And so in February, a year after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Hamdy decided it was time to wear his religious identity on his chin. One morning after a vacation, he arrived for work as a bearded policeman and immediately became part of Egypt’s messy struggle to redefine its relationship with Islam in the post-revolution era.
All over the country, Muslim men are demanding to wear beards — and Muslim women the hijab hair covering — in police stations, banks, airliners, television news programs and other places where they have long been banned by law or custom.
For many, it’s a blooming of self-expression that was dangerous under a regime that equated Islamic piety with terrorism, when having a beard was enough reason to be pulled over by state security officers or to draw extra attention at the airport. For others, it’s part of the rise of Islamist governments in the wake of the Arab Spring and a disconcerting intrusion of religious identity into the public sphere.
“All of a sudden, the grip of the state is gone,” said Ziad Akl,
a political sociologist at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “There is a lot of Islamophobia in Egypt because Mubarak not only cracked down on Muslims, he created an image of them as devils.”
Now Mubarak is gone, and Muslims have more room to express themselves. “But a lot of secular people who still fear the Islamization of society are seeing beards in more and more places,” Akl said.
Perhaps the most shocking place to see facial hair is in the presidential palace. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who assumed Egypt’s highest office last month, is not just the first democratically elected president whom living Egyptians have seen — he’s also the first bearded one.
“As Muslims, when we see President Morsi, we feel just as the black people of the United States feel about Barack Obama,” said Ali el-Banna, a lawyer and Brotherhood supporter. “Here is somebody who looks like me, who represents me. We had never had that before.”
Banna is one of the attorneys representing Hamdy and more than 60 policemen around the country suspended for wearing beards. Most of them, like Hamdy, have been taken off regular duty at a fraction of their pay. Five officers in Alexandria remain barred in spite of having prevailed in their court cases against the Interior Ministry.
“My supervisor said I couldn’t wear it during work hours,” Hamdy recalled of his first bearded morning. “Like it was a fake beard I could take on and off. It was absurd.”
This month, a group of male flight attendants filed suit against EgyptAir, demanding the right to sport “neatly trimmed” beards in the cabin, as some other airlines allow. At least one pilot has joined their efforts, according to an activist working on their cause.