The fatal stabbing by men identified as Islamists of a young man as he walked with his fiancee has stirred fears among some Egyptians that zealots emboldened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power will seek to impose their customs on society.
The couple were out in the port city of Suez, known as a bastion of hardline Islamism, when Ahmed Eid 20, was set upon and stabbed on June 25, dying later of his wounds.
Although the exact circumstances of his killing are unclear, the stabbing has fed concern about the increased scope for vigilantism since Islamists moved to the heart of political life in the 17 months since Hosni Mubarak was deposed, Reuters reports.
Religious piety is common in Egypt but couples will often been seen holding hands in public even before marriage, bars are tolerated and tourists can peacefully visit beaches.
The Muslim Brotherhood and more hardline Salafi parties have also voiced strong opposition to religious coercion or violence.
The three men identified as Islamists were arrested in the early hours of Thursday on suspicion of carrying out the attack, security sources in Suez said, adding they had shaved off their beards in an attempt to lie low.
“Investigations are still going on with the three accused. They are Islamists but so far no organisational links have been uncovered,” one of the sources said. The killing appeared not to have been premeditated, they said, adding that Eid was stabbed after an argument escalated into violence.
Since Mubarak was toppled, reports have often circulated of Islamist-inspired morality campaigns.
Hardliners acting independently of any organisation have targeted Sufi shrines – deemed by hardliners as heretical because of their mysticism. They blew one up in the Sinai Peninsula, where groups at the extreme fringe of the Islamist spectrum have imposed their own vision of Islam in some towns.
But Islamist groups say cases have been either exaggerated or fabricated to scare Egyptians.
Conflicting reports over who stabbed Eid have circulated since his death. Hussein Eid, his father, initially accused parties affiliated to the Mubarak era of mounting the attack to tarnish the Islamists’ reputation – suspicions also voiced by the Islamist groups and even some of their liberal critics.
Eid later changed his mind, telling Al Jazeera his son had been stabbed by three men in Salafi Islamist garb who had been riding a motorcycle. Reuters could not immediately reach Eid for comment. The story has triggered deep fear for some.
“It looks like we are going to have to go through what Europe went through in the Middle Ages before becoming an open society that embraces all ideologies,” said Achraf Chazly, a 35-year-old lawyer, condemning the Suez stabbing.
“We might see incidents of men harassing women more on the streets for not wearing veils,” he added.
“But if we have a good constitution and good implementation of the law to protect the basic rights and liberties of all Egyptians, this will help Egypt pass through the phase of religious fundamentalism quicker.”
Yet in a country where public debate is rich with rumour and conspiracy theories, the stabbing has also reignited a debate about whether such incidents are what they seem, or rather part of a campaign by groups affiliated to the Mubarak administration and aimed at discrediting the mainstream Islamist groups.
The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement last week saying people masquerading as its members had attacked women’s hair salons on the grounds they were immoral, describing it as an attempt to spoil the group’s image.
Groups such as al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a Salafi movement which fought the state as recently as the 1990s, have come out strongly against acts of coercion or violence.
Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, an Islamist preacher disqualified from the presidential race, suggested the furore over the stabbing was a bid to tarnish the image of Islamists.
But in a television interview, he also appeared to sympathise with those angered by public displays of affection of the type that appeared to lead to Eid’s death.
“If you want to go for a stroll in some well-known areas of Cairo, you will see scandals,” he said.
A group calling itself “The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice” – a name evoking the religious police in Saudi Arabia – claimed responsibility for Eid’s killing, though the Interior Ministry denied it had any role and a leading Salafi cleric said it did not even exist.
A group with the same name established a Facebook page earlier this year, directly after Islamists secured control of 70 percent of the parliament. After receiving days of coverage in the Egyptian media, the site disappeared.
Mohamed Habib, a former deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that if the killing had an ideological motive, then it was most likely an individual act caused by the erroneous beliefs of the perpetrators.
He added that criticism of the Islamists by their liberal opponents had created tension that could lead to such violence. “This could push some of the youth to these thoughts, especially if they do not understand properly,” he said.