The Raisin Factor: Does it Predict Political Outcome in Egypt?

Have you ever taken one of those optical illusion tests where you can't see the subject of a picture until someone points it out to you? Well, that happened in Egypt several months ago with what I call the "Raisin Factor." Western travelers there were oblivious to the factor until it was pointed out, and then of course it was obvious.

The zabiba, or "raisin" is what Arabs call the spot on the foreheads of devout Muslims, usually men, who want to display their dedication to Islam. Because most Egyptians have light to dark brown skin, the marks may not stand out like they would on pink skin; but once you accustom your eye to see a darker patch in the center of the forehead, you find it everywhere in Egypt. Sometimes you simply see a little sooty spot, but other times a thickened plaque-like scar.

During Muslim prayer the devout touch, or even smite their foreheads on various types of stones in prostration. Some stones leave a visible residue, others have symbolic meaning. Many people barely touch the stone with their foreheads, whereas others hit it with enough force to intentionally develop a scar -- and the prestige that goes with it.

Why go to all this effort, you may ask? The answer is found in the Koran. Sura 48:29 says those with Mohammed are hard against disbelievers and merciful to believers and

"The mark of them is on their forehead from the traces of prostration." (Pickthall translation)

Thus, the zabiba not only reveals dedication to prayer, but is a visible sign of an inward attitude. It is like a secret handshake to the cognoscenti, or a club tattoo.

While traveling throughout Egypt, I was surprised to note the high percentage of men carrying the zabiba. My observation may not be a scientific study, but I put it at about 10% in both in the city and the country of both Upper and Lower Egypt. This is not the case in other "moderate" Islamic countries such as Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, and Palestine, or on the foreheads of Muslims of America or Europe.

Perhaps we should ponder why Egypt has taken this practice to heart, and what it portends for the outcome of their political revolution.

I have inquired of Egyptians without raisin marks about their prevalence in Egypt and what in their opinion they signify. Yes, they say zabibas have increased in Egypt, along with Islamic garb, over the past few decades. As for the significance of zabibas, their answers fall into two categories: first, that they demonstrate a desire to look religious and thus trustworthy in business; and second, that they reflect the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups in Egypt since the 1960s.

I believe both answers, and I think they are related. If to succeed in society you need to look like a devout Muslim, society has indeed become Islamicized. (Consider that you don't need to have a raisin mark to be trusted in the USA, Europe or Asia.) The zabiba isn't foolproof however: an infamous Egyptian extortion ring's perpetrators purposely wore zabibas to appear honest, and proceed to defrauded investors.

Throughout the Egyptian revolution the Muslim Brotherhood has kept a low profile. At first it was claimed that they were not significantly involved in the protests at Tahrir Square; but after the protests their name was raised as a peaceful and organized force that could help bring the government together. Other statements have followed claiming that they are not pushing for government control, but rather encourage democracy.

Why is the Muslim Brotherhood content to wait out democracy? Could it be because they have weighed the Raisin Factor and smell success? The factor is a walking political poll. Those dedicated enough to make raisin marks, in some proportion represent others with similar sympathies but less vigor.

What will the democratic vote in Egypt bring? Here are predictive factors: First, what democracy in the Middle East has previously brought: Hamas in Palestine, a repressive Islamic constitution in supposedly USA-influenced post-Taliban Afghanistan, and the emergence of Islamic sectarian violence in Iraq. Add to it the widespread view held by Egyptians -- and the international community -- that despite its terrorist beginnings the Muslim Brotherhood is a beneficent organization, and the difficulty in establishing extremist backgrounds in candidates after the destruction of state security files in the nationwide March 5 raids. Then sprinkle it all with forehead raisins.

Together these factors seem to predict that some day soon the Egyptian populace will democratically elect an Islamic government, likely controlled or at least puppeted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Without strongly enforced constitutional safeguards, Egypt will, as other such nations, be magnetically drawn toward Sharia Law and struggle with respecting human rights, especially those of women and "the disbelievers".

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