Before violent clashes filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mohammed Morsi declared massive presidential powers on Nov. 22, a disturbing spate of less-noticed acts of aggression unfolded nearby.
Two women wearing face veils cut off the hair of an unveiled Christian woman riding Cairo’s subway on Nov. 11. A week earlier, another fully veiled woman cut the hair of an unveiled 13-year-old girl riding the subway.
During the same week, an Egyptian court in the southern town of Luxor sentenced an Egyptian schoolteacher to a suspended prison sentence for cutting off the hair of two unveiled 12-year-old girls.
The incidents didn’t command widespread attention during Egypt’s latest political turmoil, but they illustrated a dynamic that worries secularists and religious minorities: Is an Islamist-dominated government fueling an Islamist-hardening of Egyptian culture?
The cruelly cut hair of a few Christian women isn’t the only sign pointing to yes. President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, deepened those fears by declaring a sweeping set of new presidential powers: The declaration exempts Morsi’s decisions from judicial review, leaving the president with power over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. (Morsi had already claimed authority over the legislature after his election in June.)
Thousands of demonstrators poured into Tahrir Square to protest the decree that gives Morsi far more power than President Hosni Mubarak held before his ouster in February 2011. Egypt’s highest body of judges called the power grab an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary. Protesters in Tahrir Square carried signs warning that Morsi had declared himself the country’s new pharaoh.
Morsi said the decision was necessary to help the struggling post-revolutionary country through an unstable transition period. The president’s spokesman said the decree had some limits, though it remained unclear what (if any) decisions Morsi would allow to undergo judicial review. Protesters didn’t accept Morsi’s promise not to oppress anyone, and a growing coalition of political leaders denounced the presidential decree, including at least one former Muslim Brotherhood leader.
Political turmoil has been brewing for months, as a committee drafting a new constitution began falling apart. Secular and Christian leaders complained that hardline Islamists were determined to draft a constitution heavily influenced by Sharia law. Such a document could threaten already-endangered religious liberties and freedom of speech.
By early November, at least 20 members of the constitutional assembly had resigned. Those members included representatives from Egyptian churches.
Hardline Salafi groups protested when the newly appointed pope for Egypt’s Coptic Christians called for a secular constitution. Pope Tawadros II told an Egyptian television station in early November he would encourage long-marginalized Christians to become more involved in public and political life, and he called on the constitutional assembly to draft a document that would protect all Egyptians: “Any additions or hints that make the constitution religious will not be acceptable, not only to Copts but to many sectors in society.”
Less than a week later, thousands of Islamist demonstrators filled Tahrir Square calling for a constitution informed by Islamic law. Some carried signs calling for a return to punishments like cutting off the hands of thieves.
The Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t advocated such a strict adherence to Sharia law in civil life in Egypt, but Christians and secularists who worry about their future under Morsi are also worried about the kinds of chants pouring from Islamists in Tahrir Square: “The Quran is our constitution.”