A black and white video from half a century ago of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser has resurfaced recently on YouTube. In it Nasser speaks from a podium to a large crowd, telling them about a meeting he had with the leader of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood movement in 1953. At this meeting Nasser was asked to make the headscarf mandatory for women to wear — such a preposterous thought at the time that Nasser’s audience breaks out in chuckles.
“‘If you are unable to make one woman, who is your daughter, wear the hijab, how do you want me to put the hijab on 10 million women myself?’” Nasser retells the conversation into the microphone, and the audience thunders with applause. This sort of socially progressive thought seems to have gone into full-scale retreat in the decades since, not just in Egypt, but around the Middle East and North Africa. As secular leaders failed to deliver on promises of prosperity, equality and justice and their societies suffered, the masses who followed them became disillusioned with socially progressive ideals — when faith in all else is shattered, people turn to religion.
Most Lebanese look at the conservative religiosity sweeping Egypt today and say “that could never happen here”. We invariably fancy ours the most socially progressive of Arab countries, often to the point of conceit. Perhaps we were right, at one point, but today we are slipping rapidly. The recently proposed ‘Orthodox Law’ to change the electoral system is an inflection point on this downward slope.
A law that relegates one’s political voice and right to representation to solely within a sect cannot be called anything but regressive. One only has to look at all the other laws that were skipped over to bring this one to the front of Parliament’s queue — including those that would help move Lebanese citizens’ personal status in the civil realm, rather than religious — to understand the direction we are headed.
Our leaders have almost entirely failed to implement progressive change in this country, and now they are digging us even deeper into our sectarian divisions, using religion to further isolate us from each other. This is the antithesis of building cohesion. It is a mentality that diseases our society and if we do not find an antidote in reason or foresight, one must wonder what, 50 years from now, our children’s children will think when they see old videos of how ‘progressive’ Lebanon used to be.