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Two years after the Egyptian revolution that ousted an authoritarian regime, liberals are increasingly concerned that the ruling Islamists are out to curb personal freedoms and build a society in their own image.
Alcohol, prohibited by most Islamic scholars, is one area where the new authorities are introducing controversial change.
Nabil Abbas, the vice president of the New Urban Communities Authorities (NUCA), told Reuters on Sunday that the government would no longer issue licenses for the sale of alcohol in new residential settlements on the outskirts of Cairo, Alexandria and other big cities.
“NUCA has stopped renewing licenses to sell alcohol but the current ones will continue until they expire,” Abbas said. “Representatives of the residents in new suburbs complained that the sale of alcohol leads to problems including attacking women and randomly ringing doorbells of people’s homes.”
Egyptians opposed to the country’s Islamist leaders condemned the move as an infringement on personal freedoms.
Dina Fahmy, a 30-year-old interior designer, said she did not believe that safety was the reason behind the government’s decision.
“First this Islamist government will ban alcohol in the new urban communities, then slowly they will try to start banning it elsewhere and then God knows what’s next,” Fahmy said.
“I don’t believe this move is driven by safety reasons but rather by the leaders’ attempt to impose their Islamist vision.
“This move is going to negatively affect tourism and annoy many Egyptians as it signals the start of an assault on their personal freedoms and choices.”
Islamist President Mohamed Mursi’s government increased taxes on alcoholic beverages in December but backed down after the move was criticized.
Earlier this month, an Egyptian court ordered the suspension of online video service YouTube for a month for broadcasting a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad.
A satirical poster circulated online on Sunday in response to the alcohol curb. It listed some of Egypt’s main problems including road accidents, police brutality and poverty then showed a cartoon of Mursi dressed as Superman and saying “Must save Egypt from porn, alcohol and YouTube”.
Worries in tourism industry
Though most mainstream Islamic scholars agree that Islam forbids alcohol outright, some have voiced different views.
These include Saad El-Din Helaly, a professor of jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University and a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, who was among the contenders this month for the post of Grand Mufti, which carries wide influence over legislation and social affairs.
On a popular television show last year, Helaly argued that only grape-based alcoholic beverages are forbidden as well as inebriation, but not drinking other kinds of alcohol in moderation.
Karim Mohsen, managing director of tourism firm Sylvia Tours and board member of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association, said any moves to ban alcohol in hotels and restaurants could hurt Egypt’s ailing tourism industry, hard hit by political turmoil.
“The fear where tourism is concerned is not of banning alcohol stores. The fear is that alcohol would be banned from hotels which would impact foreign tourists, and in restaurants it could also impact Arab tourists,” Mohsen said.
“But the current move could also give a negative message to both final clients and decision-makers in tourism,” he added.
Reporting by Mohamed Abdellah. Writing by Marwa Awad and Shaimaa Fayed. Editing by Stephen Powell.