Sunday was a midsummer’s day whose barmy warmth lulled Londoners like me into a false and strictly transient sense that all was right in the world. I logged onto my email.
First up was a complaint from a reader about Middle East Eye’s coverage of the opening of the $8.5bn expansion of the Suez Canal. MEE did not give enough prominence to the doubts raised about this grandiose scheme. The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Guardian and the Independent all quoted economists saying it was not worth the cost, why hadn’t we?
Next up was a statement on MEE by a body which goes under the curious title of the Observatory for Anomalous and Takfiri Fatwas. I scratched my head. What anomalous fatwa had MEE published? Memories of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie flashed through my head. It turned out the Observatory was not complaining about a religious statement we had made, but a news item we had published.
“The Iftaa Observatory monitored a report published by Middle East Eye about the security situation in Egypt in the aftermath of what was reported about the murder of the Croatian hostage," the email read. "The Middle East Eye report says that the kidnapping of foreigners inside Egypt is having an impact on foreign investments and that the execution of the Croatian by the ISIS organisation is expected to have an impact on the Egyptian economy that is already feeble. The report, which described the Egyptian economy as a weak economy, is aimed at causing confusion and discouraging foreign investors from investing inside Egypt.”
I was puzzled though. Why should a body whose business is religion be commenting on a website whose business is news?
The Observatory is part of Dar al-Iftaa, or the House of Fatwas, which instructs Muslim believers in Egypt on what is halal (permitted) and what is haram (forbidden). It is run by Egypt’s supreme religious authority, the Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam.
Allam has already distinguished himself by plagiarising two pages of a work by the Islamist theorist and Muslim Brotherhood figure Sayyid Qutb and spinning them into an article on the virtue of fasting, of which he claimed authorship. This happened days after Egyptian authorities ordered all mosques and schools to clear their shelves of books by Brotherhood figures, and particularly those of Qutb. It subsequently turned out that Allam was a serial plagiariser. Al-Mesryoon newspaper said that the Grand Mufti’s previous articles on the virtue of fasting had been lifted from The Revival of Religious Science by Imam al-Ghazali. The bulk of another article on the virtue of tolerance in Islam was taken from a book by Dr Abdullah bin Ibrahim al-Tawil.
If one of his students had done this, he or she would have been thrown out. Not so with Allam, who cheerfully admitted his little secret, and carries on in a role in which he is the judge not only of right and wrong, but life and death. The Grand Mufti in Egypt signs death penalties.
His predecessor fared little better. Ali Gumah gave a military audience that included then-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unequivocal advice on how to deal with the protesters in Rabaa. The video of the speech was leaked and it embarrassed Gumah.
"Shoot them in the heart ... Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them ... We must cleanse our Egypt from these riffraff ... They shame us ... They stink. This is how God has created them. They are hypocrites and seceders ... Stand your ground. God is with you, and the Prophet Muhammad is with you, and the believers are with you ... Numerous visions have attested that the Prophet is with you. May God destroy them, may God destroy them, may God destroy them. Amen!"
By any measure this speech was an incitement to violence. Not words of moderation from an important religious figure.
Back to the Observatory, who had discovered a plot.
“The Iftaa Observatory discovers a plan by terrorist organisations to establish and employ fake media outlets in the West for the propagation of lies and rumours that are aimed at undermining Egypt's reputation and world status.”
Can this truly be? Hold the front page. According to the Observatory, Middle East Eye and media outlets belonging to terrorist organisations have been “afflicted with a condition of hysteria and frenzied behaviour due to the loss of their credibility. This has been the result of the exposure before the entire world of the major defect in the ideological structure of these currents, which pose a great danger to world security and peace.”
So MEE is now haram.
But hang on a moment, was MEE alone in saying that the murder of Tomislav Salopek might give potential foreign investors (like Siemens and BP) second thoughts? Apparently not.
ABC News ran a piece collated from AFP and Reuters which said: "Egypt, led by president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had been at pains to persuade international investors and companies that the country was safe after two years of violence and militant attacks.”
Time, another western media outlet afflicted with a condition of hysteria and frenzied behaviour, was even worse. Its headline ran: "Egypt’s Security In Question After ISIS Beheading of Croatian”. It quoted Angus Blair, president of the Signet Institute, an economic and political think tank in Cairo who said: “Egypt is trying to increase foreign direct investment but it’s going to make it difficult to bring foreigners who want to work as part of that investment because of concerns over risk.”
The Observatory for Anomalous and Takfiri Fatwas must have missed those reports, but presumably ABC News and Time are haram too. Should someone tell them?
The list of forbidden and un-Islamic western media and other outlets seems to grow by the day. On Sunday it was MEE. On Saturday the foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid called Human Rights Watch "suspicious and politicised" for issuing a statement on the anniversary of the Rabaa massacre reminding everyone that no one had been prosecuted two years on.
