Middle East

Viewpoint: Egypt's emerging revolution of the mind

A woman walks past graffiti which reads 'revolution'
Image caption After the political revolution Egyptians are seeking more involvement in decision-making

Political change has already happened in Egypt, but how has the revolution affected the mind-set of ordinary people? Radio 4's Analysis considers a new culture in which people openly question authority within the realms of the family, politics and religion.

One evening this autumn, I was at a literacy class in the Cairo suburb of Manial Shiha, watching some women write the word "help".

Whether in English or Arabic, learning to use a pen involves the same agony and joy. The lips purse; the knuckles whiten. Each conquered syllable brings a smile.

Observing the night class, which was set up after the 2011 revolution, I was reminded of an older description I had read of education in Egypt. The system had been designed, wrote the sociologist Asef Bayat, to foster "obedience, subordination and compliance".

Clearly, the schoolteachers' tyranny was a reflection of other tyrannies in society. Not only the regime itself - in offices and families a similar dictatorship held sway, in which the elite, usually male and elderly, demanded unthinking submission.

Most revered of all were the sheikhs - scholars of religion. People often approached them with a cringing sense of inferiority.

And now, in Manial Shiha, a mindset is changing and a hierarchy starting to dissolve.

A more opinionated Egypt

Literacy, the volunteer instructor of the night class tells me, is not just about passing exams or reading street signs.

"The students will be able to express their opinions, and literacy will give them protection," she says.

"In the past they might have been given a piece of paper and told to sign, and be robbed of something belonging to them. No more."

Egypt is already more opinionated than it has been for decades. A competitive market of ideas is coming into being.

Image caption Residents of Cairo's slums are now voicing demands for better housing

Views of all kinds are being expressed in the press and social media, while small-scale agitations speak of people's desire for a greater role in decision-making.

Slum-dwellers have demanded proper housing, and Berber tribesmen the annulment of a nuclear power project in their district.

Most heartening of all, Cairo's notorious traffic cops no longer dare shake down motorists for bribes. The people simply will not accept it.

At first sight, this sits oddly with a Muslim Brotherhood government and the rise of Salafism - a back-to-basics Islamic movement that imposes the Koran and the example of the Prophet as a straitjacket on believers.

But even the minority Salafists recognise the need to work within constitutional bounds and accept the will of the majority.

This is the foundation of pluralism.

Ahmad Ghoneim, an experienced human rights activist, predicts that Egypt's revolution of the mind will be irreversible.

He tells me that the change of regime will lead to "changes in the administration of politics, changes in the relationship between manager and employees, and later on in the relationships between teacher and pupils, between professor and students, and between fathers and children."

"And the sheikhs?" I ask. "We do not see the sheikhs as sacred," he says.

This is important. From the seminarians at Cairo's celebrated al-Azhar University, to TV preachers and the local mosque imam, Egypt's men of religion have got used to a high status.

They are consulted on political as well as moral matters and issue rulings on what is permitted and forbidden under Islamic law. So, if the new mindset spreads - if Egyptians, in other words, lose their old love of the sheikhs - the effect will be huge.

Coffee shop Salafists

Muhammad Tolba and the group of progressive Salafists he leads - the "Costa Salafists" as they have become known, due to the coffee shops where they meet - are already thinking along these lines.

Mr Tolba was dismayed last year when the Salafist sheikhs shunned the revolution on the principle of better-the-devil-you-know. While he was finding common cause with liberals he had been told to hate, the sheikhs switched off their mobiles and went out of circulation.

"We were shocked and surprised," he recalls, "because the reality was different... from what they were saying."

Mr Tolba urges people to stop following the sheikhs "blindly" - something he has forced himself to do.

Nowadays, instead of consulting a sheikh when he is confronted with a tricky decision, he plumbs his own knowledge, as well as his intuition of what God wants him to do.

How widespread is this yearning for spiritual and intellectual autonomy?

It is certainly more common among the young than the old, and confined to people who are educated enough to pick their own way through the dilemmas of life.

Heba Ghanem is another example. Pious, but unveiled, a polyglot - she speaks English and French - but a patriot, this 27-year-old young woman of strong views and a ready smile is suggestive of the changes that are happening in Egypt.

The revolution - what else - was the catalyst. Heba joined the anti-government protests without her parents' knowledge, pretending to be busy at the office when in fact she was facing down former President Hosni Mubarak's goons.

That gave her the confidence to challenge the restrictions she was living under.

"My family are starting to realise that I'm actually responsible," she says.

"I can do whatever I want because I did what I wanted [during the revolution] and I went through a lot of confrontations."

Heba's attitude towards the sheikhs has also changed: "I lost my respect for 95% of them."

What followed, she says, was "a crisis for me as a Muslim." She has not rejected the guidance of the sheikhs entirely, but in general, she says, "I... trust my gut feeling. I have established values - Islamic and Arabic - to help me decide."

Socially and intellectually, Egyptians have begun a journey whose destination may surprise us all. It is a journey that has some similarities with the Western adventures of the Reformation and the Enlightenment - but with important differences.

One of these is that Islam does not have a unified "church" capable of moving a huge mass of believers at one go. According to Malise Ruthven, a historian of Islam, this makes it open to a large number of different interpretations.

"It's made for the internet age," he says, "it's made for a certain kind of individualism."

Then there is the dissuasive power of example. From the West, Egyptians have learned the meaning of rights and accountability, but this does not mean they want Egypt to look like America or Europe.

Instead, for people like Heba, the model to emulate is Turkey - conservative and community-based, but also consumerist and fun-loving.

Whatever the destination, Egypt is starting the journey. We should recognise and applaud it, for the impulse to achieve personal autonomy and, through it, self-respect, is common to us all.

Listen to the full report on Analysis on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 12 November at 20:30 GMT and Sunday, 18 November at 21:30 GMT.

You can listen again via the Radio 4 website or the Analysis podcast.