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21 June 2011

The great Egyptian divide: bikinis or beards

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

By Emanuelle Degli Esposti

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.

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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.