The military upholds virtue

I was surprised and disturbed as I followed the stories of many friends and others who reported on social media that they faced harassment at military checkpoints on highways during the Eid al-Adha holidays.

The incidents occurred mostly on specific roads that are secured by the military, especially Ain Sokhna Road and roads leading to Sinai.

No one complained of the long inspection procedures, well aware that the security situation requires it and that the authorities are responsible for securing the roads. However, what was astonishing is that the main motivation for these searches was looking for bottles of alcoholic beverages and breaking, spilling or confiscating them.

As far as I know, this is of no relevance to securing the roads, national security concerns or any other role that we consider to be the Armed Forces’ responsibility.

We do not know the legal basis for these procedures, and those who are executing them appear to be just as clueless. This is demonstrated by the wide variety of reasons given to those who were fortunate enough to receive answers to their questions.

In one case, those overseeing the checkpoint asked for the receipt to prove that the bottle was bought from a duty-free store. The person in question objected, saying that it had been legally purchased from a local market, to which the officer answered that the road belonged to the military and that it had the right to do whatever it wanted on it.

In another case, the officer forced an individual to open the beer cans that were in his possession and spill their contents to the ground — not only a punitive measure, but also a humiliating one.

In a third case, the officer stopped the person and, after consulting his national ID and finding out that he was a Muslim, confiscated the alcohol and proceeded to yell at him for doing something that is haram (forbidden) and violates the teachings of the Islamic faith.

Many of those who were subjected to this arbitrary behavior did not reveal it publicly. This is understandable; while possession of alcohol is legal, it can subject the person to social and religious criticism. Additionally, this problem falls in the category of what is known as “lifestyle” issues, deemed to be luxuries that only concern a minority who are disconnected from the pains and suffering of the people.

I would like to refer here to Wael Abdel Fattah’s excellent article, “No modern state without personal freedom,” which was published in Al-Tahrir newspaper on September 20 2013. The article discusses the Muslim Brotherhood’s portrayal of personal freedoms as a luxury and a threat to identity, and the Brothers’ efforts to stigmatize those who defend such freedoms.

Abdel Fattah argues that personal freedoms and lifestyle choices are not elitist concerns, but rather popular demands that were a crucial factor in the mobilization of the people on June 30.

Abdel Fattah wrote, “The public said en masse ‘they [the Muslim Brotherhood] want to change our identity,’ and what they meant was ‘lifestyle.’ Identity and lifestyle are interconnected now, in a way that will put personal freedoms at the heart of the battle for building a new non-authoritarian regime that respects the individual, and does not oppress in the name of society’s popular culture.”

This issue is not limited to Islamists — personal freedoms are the favorite loophole for all authoritarians, and are the most convenient point of entry for oppression and control without recourse to legal regulations.

These are not trivial details, and we should not be embarrassed to talk about them. These are revealing and dangerous behaviors, especially in a moment in which new relations are being formed between different segments of society and the authorities — most notably, the military and its relationship with power and society.

There is consensus that the chief, legitimate role of the military is securing the borders, but disagreement appears when it comes to the importance and limits of its economic role. The discussion heats up further when it comes to the military institution’s political role.

Is the military now carving out new domains where its role expands to include social surveillance and the upholding of virtue? I certainly hope not.

This article was meant to appear in Sunday’s issue of privately-owned daily Al-Shorouk newspaper, but they refused to publish it. Reem Saad writes two articles a month for the paper. 


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