Mona Abaza: Market and Religion in Egypt

Market and religion in Egypt

by Mona Abaza

Egyptian society seems to evidence a paradoxical phenomenon in the relationship between religion and market. Observers argue that the growing Islamization of the whole society was first instigated by the Sadat government to counteract the secular and communist tendencies. Later, when the Islamic movement expanded, the regime perpetuated a strategy of islamization from the top to counteract the underground Islamic protest movements. The reactions of the early Islamic opposition, (mainly young men and women) in the late seventies and early eighties were interpreted as a form of protest against the expanding world of consumerism and the Americanization of society as a consequence of the open door policy launched by Sadat. During the nineties, Islamization spread to various classes and the systematic association between protest and Islam became increasingly blurred with the proliferation of the Petro-Islam Saudi worldview. The process of Americanization of the Egyptian society has been detoured through the “Saudi Arabization” and the impact of massive migration to the oil producing countries. The importation of hard-currency lifestyles, garments, and spending leisure time in malls has shaped the life-worlds of the Islamized middle classes. The marriage between religion and market proved so far quite successful. The second paradox is that, despite an acute economic crisis, Cairo is witnessing a boom in the construction of shopping malls.

Western intellectuals have expressed concern that cities have little to do with, and are not developing towards, what Richard Sennett has advocated in his work, the return of the “humane city”. Third World cities are today becoming infernal places, with growing pollution, poverty and overpopulation problems. Cairo has the record as one of the world’s most densely populated cities. I am far from being an apologist for the frantic consumerist lifestyles of the new Third World bourgeoisie, but it seems that the resistance of the poor takes forms that are difficult to grasp in an atmosphere of harsh repression of human rights and the prevalence of political correctness among intellectuals on the one hand, and the decline of Marxism on the other. Parallel with the fascination of Carrefour, a friend told me that a new type of “simulating” shoppers has emerged. These, who are probably unable to afford to purchase anything there, experience an ephemeral joy by filling their trolley to the utmost, to leave it just before reaching the cashier. The “make believe” act seems to somehow replace window-shopping and evidently the real shopping, thus confirming what Jean Baudrilard had long ago predicted.

The mall has become a new space for social interaction, for shaping lifestyles and needs for consumption, a space for youth and the new professionals. Restaurants, shops and the service sector have absorbed large segments of youth. This certainly affects ways of “dressing” and looking modern in order to go to work. I recall a scene I often witnessed in shopping centres. Women removed their head scarves or “Islamic attire” when taking up their function as cashiers, waiters or saleswomen and put them back on when going home. This masquerade says a lot about how young women have to negotiate between different lifestyles. This duality and constant changing of attire, in order to adapt to the two worlds, the inside/outside – the dense, highly socially controlled, poor, popular quarters versus the modern public spheres of work in malls –needs further study. My observations lead me to think that the Islamization of public space in the 1990’s coincides with survival strategies taking the form of a “relaxation of norms” among youth, within an Islamic frame of reference.

From: Mona Abaza: „The Changing Consumer Cultures of Modern Egypt: Cairo's Urban Reshaping”, Brill, Leiden/Boston, 2006