Before that, it was the New York Times. In October last year, Egypt’s leading state newspaper al-Ahram published a mistranslated report by the Times' distinguished correspondent in Cairo, David Kirkpatrick. While Kirkpatrick wrote that Sisi’s speech to the UN was received with “amused silence” Ahram quoted the newspaper as saying that Sisi’s presence at the UN had convinced all that Mohamed Morsi’s ouster was not a military coup but rather a revolution. When the NYT demanded an apology, it got one - in English.
In Arabic however the “apology” read: "It is known that The New York Times reporter refuses the political course in Egypt since June 30," in reference to the 30 June coup that deposed Egypt's first freely elected president. "And [Kirkpatrick] fervently defends the terrorist organisation and always promotes the idea that there is oppression of freedoms in the country, and questions the public will that removed the [Muslim] Brotherhood from power."
Before that, The Guardian was labelled a “mouthpiece for the counter-revolution”. Even Barack Obama, and his ambassador in Egypt, were accused of being a part of the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy.
So MEE is in good company: but why it is being denounced by a religious authority like this as opposed to a civilian one like the foreign ministry?
This appears to be the start of a new trend. Having failed to stop the bad news from leaking out of Egypt, Sisi is now turning to his religious authorities to stop Egyptians from reading the plain truth by using religious edicts. Sisi’s use, or abuse, of Islam is becoming a defining feature of his oppressive rule.
It is no secret that Sisi claims he is a believer. He believes he was ordained by God to become president. In a leaked conversation with a journalist for al-Masry al-Youm, Sisi revealed he had a religious vision in which he was wielding a sword inscribed in blood with the words “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God” and in which he saw the assassinated Anwar al-Sadat, who promised him that he would be president.
He has also used religious figures as a source of political legitimacy. Announcing Egypt’s “Roadmap to democracy,” Sisi had on stage with him the head of the Coptic Pope, the Sheikh of al-Azhar, the country's most venerable institution of Islamic learning, and Galal al-Murra, a prominent Salafist.
In fact, Robert Springborg, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, argued: "Sisi’s Egypt, in sum, will be one in which religion will reinforce military authoritarianism and serve to justify repression of opponents, most notably those whose politics, paradoxically, are also informed by Islam. This was not the image being conveyed during Sisi's campaign, but it is a reality that westerners and Egyptians alike would be wise to prepare themselves for.”
Egypt’s Islamic institutions become more than political props under Sisi. They have become part of the tyranny itself. The irony of Sisi’s campaign against religious extremism, as MEE commentator Mohammed El Masry has observed, is that the campaign is in itself religiously extremist.
“Scholars supportive of the Sisi regime have done precisely the things they’ve wrongly accused mainstream Islamists of doing - engaging in takfir (the act of declaring professing Muslims to be non-Muslims) and calling for acts of unlawful violence,” Masry wrote.
Every imam was instructed to preach on Friday prayers about the Suez’s Canal's benefits to the Egyptian economy. They recalled a victory of the Prophet Muhammad that involved digging a trench. Sisi is not only using the religious establishment to legitimise his coup, but to present himself as a moderniser of Islam. The US extreme right showered praise on Sisi after he called in his speech to al-Azhar for a religious revolution in Islam. He was hailed as a potential Nobel Prize winner, as a Martin Luther King.
Now, in an ideal world, the religious authorities have a role in taking politicians to task. Representing the values of society, they are part of the checks and balances on the political executive. Especially during defining moments, like the invasion of Iraq was for Tony Blair’s Britain.
You might have expected the House of Fatwa to be concerned about the truth. Sadly their role now is to propagate lies, at the specific order of their Supreme Leader, Ayatollah al-Sisi. Rest assured the timid little sheikhs would have done nothing without his say-so. Nothing happens without the authorisation of the regime. If the Observatory has said it is haram to read MEE, it is not their fatwa but Sisi’s.
Which brings us back to the Suez Canal, whose traffic Sisi claimed on Sunday has already repaid the 20bn Egyptian Pounds (about $2.5bn) spent on its enlargement. Wasn’t the real figure $8.5bn? And has not every economist worth their salt said that the extra capacity will do little to solve Egypt’s economic problems because shipping is in a slump and the canal was not working at full capacity anyway? Global trade volume would need to rise by around nine percent for the Suez to reach its traffic goal, Capital Economics has said in a report, describing the target as unlikely to say the least.
None of this matters for Sisi.
Egypt and indeed the world should now preach the word of Sisi, because as he himself says, everything he does has been ordained. How many other tyrants in history have convinced themselves that theirs is the hand of God?
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: File picture shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi