The great Egyptian divide: bikinis or beards

Islamists and secularists vie for public opinion in the run up to September's elections.

Facebook was arguably a major player in the popular Egyptian uprising that led to the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime in the Spring. Now the social networking site once again finds itself at the heart of political and social upheaval in the country.

As Egypt prepares for its upcoming elections later this year, Islamists and secularists have turned to Facebook as their platform of choice for a high-profile sparring match.

The Salafist-inspired Islamists last month launched an online campaign -- dubbed "one million beards" -- aimed at spreading devout religious observance in the country.

Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have reportedly enjoyed a growing influence since the fall of Mubarak's regime. Presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh is a member of the Brotherhood and Egyptian authorities have recently recognised the first Salafist political party.

Secularists have hit back, launching a "one million bikinis" campaign to parody that of the Islamists. Their slogan? "Freedom, transparency and nothing to hide."

But the tongue-in-cheek nature of the campaign only thinly veils a deeper --and growing -- rift between secularists and Islamists in Egypt. Tellingly, the "one million beards" Facebook page has amassed more than 2,000 followers since its creation, while that of the "one million bikinis" campaign boasts less than 200. Of course, any extrapolation from such figures must be cautious in the extreme, but it draws attention to the clash of values currently underlying Egyptian political discourse.

A further worrying trend in the past few months has been the re-emergence of attacks against Coptic Christians. Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out against such attacks, but the intolerance and prejudices perpetrated by Islamist extremists against the minority Christian community look unlikely to change anytime soon.

As is often the case, the situation in Egypt is more nuanced and more complex than western commentators would like to believe. Yet this example demonstrates that Egyptians still retain their characteristic sense of humour and perseverance in the face of adversity. Long may it continue.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.