• The Prophet Mohamed and his companions led the "best armies in the world while being bearded." The idea is to occupy visually with beards the Parliament, the streets, public institutions -- but first the police corps.

"I Am a Bearded Police Officer" is the name of the new coalition established by the group of Egyptian police officers who asked the Ministry of Interior to grow beards to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Saudi-owned media outlet Al-Arabiya reported that in Egypt the request immediately stirred much controversy over "the right to a religious appearance in the workplace." The Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim immediately refused the request, fearing that beards could become a symbol of support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, as well as a symbol of opposition to ruling Egyptian Army. The Minister ordered the policemen to shave their beards while on duty. "Police officers are required to maintain a presentable appearance like all those working in sectors related to security," the Minister stated.

The group of officers, however, decided to disobey, and ignored the Minister's order. Egypt Independent mentions that the "free the beards campaign" became a public opinion issue and will hence soon "blow up in the Interior Minister's face." As reported by the media outlet BikyaMasr, during a recent Minister's trip to Assiut, he was confronted by "controversial calls for officers to be free to let their beards grow following the Islamic tradition." The Islamist movement, Gama'a Islamiya in Assiut, issued a statement condemning the minister and stating that the beard is at the core of the Islamic tradition.

To find more support, the "Bearded Policemen" group opened a public page on the social networking website, Facebook. Al-Arabiya reports the Captain Hani al-Shakeri, the official spokesman of "I Am a Bearded Police Officer," stated on Facebook that he will not change his position and will not shave. "I know that many Egyptians are keen to see police officers in Egypt grow their beards and follow the example of their prophet," said the captain, adding that by growing his beard, "at last I get to regain my humanity which I had lost during the oppressive regime." Another member of the group, Walid Hosni, wrote on Facebook that prohibiting policemen from growing beards would violate police regulations.

The Interior Minister replied to the disobeying officers that a beard is only a non-binding religious tradition, adding that he will be firm with officers who violate police regulations. "Police laws oblige all policemen to be well-groomed and to shave their beards and hair," he said, noting that these regulations are mentioned in all policemen's course books. Support for the Minister also came from some scholars at Al-Azhar, the world's leading institution of Sunni Islam. Al-Arabiya reports that the former head of Al-Azhar's Religious Edicts Committee, Sheikh Abdel Hamid Al-Atrash, commented that "growing a beard is preferable but it is not obligatory…..It is important that they maintain the appearance that goes with the status of the police, even if this would make them go against a preferred practice in Islam."

Other Al-Azhar scholars think a compromise could be found. Mohamed al-Berri, former head of al-Azhar's Scholars Union, stated that refusing to grant police officers the right to grow their beards reveals the "persistence of the same pre-revolution mentality." "Why is it a problem if police officers or others grow their beards so long as this does not affect their performance?" Al-Arabiya reported him as saying, adding, however, that the "Egyptian officers should focus first on regaining the lost trust between the police and the people, then think about their right to maintain the appearance they want."

The officers are, nevertheless, not willing to give up their demands. The group, claiming that to grow beards is their "constitutional and legitimate right," says the Interior Minister is not a legislator and his words are not binding. In the meantime, one captain has been suspended, and the Minister is apparently going to take more disciplinary action against officers who insist on growing their beards.

The media outlet BikyaMasr reports that the officers could even end up in court. Al-Arabiya also reports that senior police officers have warned the Minister of a possible confrontation with Muslim-parliament -- where Islamists hold nearly 75 percent of the seats, a quarter of which are Salafist -- in case the "disgruntled officers decide to take the matter to legislators."

Egypt Independent reports that, during an interview, the spokesman for the Salafis' Al-Nour Party, Nader Bakar, said that it is unacceptable that some people are demanding that bearded policemen be reprimanded. Bakar added that the Prophet Mohamed and his companions led the "best armies of the world while being bearded." He then said that he would "support them legally if they choose to file a lawsuit to defend their right to keep their beards." Salafist groups are, however, not all united in their support to the "bearded policemen". As BikyaMasr noticed, the Salafist Front spokesman Khaled Said, pointing out that the controversy "could harm the relationship between the Islamists and the ministry of interior," wrote on Facebook that he does not approve of the idea. The position of the Muslim Brotherhood is not clear.

Many Egyptians, however, criticized the policemen's initiative, assessing that in a time of political and economic crisis "growing beards" is not a priority. Egypt Independent reported, for example, that while these policemen is fighting for growing their beards, the country is collapsing and sit-ins and demonstrations to protest the continuation of the propane tank crisis in many different governorates in Egypt are increasing.

The Interior Minister now wants to put an end to the controversy of the "bearded policemen." For him, it is not a matter a resetting priorities. He is just concerned that if the bearded policemen win this battle, other policemen might start disobeying orders from the Army, which still keeps Egypt under a tight dictatorship.

If the bearded policemen will win, however, the beard will become a symbol of protest and of support for the Islamists. The plan is to occupy visually with beards the Parliament, the streets, public institution -- but first the police corps.

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