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City's laid-back past is history

Once a byword for tolerance in Egypt, Alexandria has taken a dramatic turn toward Islamic conservatism.

June 10, 2007|Hamza Hendawi | Associated Press

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — A white marble statue of a nude Aphrodite in a playful pose is on display in the antiquities museum of the Library of Alexandria. One story up, sociology major Dalia Mohammed, a devout Muslim covered head to toe, is studying for a spring term paper.

The ancient sculpture of the Greek goddess of beauty and the Egyptian student represent contrasting Alexandrias.

The statue, discovered at a spot close to the library, harks back to the Mediterranean city's days as the center of enlightenment in the ancient world -- and its 19th and 20th century past as a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews of different ethnic backgrounds lived in harmony.

Mohammed is a child of today's Alexandria -- a city that has divorced itself from its liberal traditions and easygoing ways and instead adopted religious conservatism, with Islamists holding sway.

It is the way most of Egypt has gone. But given Alexandria's fabled past, there may not be another place in this nation of about 80 million people -- mostly Muslim but with a significant Christian minority -- where the change is more pronounced.

The only women in Alexandria who don't wear the Islamic veil are Christians and a small minority of Muslims. Women have long stopped wearing swimsuits on the city's popular beaches. Those who wish to take a swim do so under the cover of predawn darkness.

"Alexandrians have lost their traditional ties to the beach and sea," lamented Mona AbdelSalam, 42, an independent journalist, who says she would only wear a swimsuit on exclusive private beaches or at the pools in luxury hotels.

Most of the city's famous bars, restaurants and night spots are no longer in business, their owners long ago returned to Europe for good. Only a few -- mostly elderly people -- remain from the once prosperous and large expatriate community of Greeks, Cypriots, Italians, French and Armenians who once made Alexandria Egypt's most cosmopolitan city.

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist group, has more lawmakers elected from Alexandria than from any other city. The city of 5 million people also has a large Salafi movement, a brand of Islam more extreme than the Brotherhood -- its followers are recognized by their long beards and shorter-than-usual robes. They preach a ban on contacts between Muslims and Christians, and residents blame them for violent clashes with Christians in recent years.

The city's move toward fundamentalism has driven away the wealthy and secular middle-class Egyptians who once flocked to Alexandria in the summer for its beaches and nightlife.

It is a far cry from the Alexandria depicted in dozens of well-known Egyptian movies dating back to the 1940s in which young men and women found love while vacationing in the city. Endless popular songs from the era laud the city's cool sea breeze, the beauty of its women and how easy love flourishes.

Mohammed is more the model for the new Alexandria.

She says she avoids contact with men in her college, doesn't go to the beach for reasons of modesty and has only Christian acquaintances, not friends, in her mixed neighborhood of Muharram Bey, the scene of Muslim-Christian clashes in late 2005 and early 2006 that killed six people.

"We cannot be close friends with Christians, but we can be civil to each other," she said.

The older of two daughters born to a father working in the Persian Gulf and a homemaking mother, Mohammed says she began wearing the veil at 16.

"I felt it was the right time for me," said the slender young woman, though she wears the bright colors, tight top and loads of jewelry popular among young women who strive to fuse Islamic modesty with being trendy.

"You cannot say that what I am wearing is strictly Islamic, but it will do for now," she explained with a smile. "I will wear loose clothes when I am older."

A gradual evolution

What has influenced a young woman like Mohammed to become so conservative and insular is the story of Egypt, where authoritarian rule, chronic economic woes and a culture of corruption have pushed millions to find refuge in a strict interpretation of their faith.

President Hosni Mubarak has shown zero tolerance for militant Islamic groups, jailing thousands and endorsing the execution of dozens since coming to office in 1981. At the same time, his government has sought to match the appeal of Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood, cracking down on public shows of irreverence to religion and dragging its feet on granting women and Christians their full rights.

Combined, the spread of religious fundamentalism, economic hardships and the political exclusion of most Egyptians have built an increasingly intolerant society, resistant to change and suspicious of outsiders.

"You are lonely in Alexandria if you're not religious," said Malek Mustapha, 29, a political blogger who makes a living designing Internet sites.

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