CAIRO (Reuters) - A wave of religious fervour and a backlash by secular liberals has left some ordinary Egyptians feeling like strangers in their own country, and civil rights activists warn of a dangerous drift into sectarianism.
Banker Hussein Khalil says organising something as simple as an evening out with friends has turned into a headache.
“These days in Egypt, either you go out with people who are very strict and agree not to go anywhere that serves alcohol, or you go out with others who just want to get drunk,” said the 27-year-old.
“Moderates are unable to enjoy their lives... We’re under pressure to join one of the two extremes.”
Egypt’s legal system is based on Islamic sharia law yet the country has a large Christian minority and the state has sought since independence to cement national identity by promoting an ideal of citizenship that transcends religious affiliation.
Religious observance was seen widely as a matter of personal conscience until the 1980s, when growing numbers of Egyptians started working in Saudi Arabia and began promoting the strict Islamic ways back home.
When thanked, most Egyptians used to say: “You are welcome”. This has been replaced by the more pious phrase: “May God reward you with goodness”.
Some women have stopped shaking men’s hands, saying it is forbidden. Many Muslim scholars say greetings are set by society, not by Islam.
In the 1970s it was rare for Egyptian women to cover their hair. Today it has become the norm. Fully veiled women in flowing black robes are a common sight and those who show their hair complain of growing pressure to cover up.
The Koran is not clear on a dress code for women but a majority of Muslim scholars consider it a religious obligation for women to cover their hair and neck.
The full veil is most popular among poor Egyptians, for whom respectability is a must in their search for a husband or job.
Among wealthier Egyptians it is a subject of bitter dispute — advocates see it as an antidote to the West’s obsession with a woman’s looks. Opponents see it as a symbol of male tyranny.
“It (the face veil) is a sign of decline and the enslavement of women,” said Bilal Alaa, a 21-year-old university student.
“Islamists got worried that modernisation would take away their power so they started to Islamise everything from politics to dress styles in order to control the people,” he said.
Sarah Elmeshad, who covers her face behind a black veil, disagrees.
“The face veil is good in a society such as today’s, where people are judged according to their looks,” said the 28-year-old mother of three, who works in public relations.
Last year a group of face-veiled students filed a lawsuit against Egypt’s leading Islamic educational institution for banning the full veil inside female-only classrooms.
Beyond state institutions, segregation has appeared, with women-only taxis and women-only beaches growing in popularity.
Fully-veiled women arriving at the expensive Marina resort on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast swap their black robes for bikinis and take part in women-only dancing and beauty contests.
Women-only beaches “are the only places I can go to do what I want, to be free, to dance and have fun, and that also goes with my religious beliefs,” said Khadiga Samir, a 21-year-old administrative assistant who covers her hair in public.
“The mixed places are fun, but I don’t feel right acting the same way there.”
A group called the Egypt Initiative For Personal Rights launched an anti-sectarian campaign this month. Organisers said they feared “rising social divisions, sectarian tension and a mindset that divides the country into an ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
Over 30 percent of Egypt’s 78 million people are illiterate and 20 percent live on less than one dollar a day, according to the United Nations.
Lawyer and rights activist Negad al-Borai said the rise of social conservatism was due to poor living conditions, sub-standard education and bad transport infrastructure that fostered a ghetto mentality.
“The worst thing this regime did was to steal the soul of people and wreak intellectual and cultural damage,” Borai said.
Egypt, a staunch western ally, has been wary of extremist religious groups since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by Islamist militants. The government fought a low-level Islamist insurgency in the 90s.
A state of emergency in force during all of President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule gives the state sweeping powers to quash dissent and rein in groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition movement.
Yet analysts say the government is not putting much effort into turning the conservative tide because it makes use of religion itself to seek legitimacy.
“The ruling power uses Islamic mottos to attract Egyptians and influence them, given the lack of a democratic system,” said political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah.
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer