- - Sunday, July 22, 2018

CAIRO — Call it the battle over beards.

On one side are 106 heavily bearded police officers who say they are defending their right to follow the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. On the other is the Egyptian government and its supporters who insist on enforcement of regulations safeguarding the largest nation in the Arab world as a secular state.

So far, this fierce cultural battle over personal displays of allegiance to strict Islamic religious practices in public places has resulted in a stalemate.

Pro-government lawyers are appealing a July 1 ruling by Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court allowing bearded officers to rejoin the force if they trim their facial hair in compliance with rules that extend back to the presidency of Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Mubarak ruled the country for 30 years before he was ousted in the January 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

“I’m not satisfied with a ruling that lets these men back on the force just for trimming their beards,” said attorney Mohamed Hamed Salem.

He and pro-government lawyer Samir Sabry insist that most of the heavily bearded police are supporters of banned Islamist groups, some of which have initiated terrorist attacks against members of the police force.

“The Salafists are trying to turn the police into a sectarian force, just as happened in Iraq with Shia militants and in Afghanistan [with the] Taliban movement,” said Mr. Salem, who has secured a Sept. 4 hearing on the bearded policemen. “Some of these bearded officers carried out terrorist operations, as was proved by the public prosecutor in the case of the Wahat desert oasis attack in the Western Desert last year.

“We know these bearded police feed information to terror groups,” Mr. Salem said.

Members of the bearded police disagree.

“It’s just a religious personal choice,” said former police Maj. Osama Yaheya, 33, who grew his beard longer after the 2011 uprising. “I grew it believing that I was following a hadith [saying by the Prophet Muhammad] that it makes a man closer to God.”

Mr. Yaheya was dismissed from the force in February 2012 after growing a long beard.

“I am relieved by the court ruling that says we can rejoin the force,” he said. “But if the Interior Ministry digs in and refuses to implement it, I will be OK. The job will disappear after my death, but showing obedience to God is something I have for eternity.”

In the July 1 Supreme Administrative Court hearing, judges said they based their ruling to reinstate the officers solely on the limited grounds of employment law.

“The beards may show affiliation with banned political and terrorist organizations,” wrote Judge Mohamed Maher Abul-Enein. “But the government’s filing does not show any act or statement that proves this, and it would have been more useful to the court for the Ministry of the Interior to reveal them.”

But a ruling last week against the most well-known of the bearded officers appears to support accusations of terrorism.

The army charged Hani Shukri, 43, a former spokesman for the bearded officers, with planning an August 2016 ambush by masked gunmen at a police checkpoint in the province of Monufia, north of Cairo.

That attack killed two policemen and injured five others, including two civilians.

The Egyptian government has been battling armed Islamist groups for decades, but the struggle intensified after the army overthrew divisive Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the extent of permissible facial hair extends back to the 2011 uprising, when some officers who support Muslim Brotherhood politics and others who follow fundamentalist Salafi preachers organized a group to change police regulations that banned long beards.

The bearded officers held their first meetings in 2011. By 2013, they organized full-fledged demonstrations demanding that Mr. Morsi sack Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Moustafa in the turbulence from January 2013 to March 2015.

Mr. Ibrahim Moustafa insisted that the revolution would not upend decades-old regulations on the length of facial hair for police officers.

Not all Muslim scholars agree about facial hair as it applies to religious dictates.

In 2013, Egypt’s former top religious official, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, issued a fatwa declaring that neither growing a beard nor shaving it off is related to Islamic Shariah law.

Sheikh Gomaa, 66, has been a target of violent extremists. The pro-government cleric narrowly survived an assassination attempt in August 2016 and topped the Muslim Brotherhood’s hit list of moderate clerics, security officials and judicial officers, according to state prosecutors.

“This issue is a matter of politics and has nothing to do with religion,” said Mohamed Mahfouz, a Cairo security consultant and former police colonel. “The bearded officers aim to penetrate government institutions and turn these outward signs of piety into an index of loyalty to the benefit of their own factions.”

Mr. Mahfouz pointed out that struggles over personal appearance extended from the battle over long beards in the security services to the wearing of full-face niqabs by female instructors at state-supported schools and universities.

“If they get away with long beards on the police force, [then the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis] will extend it to the rest of the security services, including the armed forces,” Mr. Mahfouz said.

In the Nile Delta governate of Sharqia, where scores of civilians and security forces have been killed in extremist violence, everyday Egyptians express fear of the bearded police.

“I am against these officers being allowed to return to their work,” said Mohamed Diab, 61, a doctor in Zagazig, about 50 miles north of Cairo. “Citizens think these bearded officers are working to promote religious organizations, not for the ordinary residents.”

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