Thursday, February 14, 2013

Alcohol ban marks Egypt's further decline

[Originally posted at NOW]

It has often been said that the test of a nation’s moral stature is its treatment of the poor. An alternative, and arguably no less reliable, barometer of societal well-being is the situation of alcohol, and its enthusiasts.

In a heady moment of collective madness fuelled by ascendant Protestant fundamentalism, the USA banned drink entirely from 1920 to 1933. The resulting boost to organized crime was only one of innumerable disasters inflicted on that country by its religious right, which generally continues to “abstain” from Bacchic indulgence today. A decade later, the Nazis sternly discouraged all consumption of the “genetic poisons” of booze and tobacco, and even went so far as to sterilize full-blown alcoholics.

More recently, and closer to home, the monstrous regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran totally proscribe the fruits of the grape and grain, and routinely sentence imbibers to death. It’s perhaps of little surprise that their proxies around the region also take a dim view of the “Satanic” potations. Indeed, whenever Islamism is preparing to menace a society, it tends to announce its arrival by ecstatically smashing up some settings of conviviality. It happened here in Beirut in the 1980s, and it’s by no means uncommon now for alcohol proprietors in “conservative” neighborhoods to be bombed. Similar pogroms heralded the rise of Tunisia’s newly liberated Salafi-jihadis, who have since moved on to assassinating political opponents.

And now comes the depressingly unsurprising news that Egypt, the birthplace of modern Arab secularism and the nahda (“awakening”) of the 19th century, has announced the beginning of the end of alcohol sales. “We cannot allow [liquor] stores spreading debauchery in our society,” was the unsmiling declaration of the vice-president of the New Urban Communities Authority.

Much like the recent efforts to ban pornography, if this initiative succeeds, I wager that it too will be remembered – to borrow a phrase from a different, though not dissimilar Egyptian – as another milestone in the road of a once-great nation’s decline.

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