Secret US meeting between Egyptian Salafist and Tzipi Livni sparks controversy
Revelations of a secret meeting between a leading Egyptian Salafist and former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni have sparked a storm of controversy in Egyptian media.
Egyptian tabloid Youm7 reported over the weekend that Nader Bakkar, the deputy chairman of Egypt’s Salafist Nour Party, met with the high-ranking Israeli politician in April at Harvard university at Bakkar’s request.
Bakkar graduated on Friday from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with an MPA in public administration.
A few months before his graduation, however, Livni visited Harvard on 16 April to give a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sources reportedly told the Egyptian newspaper that after finding out that Livni was coming to speak, Bakkar contacted the society to arrange a closed meeting with Livni. She agreed and the meeting took place inside the university after her lecture.
Youm7 reported: “Nader Bakkar’s meeting with Tzipi Livini lasted around 40 minutes, in which Bakkar talked about the strength of the Nour Party and its popularity, that he was the main reason for the (Muslim) Brotherhood’s success after the 25 January revolution...”
Livni did not reveal the meeting at the time, but sources close to her confirmed to the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) that the meeting took place.
The sources told the IPB that they believed news of the meeting was leaked from factions in Egypt opposed to the normalisation of relations with Israel.
News of the meeting comes after Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokry's controversial visit to Israel on Sunday evening.
Livni held a string of ministerial posts between 2001 and 2014, and was foreign minister between 2006 and 2009.
British police attempted to question her earlier this month over alleged war crimes committed against Palestinians during the 2008-09 conflict with Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead.
She is currently a leading figure in the centre-left, opposition Zionist Union.
Bakkar, for his part, is one of Egypt’s most prominent Salafists, an ultraorthodox brand of Islam.
The Nour Party, the political arm of Egypt’s Salafist Call movement, were vociferous advocates of the military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president who hailed from the rival Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s unrelenting crackdown on Islamist groups inside Egypt, the Nour Party have remained steadfast allies of the authoritarian Egyptian leader.
Like Livni, Bakkar has refused to comment on the secret meeting, instead posting a celebratory tweet about his graduation.
Translation: “Thank you to all those who congratulated me on my graduation from Harvard, God willing I will work hard to use this knowledge for sons of my country and my Ummah (global Islamic community). I attach new photos :)”
Pro-government MP Mostafa Bakry, known for his flamboyant and controversial outbursts, told Egyptian media: “This is a scandal that Nader Bakkar is asking for, and places him among the ranks of those who want normalisation with the Israeli enemy.”
He also linked the secret meeting “with his (Bakkar’s) suspicious studies at the American Harvard University.”
Mazhar Shaheen, one of Egypt’s most prominent pro-government clerics, posted a sarcastic comment on Facebook: "Guys don’t make a big deal of this and don’t be unjust to the man.. I mean why would he meet Tzipi Livni, the Zionist minister? I mean he was either convincing her to wear the niqab.. or he thought the way to the Ittihadiya (Egyptian presidential palace) was through Tel Aviv."
"The most important thing is that she didn’t photograph anything," Shahin continued. "This lady has experience in photographing encounters like these.”
He was referring to a 2012 article published by Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm that accused the former foreign minister of having entrapped important Arab personalities through sex scandals.
The Times of Israel reported sources close to Livni at the time as saying the accusations were “ludicrous and crazy”.
When asked by Youm 7 to comment on the secret meeting, Yasser Borhami, vice president of the Salafist movement, responded bluntly, saying: “Go ask him [Bakkar]. I have nothing to do with this matter.”
The timing of the reports and response of pro-government media led at least one Egyptian opposition activist to speculate that the government itself leaked the information to distract from its own foreign minister’s controversial visit to Israel.
Translation: "A president of the republic called al-Sisi a child who wanted to cover up the foreign minster’s visit to Israel so leaked news that another child called Nader Bakkar met with Tzipi Livni."
The saga also provided Egyptians an opportunity to engage in their trademark humour, with one social media user posting a tweet showing Bakkar’s traditional, unruly beard getting progressively shorter from 2011 until the present day.
Translation: “Stages of development of Nader Bakkar’s beard from the January revolutionary beard to the fashionable coup beard that threw him into the arms of Livni, the Zionist foreign minister. His model is Borhami.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.