods, fancy hotels or internationally franchised cafes. They were modest popular local street cafes - “Kahawy”.
Similar practices take place in other countries in the region. Iran criminalizes public eating or drinking during the holy month, and the virtue police make women cover their hair with the hijab. In the United Arab Emirates it is also illegal to eat or drink in public, and if someone is caught they are arrested and fined.
In Kuwait, not only are those who break the fast punished but whoever takes part in the unlawful act is also a criminal. The punishment is either a fine that can reach 100 Dinar, jail up to a month or even the closure of the restaurant or café for good. In Iraq it is also not allowed, but if a restaurant or café are open and serving, they are obliged to provide cover in order not to offend passersby.
When the state – with all its corruption – decides to become virtuous, alarm bells ring. Because all this can do is backfire. As the state takes on the role of the custodian of virtuousness, it leaves its people questioning who’s responsible for ensuring the delivery of health care, education, human rights, … shouldn’t they prioritize creating a just society, rather than go around preaching piety.
In Iran, for example, repression due to religious practices backfired. This Ramadan Iranian activists organized a campaign to abstain from fasting and broke the fast publically during daytime to challenge the law that bans it.
In Egypt, Human Rights advocates commented that the state does not have the legal right to repress people for not participating in the rituals of the holy month. However, other officials denied these allegations, stating that they had the duty to stop them and report them to court. Then a representative of the Ministry of Interior claimed that the security officials had acted on their own accord. If this is true, the fact that representatives of the Interior Ministry had free reign to bully citizens is a disgrace and exemplifies how much control the ministry has over its security officials.
In conclusion, these laws whether supported by religious scholars or not will always cause controversy, especially when they are only enforced on the less powerful and the underprivileged.
People may agree or dısagree on whether drinking or eating during the holy month is a crime, yet when the police give it the time of day more than actual crimes one is left wondering what or who they serve.