The holy month of Ramadan has brought out a raging case of cultural schizophrenia, twisting Egyptians into knots over whether their society is secular, Muslim or a muddled mix
Two furious debates have been raging through the season in the Arab world's most populous nation. On the one hand, rumours that police arrested Egyptians violating the daily Ramadan fast raised dire warnings from secularists that a Taliban-like rule by Islamic law is taking over.On the other, Ramadan TV talk shows on State-sponsored television featuring racily dressed female hosts discussing intimate sex secrets with celebrities have sparked outrage from conservatives, denouncing what they call the decadence that is sweeping the nation.So is Egypt being taken over by sinners or saints? Egyptians have always been a boisterous combination - priding themselves on their piety, while determined to have a good time.Ramadan which ended yesterday in most of the Islamic world, exposed the contradictions. Egyptians widely adhere to the dawn-to-dusk fast, in which the faithful abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn until dusk. After sunset, while some pray into the night, many Egyptians party with large meals and a heavy dose of TV entertainment produced specially for the month.But the confusion comes from the Government as well. It has often promoted strict Islamic principles in an attempt to co-opt conservatives and undercut extremists whom the State has been battling for decades. But it also increasingly dominated by businessmen who this year are more heavily than ever promoting Western-style secular culture.There is no explicit law in Egypt to punish those not abiding by the fast, nor are there religious police to enforce Islamic rules as in Saudi Arabia. Many restaurants still serve during the day, and coffee shops can be seen with their doors cracked open, patrons hidden inside sipping tea or smoking water pipes.But independent newspapers reported this month that police arrested more than 150 people for openly violating the fast.Most of the reports have been unconfirmed. But Ahmed, a 27-year old fruit vendor, told The Associated Press he and 15 other people were arrested in a market in the southern town of Aswan on September 5, for smoking in public."I was slapped, kicked around," Ahmed claimed, refusing to give his last name fearing further police harassment. "They asked me why I am not fasting... They insulted me and used foul language."