A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Problem of Revolutionary Puritanism

The information here is so fragmentary that I'm not sure I should even comment, but I will anyway. You may know that an ongoing sit-in has been going on in Tahrir Square in Cairo since last Friday. Thde protesters even blocked access to the Mugamma‘, the huge government building where all the red tape afflicting Egyptian is processed, till ordinary Egyptians who need their paperwork processed had an effect and they announced it could reopen.

According to this report on the Egyptian newspaper/website Al-Youm 7, a man from Suez, entering the Square (which as I've noted before, is round) in recent days, was found by the "Popular Committee" controlling access to the Square to have a bottle of wine with him. He was seized and kicked out of the Square, and if this photo (with the paper's watermark intact) is correct it may have been poured out on his head.

Now who, precisely, controls the "Popular Committees" controlling access to Tahrir isn't clear,  but the relatively brief account calls him ahad al-baltagiyya, "one of the thugs," though it also says he was a worker from Suez who came to Cairo looking for a job. How does an unemployed man from perhaps the angriest city in Egypt become a baltagi? Just because he was carrying a bottle of wine?

The picture here and others at the link don't look like his challengers were Brotherhood or other Salafis; no beards in evidence. I can think of other reasons for their anger, but none are supported by the limited information available:

  • Were the protesters concerned that he would lead the authorities to claim there was a drunken orgy going on in Tahrir?
  • Or were these Islamists without the trademark beards?
  • Or is the issue that he was an outsider and falsely suspected of infiltration?
Or is this a case of revolutionaries showing their puritanical side? In the French and Russian revolutions there was a tension between revolutionaries who believed hedonism  and free love were signs of the revolution, and others who felt these were the vices of the old regime. But the presence of the Islamists means there will be pressure on the moral values of the revolution, and pressures to ban alcohol altogether.

Of course, maybe he was a baltagi, but nothing in the story or pictures suggests so. He looks like a job-seeker caught sneaking wine through a checkpoint.

And given what I've seen of Youm 7, this could be tabloid sensationalism and nothing more. The information's awfully sparse.

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