The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Alex fallacy: blaming Islamists for demography

Foreign Policy runs a series of photos of Alexandrian beaches in 1959, "when Alexandria was once Club Med." But, "by the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam." Except in fact, Alexandria today is probably Club Meddier than it ever was. The only difference between then and now is that while in the 1950s, the party scene was east of the inner harbor (and was then mostly restricted to non-Muslim minority communities), the last time I went out carousing in Alex the party scene was west of the inner harbor, in Agami, and Muslims were fully represented among the scantily-clad, Heineken-drinking gilded shabab.

It's true that the Ikhwan are strong in Alexandria. But -- and someone more familiar with Alexandrian history may correct me -- I doubt that the changes in eastern Alexandria's beach scene had much to do with an Islamic or any other reaction against Hosni Mubarak's "secularism." Rather, they had to do with demography: Nasser squeezed out the minority communities and people from Delta villages moved in, as part of the general trend of rural migration to the cities. A significant proportion of the beach front was taken and given to professional syndicates, which tended to attract a more family-oriented crowd. The party scene then picked up and moved moved 20 kilometers to the west. Or, given that more people have cars now than they used to, beach-crazy shabab simply go to the Sinai or Hurghada. I don't want to give Nasser a pass on his appalling xenophobic policies, but I suspect that the decline of beer and bikinis in eastern Alexandria would have happened anyway.

There's a general and I think erroneous trend to use pictures from the past to suggest that Egypt has become a lot more conservative. It's a bit like watching high society movies from the Depression, and concluding that Americans are a lot poorer today than they were in the 1930s. Yes, young Egyptian women from the 1950s were occasionally photographed wearing miniskirts, whereas today you see a lot of the women downtown wearing hegabs. But those young miniskirt-wearing women from the 1950s represent probably the very top of the social pyramid, whose equivalents today are traveling or working abroad on their own before marriage or otherwise acting in a way that would give a 1950s patriarch an aneurism. I'd even be willing to bet that most of the 1950s elite had less autonomy than all today's middle classes -- who, whether or not they choose to wear a hegab, are out working jobs, choosing their own boyfriends/marriage partners, and creating revolutions.

Steve Negusqu15 Comments