Along miles and miles of crowded beachfront in Egypt’s second city, women in bathing suits are nowhere in sight.
On Alexandria’s breeze-blown shores, they all wear long- sleeve shirts and ankle-length black caftans topped by head scarves. Awkwardly afloat in the rough seas, the bathers look like wads of kelp loosened from the sandy bottom.
The scene would be unremarkable in Saudi Arabia or Iran, where hiding the feminine body is mandated by Islamic-based strictures. In Alexandria — a storied town of sensuality and openness — the veiled beachgoers, coupled with sectarian conflicts, represent the loss to some residents of a valued, diverse identity in favor of religious uniformity.
“Here is the front line of a battle between secularists and Islamic fundamentalism,” said Mohamed Awad, director of the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center, part of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, itself an evocation of the ancient library whose reputation for scholarship helped give the city its pluralistic credentials.
If the issue were only bathing attire — or the gradual disappearance of alcohol from open-air seaside cafes to avoid insults from passing pedestrians — the phenomenon might be just a curiosity. But there are sharper signs of intolerance: increasing Christian-Muslim clashes unfamiliar to old Alexandrine eyes.
‘They Will Die’
On April 4, a Muslim man was allegedly stabbed by his Coptic Christian landlords in a dispute over garbage collection, according to a July 30 report by the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human-rights watchdog. When the man died the next day, Muslims praying at a mosque in the city’s Karmouz district chanted “they will die” and then trashed Christian-owned stores, the report said.
Similar events in the past three years include Muslims storming homes they said were Coptic churches functioning without government permit. Copts, about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, are an indigenous denomination founded in Alexandria around 61 A.D.
The violence is particularly striking in a city whose skyline is dotted by minarets and church steeples and where, at least in the memory of Alexandrian novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, religion hasn’t always triggered public disputes. He has written two novels of Alexandria’s 20th-century past, with longing for a kind of golden age of diversity.
“I wish we could go back to being the city of Cleopatra,” said another author, Haggag Oddoul, in an interview.
The Alexandria of lore emerged as a major 19th century transshipment port with Europe, celebrated by Arab, Egyptian and Western writers as a cosmopolitan paradise where sailors mingled at cafes with exiles from Syria and Greece, businessmen from Italy, and, eventually, women in sundresses.
In 1956, Great Britain and France, with the help of Israel, invaded Egypt to recover control of the recently nationalized Suez Canal, through which nearly one-tenth of world trade now passes. The attempt failed, and communities of Greeks, Armenians, Italians, French and Jews fled as the definition of Egypt narrowed to an Arab nation in a homogenous Arab world.
Since then, Alexandria has become home to oil refineries that have helped swell its population to more than 5 million. The immigrants, many from Egypt’s overcrowded countryside, submerged the scene in a tidal wave of poverty and ideology.
Now, Arab nationalism and Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism have a new rival: the push for an Islamic Egypt. Abdel Meguid attributes this to influence from conservative Persian Gulf nations — in particular Saudi Arabia, a destination for thousands of Egyptians seeking work.
“We are no longer a universal city of song, dance, culture and art,” he said.
Awad’s center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina strives to reverse that trend, spreading “internationalism” and promoting “a healthy spirit of diversity, pluralism and interaction among civilizations,” according to its Web site. And yet “the library is an island,” he said.
The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition force, has its major base of support in the city, according to national press accounts. There, as in other Egyptian urban centers, the Brotherhood provides health care, subsidized food and social services for the poor.
The group is the prototype for Islamic political parties across the Middle East — and nostalgia for a legendary multicultural past doesn’t guide its agenda.
“At the end of the day, that’s all history,” said Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood member of parliament.
A leaflet advising women on proper Islamic coverings is posted in the lobby leading to Saleh’s office. Caftan and long head scarf are correct. A skimpy head scarf accompanied by jeans is wrong.
Christian-Muslim tensions aren’t a symptom of intolerance but of “insults” to Islam by Copts, he said. “Sometimes, secular activists try to raise the pressure on us by saying Muslims are against Christians.”
Alexandria needs “stable” community values, he insisted. Sensuality, if it means sexuality, is not part of the social equation. Even the library — with its museum that includes pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic relics — is misguided, Saleh said.
“There, Islam is just one topic among many. We don’t like those naked Greek statues. Anyway, that’s over. Islam should have a special status at the library,” he said. “This is a Muslim city in a Muslim country; that is our identity.”