Forty years ago, men and women congregated in bars in downtown Cairo to drink, laugh, discuss books and enjoy a world in which people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds interacted in peace. It was a world chronicled by the famous Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, but today only a handful of bars are still around due to the growing religious bigotry that has come to characterize modern Egypt. A former police officer reflects about the Egypt of his younger days. That “Egypt was very liberal, very tolerant. You had the bars, you had the synagogues you had the churches, you had the mosques. everyone was absolutely allowed to practice religion, to go and drink or whatever.”
Many critics believe change occurred when millions of Egyptians returned from working in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and brought back the strict fundamentalism that characterizes the Saudi nation. The growth of suburbs has also robbed downtown Cairo of more liberal minded people who now cluster in cafes on the outer rim of the capital. The question facing Egypt is whether it will turn toward the anti-alcoholism, religious intolerance of fundamentalism or become a member of 21st century life.