A group of public figures filled a large glitzy hall in Cairo’s Nile Ritz Carlton to promote a set of 10 values for Egyptian society.
These values will “restore Egypt’s bright face,” the campaign’s architect, former Mufti Ali Gomaa, asserted, adding that they don’t “conflict with Islam, Christianity, Judaism or religion; even atheists would agree on them.”
The February 8 event marked the launch of the “Akhlaquna” (Our Morals) campaign, spearheaded by Gomaa and Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel Aziz, and promoting: mercy, love, cooperation, pro-activity, empathy, humility, workmanship, ambition, fairness and forgiveness — broad values innocuous enough to sidestep objection.
But, the campaign’s sceptics are not impressed with these interfaith proclamations, no matter how unoffending they might appear.
“This [campaign] is in line with the [state’s] narrative about conduct,” Reem Saad, assistant professor of Social Anthropology at the American University of Cairo, told Mada Masr. “It implies that society’s problems are of a moral nature.”
Nevertheless, the state is throwing several heavyweights behind this push for moral betterment. A number of public figures, including football player Ahmed Hassan, actors Mohamed Sobhy and Mahmoud al-Guindy and comedian Akram Hosni, among others, have been solicited, according to the campaign’s website, to “restore morals and values in society, as well as shed light on the positive aspects of Egyptians’ morals to prevent negative views from further destroying society.”
For Nesma al-Shazly, a member of the creative team working on the campaign, the initiative needs the kind of exposure and reach only the ministry can provide. “It needs to be a national campaign to have this kind of access to the media and to outdoor billboards,” she says.
These billboards have recently sprouted up around Cairo, promoting the different values and celebrating “moral ambassadors” and their good deeds. Drivers crossing 6 October Bridge, for example, are introduced to Mona, who “forgives no matter what.”
The campaign, initially promoted under the auspices of Islamic Preacher Amr Khaled, has since distanced itself from the controversial figure. The night of the launch, talk show hosts accused him of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Shortly after, news circulated that he had been sacked from the campaign.
Khaled dismissed such reports, saying he was never appointed in the first place and therefore couldn’t have been fired. He said he was asked purely to help manage, prepare and coordinate the launch.
“The only body applying all the morals we are promoting in our campaign is the military institution,” asserted Ahmed Okasha, a well-known psychiatrist and the campaign’s secretary general.
Last November, Okasha got President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s approval to form a committee to work on “improving the morals and values in Egyptian society,” a proposal he initiated with the council of Egypt’s experts and scholars, of which he is a member. At the time, Sisi said morals and values motivate people to work and produce, and promote progress and civilization.
Saad, however, argues this is the state’s way of evading responsibility for social and economic problems, by blaming citizens for societal issues. “The problem with traffic is a moral one,” she parodied, “as is overpopulation.”
Yet, this rhetoric was palpable throughout the event. The values the campaign promotes, according to Gomaa, are the main components needed for building a healthy society.
Bishop Julius from Old Cairo Churches echoed this sentiment, saying, “We will not be able to build Egypt without building our morals first. Whoever wants to build a tower has to dig and build a base first. The bases of all towers in this world are morals.”
For Bishop Mounir Hanna, Archbishop of Episcopal Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, “Problems of corruption or violence are rooted in a moral crisis.” He asserts the need to restore the “morals we experienced in our childhoods” in order to rebuild the nation.
This is not the first time the Youth and Sports Ministry has attempted to steer the nation’s moral compass.
Last July, together with the Endowments Ministry, it launched the “National Campaign to Fight Atheism.” It began with statements by the Ministry of Endowments on the number of atheists in Egypt, and progressed to a raid on a downtown café in Abdeen, which the head of the district described as a “café for atheists and Satan worshippers.”
Shazly believes the ministry’s interest in the youth is positive. “I think our voices are finally starting to be heard,” she says. “The minister noticed that he needs to communicate with this sector of society.”
“They are starting to understand that the youth is the key, they are the future,” she says, “not those with grey hair.”
This, Shazly believes, is a new approach by the government, which to her means that there are “some people within the government that want to make a difference.” And she is prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. “Regardless of any problems we may have with the government, corruption has seeped into people and we need to dust it off,” she explains.
Over the next three months, young members of the campaign will highlight “ambassadors of morals,” shedding light on random acts of kindness or initiatives that otherwise go unnoticed.
“We’re going to make people with good manners and values famous,” Shazly says. “We want people to get inspired by their stories.”
Volunteers are also going to promote the 10 values via billboards, in youth centers and schools, in coordination with the Education Ministry.
But Saad warned that such emphasais is just another tool to govern. The problem with a state “monopoly” over morals, she says, is that the state gets to decide what good values are and set the criteria for them. This, Saad explains, has negative ramifications, such as the jailing of novelist Ahmed Naji, who is currently serving a two-year sentence for harming public morals, “based on a certain idea of what morals are.”
“It has real and dangerous repercussions,” she argues, citing the Musicians Syndicate head Hany Shaker’s crackdown on what he deems “Satanist parties.”
However, Shazly sees no political aspect to the campaign whatsoever. “The idea has resonated with a lot of people whether you’re against or with Amr Khaled, whether you’re against or with the government,” she says, adding, “If someone is being cooperative we should make use of them.”