By Hend El-Behary – Anadolu Agency
Many Egyptians felt more at ease growing beards or donning the niqab (full Islamic face veil) during the one-year tenure of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected — and first bearded — president.
But the situation, many say, has changed since Morsi was ousted by the powerful military on July 3, following mass protests against him.
Security forces and the self-styled vigilante groups that have sprung up in recent weeks seem to assume that all men with beards and all niqab-wearing women are supporters of the deposed leader, who have been staging daily mass protests since his ouster, until proven otherwise.
Both state-run and private local media stands accused of promoting the stereotype, portraying bearded men as potential militants who pose a threat to national security. The niqab, meanwhile, is portrayed as a ruse by fugitive Morsi supporters to escape arrest.
Ahmed Hussein, a 32-year-old accountant and manager of a small factory for children’s clothing, has no political affiliations.
He never supported Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, nor did he support the June 30 mass protests that culminated in Morsi’s ouster. Both, he believes, were bad for business — and bad for Egypt.
But now, Hussein says he has been forced to shun public transportation to avoid “frictions with people” for no reason other than the fact that he sports a beard.
“There is panic among many Egyptian families,” Hussein tells the Anadolu Agency.
“My neighbor, an old man, shaved his beard after being harassed and robbed by some bullies,” he laments.
“And my friend also shaved his beard after his shop was torched in [the Nile Delta province of] Menoufiya.”
From worse to worst
Hussein is very concerned about the apparent scapegoating of bearded men following Morsi’s ouster, saying that many people now look at them as potential terrorists.
“We’re living through difficult times, even worse than what we went through under toppled President Hosni Mubarak,” he asserts.
Mubarak, who ruled the country with an iron first since 1981, was removed from office by the January 2011 revolution.
“Under Mubarak, police were the only harassers, while the people defended us,” Hussein says.
“But now people hate us. They think we’re terrorists who want to attack them,” he regrets.
“The public hostility is much worse than harassment by security officers.”
One day after security forces violently dispersed an anti-coup sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square earlier this month, Hussein took the metro to work.
But when he entered the metro station, many passengers gave him angry looks; others bad-mouthed him.
“What hurt me the most was when one shouted, ‘Look! The dogs showed up again’,” he says.
“People now verbally and physically harass any bearded man, whether or not he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood,” agrees Moataz Reda, an Arabic-language proofreader.
Reda does not belong to any political parties and had been opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“But after the dispersal [of the pro-Morsi sit-ins] and the bloodshed, now I sympathize with them,” he tells the AA.
Mohamed Ahmed, a 25-year-old reporter, has also had bad experiences because of his beard.
“I was driving my car when a vigilante in the Hadayek al-Ahram neighborhood stopped me,” he recalls.
“One of them asked me, ‘Why are you growing your beards?’ So I asked if beards had become illegal,” Ahmed recounts.
“He answered, ‘No, but they [the Muslim Brotherhood] made us hate all bearded people’.”
Ahmed blames state-run and private media for the situation, accusing them of deliberately promoting such stereotypes.
“They broadcast around the clock to distort the image of bearded men to make people believe that Brotherhood members — or any man with a beard or any woman with niqab — are the new devils,” he fumes.
Hussein, the accountant, could not agree more. He accuses the media of twisting facts and brainwashing people.
“If I’m killed, I will never forgive this misleading media.”
Ahmed, the reporter, meanwhile, is too frightened to even wear a t-shirt depicting the four-fingered salute commemorating those slain at Rabaa al-Adawiya, or put the logo on his car.
The four-fingered salute on a yellow background has recently emerged as a symbol of victory and defiance, in remembrance of the hundreds of anti-coup demonstrators killed on August 14, when security forces violently dispersed the Rabaa sit-in.
“Frankly, I’m looking forward to leaving this country,” says a clearly frustrated Ahmed.
Targeting the niqab
Husein, for his part, laments that the harassment has not only targeted bearded men, but niqab-wearing women as well.
“One day, my wife came back from the market in tears and said in a broken voice, ‘People were mocking me,'” he remembers.
His wife has not been the only one to suffer.
“I was buying things in a shop and there was this other woman carrying a picture of Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi,” a female engineer who wears the niqab tells the AA, preferring anonymity.
“When she saw me, her face changed completely. She took a deep breath and asked for God’s forgiveness, as if I was the devil,” she adds.
News reporter Radwa Ragab says her veiled mother, too, has suffered considerably since Morsi’s ouster.
“If I and my friends are passing through an army checkpoint, no one would stop us,” she tells the AA.
“But if my mother is riding next to me, the soldiers will stop us and inspect every inch of the car.”
According to Ragab, people even harass her mother when she is driving. Nor can her mother walk the track as she used to at the club that they frequent.
“Someone once even told her, ‘Leave the country; you ruined our country’,” she recounts.
“My entire family, including my mum, is anti-Brotherhood,” notes a cynical Ragab.
“She didn’t even vote for Morsi.”