Fayoum: Combating Extremism in a City Without Arts and Culture

Wednesday 14 March 201809:29 pm
"One way or another we will tear down the church!" chanted Muslim locals in Kafr El-Wasleen village near Cairo while demolishing the building and attacking Christian worshipers after Friday's prayers on 22 December. The same hateful sentiments led Mohamed Shafik from Attifa village in Fayoum, south of the Nile Delta, to blow himself up inside the church of St Peter and St Paul (El-Botroseya) a year ago, killing over 20 people. Shafik, who was 22 years old when he bombed the Cairo church, spent most of his life in his hometown without ever going to a theater or a cinema. He moved to the city of Fayoum -- the more urban part of the namesake governorate -- six years ago, when the last movie theater had already been converted into a textile market. The young man had never thought there was more to life than narrow-mindedness. Like millions of people who grew up in similar rural areas, Shafik did not get the slightest chance to be enlightened.

No FM Radio Waves

During my last visit to Fayoum, my hometown, an old friend told me that his daughter believed some celebrity must be Christian and ill-mannered because she did not wear the veil and walks around the streets with her hair showing. Fayoum has become an incubator for hatred and fertile ground for terror. The next day, I took a walk to where the theater once stood, only to find women's Islamic black cloaks for sale instead. A musician friend of mine told me if it was up to him, he would place amplifiers all over Egypt in order for people to listen to classical music, whether Beethoven and Mozart or Arab legends such as Sayed Darwish and Farid El-Atrash. He believes such classy music can create a civilized and cultured population. He was staggered when I told him that not only did cinemas and theaters cease to exist, but also FM radio waves did not reach my lovely governorate. According to the dominant religious rhetoric in Fayoum, arts and culture are forbidden.

A Miniature Model of Egypt

Fayoum, which consists of six cities and 196 villages, is widely considered to be a miniature model of Egypt due to the striking resemblance on many levels. The governorate relies on Bahr Yussef canal for potable water and irrigation feeds as much as Egypt depends on the Nile River. Fayoum, whose economy is based on agriculture as well as manufacturing and fishing industries, is also famous for its beautiful landscapes; from Lake Moeris to Wadi El Rayan -- one of Egypt's most famous nature reserves. The social developments over the past few decades in Fayoum, where three million Egyptians live including Bedouins, are similar to many other places in Egypt. The city of Fayoum has been culturally affected by poor and uneducated people coming from rural areas in the governorate. According to official data, the governorate's illiteracy rate amounts for 30 percent. But extremists are not necessarily uneducated; the BA degree Shafik had in science did not keep him from becoming a suicide bomber.

Omar Abdel-Rahman and Fayoum

The former leader of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, the Islamist group that killed Egypt President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981, was an imam in one of Fayoum's villages in the 1960s, perhaps one of the reasons why the governorate has been a hotbed of extremism. Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who died last year, widely spread a radical Islamist ideology that paved the way for others to establish jihadist groups. Shawky El-Sheikh, who was one of his followers before both men fell out with each other, believed in the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. He founded groups that regularly committed robberies, deeming items stolen from "apostates" spoils of victory. There are tribes in Fayoum that have Libyan origins, and thus a large number of Libyans were able to move to the governorate over the past years. The Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda militant groups have used the links between Fayoum and Libya to smuggle in terrorists and arms. IS has even established a camp in Jaghbub in the eastern Libyan desert, near the border with Egypt for this purpose. Libyan jihadists following expelled Egyptian military officer Hesham El-Ashmawy, who is infamous for masterminding major terror attacks in Egypt, resorted to hideouts in Fayoum. Ashraf El-Gerably, an IS leading figure who was killed in 2015 after executing deadly terror attacks targeting policemen, also resided in Fayoum for a while. In April 1990, the Egyptian army cracked down on jihadists in Fayoum's Kahk village, killing tens and arresting others who were later sentenced to jail. In prison, they met Islamists from Sinai after they were imprisoned for the 2004 Taba attack, a turning point for jihadist groups in  the peninsula with both sides joining forces.

Ideological War

Neither firepower nor calls for public executions and military trials will be enough for the state to win the war against terrorism; a suicide bomber is, needless to say, unafraid to die. Poverty and lack of education in Egypt over the past decades have largely caused extremism to be rampant. Millions have graduated from universities without an education, relegating Egypt to the bottom of the quality of learning scale.  The education system did not encourage debate and critical thinking and the result is now apparent. This is an ideological war that can only be won by spreading arts and culture as well as progressive ideas along improved security measures. The state has left Fayoum without arts, culture or even radio waves. How can it now face terrorism?
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