The strange irony of social changes in present day Egypt is that the city of Alexandria, once the center of the intellectual world and in modern times a city priding itself for its multi-cultural  population which inspired novelists such as E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell to write about its marvelous cosmopolitanism, as well as a city which has been the seat of the Coptic Papacy, the Greek Orthodox  Patriarchy, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the inspiration to many Muslim scholars and artists, has now become the bastion of one of Islam’s most radical and intolerant faction: the Salafists. This is a faction that, until a year ago, was hardly noticed in Egypt but after the Tahrir Revolution of 25th January 2011 has seemingly shot out of the woodwork and, almost overnight, has become a dominant political and social force in the land.

I was born in Alexandria in 1948, when the city still retained much of its cosmopolitan character and when the three great Semitic religions  –Islam, Christianity and Judaism—  co-existed side by side, as well as people of different cultural and racial backgrounds: Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Turks, Maltese and other Europeans  —many of whom had been in Egypt for several generations. In the case of my family, which was of Italian, Maltese and Belgian mixture, it can be traced to the 1830s. My father was born in Alexandria in 1905 and died there in 1966. My mother was born in Alexandria in 1910 and died in 2009. Both lay side by side in the Latin Cemetery outside the old city gates.

The Alexandria that lives in my memory is of a beautiful city of mixed cultures and creeds, a city that evokes a glorious and splendid phase in the story of mankind, and that reverberates whenever is mentioned the names of Cleopatra, Euclid, Theon, Hypatia and many more illustrious characters who have left their indelible mark in world history.  Deep was my sadness and shame, therefore, when I was told this morning by a friend that a documentary was aired on Spanish television showing extreme Islamists/Salafists covering city monuments in Alexandria which they deemed ‘offensive’ to Islam  (such as statues depicting the female body,  one being of a ‘mermaid’ in a traffic roundabout).

Since early 2012 the ‘new’ Egyptian Parliament is dominated 70% by ‘Islamists’ of which 30% are from the Salafist ‘Nour Party’ (created last year after the Tahrir Revolution). Yesterday this Parliament selected a Constituent Assembly to  draft the ‘New’ Constitution of Egypt, the mahority are from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salfists. In the course of the last few months there has been outcries from some extreme Islamists —many from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists—  demanding, among other things, that all women in Egypt wear the veil, that men don a beard, that alcoholic beverage in public places and bikinis on beaches be forbidden, and that entertainments deemed un-Islamic such as belly-dancing be banned. One can only wonder, therefore, what kind of ‘New Constitution’ will come out if people like them are involved in drafting it.  But let us also be fair: not all Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood members are like that. Indeed many are very nice people and moderate in their thinking. But unfortunately these ‘moderate’ stand aside while the extremists attempt to have their way.

Let me be absolutely clear: I have nothing against Islam. I have lived and worked in many Muslim countries (Egypt, Oman, Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia). My closest friends are Muslims and Egyptians, and I have the utmost respect for their religious beliefs and their Arab traditions. Anyone who has visited Egypt will agree with me that Egyptians are very tolerant, friendly, compassionate and generous people. They love life, they love to enjoy themselves and they love to welcome foreigners who come to Egypt and pride themselves on their hospitality. In my view, anyone who wants to change these admirable qualities, and who wants to turn Egyptians towards obscurantism and intolerance cannot be regarded as a true ‘Egyptian’, but rather as ones indoctrinated by the bigoted and hypocritical Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia.

Let those who practice their religion, however radical it may be, be free do so in the way they choose. But no one should be allowed to force others to do the same. History has shown that if this is allowed to happen, it will lead to disaster. This is why I am speaking out. I love Egypt, and I want to see it prosper. I want to see all its people prosper and live in peace together.

Democracy is based on the respect and tolerance of all creeds and races, and equality for all.


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