Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Qazaz was a police officer in the Egyptian Delta province of Gharbia until he was suspended earlier this year. The official reason — he grew a beard.

Qazaz was not the first Egyptian cop to be sent home for his facial hair. In late June, the police academy’s disciplinary commission suspended 16 bearded police officers for six months, Egyptian daily A-Shorouk reported. The men staged a protest march to the presidential palace in Cairo and demanded to meet President Morsi — himself a devout Muslim — and voice their grievances to him. But they were only allowed to meet his media adviser.

The beard is a symbol of religious piety in Islam, and though Egypt is now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, vestiges of former regimes — which insisted on keeping devout Muslims out of sensitive security positions — still linger on. The angry officers claim they are still being forced out of their workplace for reasons of religious discrimination, not proper appearance.

The problem is so widespread, that in April a number of bearded policemen created a Facebook group called “I am a bearded police officer” which has so far garnered some 58,500 supporters.

The beard is a symbol of religious piety in Islam, and though Egypt is now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, vestiges of the former regime — which insisted on keeping devout out of sensitive security positions — still linger on

“We have been subjected to blatant discrimination, being forced to shave our beards daily in a manner contrary to our religious teachings,” the Facebook group explains. “Every day we contemplate leaving our job altogether. Were it not for the nation’s need and our need for work [we would have already left]. But we do not want to leave our positions vacant for other officers and policemen who do not mind mistreating the servants of God.”

Captain Hani Shakri, spokesman for “I Am a bearded officer,” said it was the British colonizers who began forcing Egyptian servicemen, both in the military and the police, to shave their beards in the 1930s. But the practice continued after independence in an attempt to keep traditional segments of society out of security forces.

Naturally, Shakri could not grow his beard during the Mubarak era, but with the winds of change sweeping through Egypt, he and a group of observant officers decided to launch the protest group in February 2011. He said that today, with an Islamic government in power, the situation must change.

“Since the president of the Republic, who is also commander-in-chief of the police forces, is bearded, it is the right of police officers to grow their beards too,” Shakri told the Times of Israel.

Shakri said that 32 officers and 75 policemen were suspended thus far by the Ministry of Interior for growing their beards without permission, after an official request they submitted to allow them to do so went unanswered. Over the past few months, numerous courts across Egypt ruled that the officers must be allowed to return to work immediately, but Interior Minister Major General Mahmoud Ibrahim — a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — refuses to implement the rulings, Shakri said.

‘We have been subjected to blatant discrimination by being forced to shave our beards daily in a manner contrary to our religious teachings,’ the Facebook group explains. ‘Every day we contemplate leaving our job altogether.’

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Qazaz, for example, took his case to court in the Delta city of Tanta, which on July 4 ruled that the police must accept him back to work, independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported. But an unnamed officer at the police station told the daily that Qazaz had been repeatedly suspended for administrative misconduct, and simply decided to grow his beard so that his sacking would “become a public opinion matter.”

Shakri noted that suspending officers for their religious faith was the worst kind of coercion by “the racist previous regime,” harming members of various faith groups in Egypt including Christians and Jews. He expressed hope that the new technocrat government now being formed by Morsi August 2 would implement the court decisions immediately.

“The new government will not be a Muslim Brotherhood government,” he asserted. “They are all technocrats, which is the best. You can reach understanding with them along objective and professional lines rather than a certain ideology.”