The murder of a Suez student and reports of the harassment of unveiled women have triggered a public scare and heated debate about the perpetrators, reports Gihan Shahine The recent murder of a 20-year-old engineering student, Ahmed Hussein Eid, who was fatally stabbed as he was walking his fiancÃ© home in the port city of Suez by three bearded men, has triggered a heated public debate.
The allegedly Islamist-inspired crime sparked fears of growing extremism in a society that has been increasingly fearful of the rise of the Islamists since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak last year.
The idea that Eid could have been killed at the hands of men who looked like Islamists immediately sparked debate about whether the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power could have emboldened zealots, repressed under the former regime, to commit "morality crimes" or to attempt to set society on a conservative course.
Egypt has been in the grip of an unprecedented wave of rumours and conspiracy theories that have left little space for truth since the 25 January Revolution last year. In this context, many Islamist and some liberal analysts have seen in the murder signs of a conspiracy by remnants of the former regime, or perhaps the deep state, to stigmatise the Islamists and impede their renaissance project.
Their argument is that the former regime always tried to create fears of the Islamists among the population as a dangerous alternative to what was a despotic regime and that it used such fears to remain in power.
Some analysts have speculated that counter-revolutionary forces may now be using the same technique in their attempts to regain power. The fact that the murder occurred a day after Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi was sworn in as Egypt's first freely elected president is seen as supportive of this argument.
Investigations into the crime are still underway, and Suez police say that they have arrested three suspects. These suspects have confessed to committing the murder, police say, having found Eid in an "inappropriate situation" with a girl. They had "offered him advice", they said, but he had responded by hitting one of them.
A Facebook site established by an anonymous group using the name of the religious police in Saudi Arabia and calling itself the "Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Authority" (PVPVA) had earlier claimed responsibility for the murder.
The group said that members of the group had killed Eid "because he failed to produce a reason as to why he was alone in the street with a woman he was neither related to or married to."
The Ministry of Interior later refuted these claims, saying that although the suspects were Islamists no organisational links had been uncovered to the PVPVA. "The killing appeared not to have been premeditated," the Suez police told Reuters, adding that "Eid was stabbed after an argument had escalated into violence."
It is also not clear whether the PVPVA in fact exists. A Facebook page bearing the name of the group created a public scare after the Islamists had won 70 per cent of the seats in parliament in legislative elections last year. However, the site disappeared following media attention, only to reappear after Mursi's victory in the presidential elections.
Almost all the Islamist groups, including the ultra-conservative Salafi groups and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, have denied that they have any links with the group, which they insist does not exist.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya had earlier denied any involvement in the Suez murder after it was rumoured that the culprits belonged to the group. A statement by the group insisted that the accusation was "a deliberate falsehood lacking evidence" and was "part of the current campaign to damage the Islamist movement's reputation."
Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghazlan told Al-Hayat satellite TV channel that "it is not in Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's nature to commit such acts," adding that "the group has observed Islam's call for decades with wisdom and good preaching."
Ghazlan insisted that "state authorities", which he declined to name, were involved in perpetrating the acts in order to defame the Islamist movement. He was quoted as saying that the group "condemns these acts, for they have nothing to do with Islam" and it "repudiates them and their perpetrators.
However, many observers say that since the election of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi as Egypt's president, a phenomenon of so-called "Sharia harassment" has been on the rise in Egypt.
There have been reports of bearded men intimidating women in the streets and urging them to wear the Islamic veil. Even veiled women have sometimes been stopped by women wearing the niqab (full face veil), who have rebuked them for wearing trousers or clothes they say are not strictly in line with the rules of Sharia law. The phenomenon is reportedly more prevalent in popular areas.
The Daily News reported one incident when a woman was allegedly hit with a rock, being told by the perpetrators that "in Mursi's Egypt you won't be able to dress like that any more" in a reference to her clothes. The incident took place despite Mursi's assurances that he will not seek to impose a code for women's dress, seeing it as a matter of individual choice.
The independent newspaper Al-Badil also quoted women who said that they had been subjected to verbal rebukes and statements ranging from "you will end up at home" to "here is someone who can make you wear the veil" and "forget about trousers; get ready for the veil."
Some 100 human rights organisations have expressed concerns about these acts, which they said were designed to intimidate women and were an attack on Egyptian society as a whole.
For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafist movement have gone on the defensive, confirming their opposition to any kind of religious coercion or violence.
The Brotherhood issued a statement last week saying that an anonymous group disguised as members of the group had attacked women's hair salons on the grounds they were immoral in attempts to tarnish the group's image.
Former MP Abbas Mohamed of the Salafist Nour Party told Al-Hayat that "there are numerous bearded gangs and there are many people out there who pretend to be members of the Islamist movement in order to damage its reputation."
He insisted that the Salafist movement has for years renounced the ideology of using force to bring about change. "Why would we resort to violence now that so many doors have been opened," Mohamed asked. "There is a plot to defame the Islamist movement."
Prominent novelist and secular activist Alaa El-Aswani has similarly speculated that the so-called Virtue Authority could be nothing more than a group of thugs hired by remnants of the ousted Mubarak regime to spread chaos and public fears.
Manar El-Shorbagi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said that she could not confirm the conspiracy theories or say that "morality crimes" were now emerging as a new phenomenon.
Such acts have always taken place, she said, especially in popular areas. Society was already experiencing a wave of Islamophobia, she commented, ironic in a Muslim majority country.
"As an observer, I can see links between the rise in the incidence of crime and major political events," El-Shorbagi told the Weekly. But she would rather see the Suez crime and the harassment of women in the name of religion in a cultural and social context not linked to Mursi's election victory, she added.
El-Shorbagi suggested that such acts should be "criminalised in order to curb attempts by anyone thinking that having an Islamist president entitles him to force his ideas on others. Women should be empowered to speak out against such acts and to report them to the police."
Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah, a political science professor at the Central Michigan University in the US and a member of the Egyptian constituent assembly tasked with drafting the country's new constitution, said that he believed society had been "in a state of chaos where opinions are turned into facts, where people are increasingly phobic of the unknown, and where they are bogged down in a wave of conspiracy theories about whatever is unclear or not understandable."
Abdel-Fattah said that incidents in which women had been rebuked for not wearing the veil, which he said were not new, or that of the murder of the Suez student, had been blown out of proportion due to media attention and increasing public concerns over where Egypt was heading.
"Our society is in the grip of a culture of irrationality," Abdel-Fattah said. "Those who think that having an Islamist president empowers them to impose their ideas by force are as irrational as those who put such acts in a framework that shows them representing the policy of the new regime