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Egypt's ruling NDP attacks minister for veil remark

Written by: Staff
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CAIRO, Nov 21 (Reuters) Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) joined the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in attacking Culture Minister Farouk Hosni for saying that wearing the Muslim headscarf was a ''step backwards''.

Two pillars of the ruling party, Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Surour and presidential chief of staff Zakaria Azmi, criticised the minister in parliament, adding to the pressure on Hosni to resign after 19 years in office.

After NDP members asked for Hosni's dismissal, Surour said: ''If an official wants to express personal opinions, he should free himself of the public responsibility he has assumed.'' Hosni, an abstract painter known for his liberal views, said in remarks published last Thursday Egypt would not progress as long as its people depend on religious edicts ''worth 5 cents''.

''Our mothers ... used to go to universities and work without wearing a headscarf, so why are we going backwards now?'' the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper quoted him as saying.

Egypt, the seat of al-Azhar -- one of Islam's most prestigious centres of religious learning -- has seen a rise in religious conservatism since the 1990s and most Muslim women now wear headscarves in public.

Most Muslim clerics say wearing headscarves is obligatory for women but some Muslim dispute that view. The government has not normally taken a position.

The minister later said the remarks, which sparked outrage in the Egyptian media, represented his personal views and were not meant for publication.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest opposition group, said it has filed an urgent appeal to Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif demanding Hosni's resignation.

In yesterday's parliamentary debate at least two lawmakers suggested that the minister was homosexual, an allegation that would further undermine his standing among conservatives.

The minister was not available for comment.

Azmi, President Hosni Mubarak's chief of staff, said: ''We cannot allow anyone to insult Islam... The culture minister should not have talked about religious matters.'' Another minister, Mufid Shehab, said Hosni would attend a debate with two parliamentary committees. ''After that parliament will be free to take whatever measures it likes towards the minister,'' he added, indicating that the government was not insisting that he stay in office.

Analysts say Hosni has traditionally had an ally in First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, with whom he attends many cultural events.

Some sociologists attribute the rise in religious conservatism to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where millions of Egyptians have worked and lived since the 1970s.

The minister offered his resignation last year after 46 people died in a fire at a culture centre in southern Egypt, but Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif asked him to stay on.

REUTERS DKS PM0455

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