Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

More scrutiny needed on Egypt's Islamist extremists

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The prolific and insightful Dr Barry Rubin has written today on the Elephant in the Egyptian Parliament: namely, the overwhelming complicity that Egyptians seem to show towards Islamists and the worrying influence that extreme groups seem to be gaining.

Think about it. There is a powerful Muslim Brotherhood, openly seeking state power and Egypt's fundamental transformation into an Islamist state. Then there are the Salafists-a new label applied to even more radical Islamist groups-that were in the past simply called by the name of the individual organization. There used to be two major ones. Why the use of "Salafist" now? Because there are too many to count.

... The Brotherhood might reduce the level of violence but that's only because it believes that victory can be achieved without it and they are also willling to Islamize the country more slowly. Still, I'll bet that Brotherhood members aren't going to put up their fists to defend Christians, secularists, or women who don't toe the line from Salafist attack.

A corrollary to Rubin's article is that it is prudent to always treat articles supporting openly extremist groups as moderates with some sceticism. With a little analysis, many of these arguments can be shown to have glaring half-truths and contradictions. Take, for example, this recent article by Dr. Omar Ashour of Exeter University on the Foreign Policy website. Ashour openly claims that the "Consultative Council of the Egyptian Islamic Group" - which broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood as they saw the Brotherhood as "too moderate" - is now a peace-loving, democratic organisation.

Ashour refers to Aboud al-Zomor, who AIJAC wrote about here, as the "most famous political prisoner in Egypt". It is true that the Egyptian Government was arresting people for being involved in the Islamist movement, but this was not the case with Zomor. Zomor was implicated in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and this was his reason for being behind bars. It is a little stretch of credulity to refer to someone in prison for orchestrating a President's assassination as a "political prisoner".

Furthermore, Ashour seems to be extremely willing to accept extremist rhetoric at face value, even where it appears to be contradicted by his own words:

In its post-Jihadist phase, the IG abandoned violence, strongly criticized al Qaeda's behavior and strategies, and accepted participating in elections. Now, it lies on the right of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) when it comes to social conservatism and constitutional liberalism. For example, the IG still categorically denies the right of Copts and women to run for presidency.

... Thus far, the IG has adhered to its commitment to abstain from violence, even as a good opportunity to engage in violent activism has presented itself... the IG is holding internal elections, asking its members to fill party registration forms, holding anti-sectarian violence rallies, and issuing joint statements for peaceful coexistence with the Coptic Church of Assyut.

The latter paragraph would sound heartwarming, if Ashour had not preceded it with the former. The two paragraphs together show that while the IG is happy to issue statements about "peaceful coexistence" with Copts, it strongly rejects the idea that Copts should be treated as full members of society. Advocating "coexistence" with a different faith, as long as its members are second-class citizens, hardly seems democratic; yet Ashour appears to have let this fact slip him by. One can only assume that, as Rubin notes (above), the IG and MB may not actively promote the persecution of Copts, but would be more than happy to turn a blind eye:

An interesting development is the media explosion in Egypt, following the dramatic increase in press freedom that has emerged since Mubarak's downfall. As Emad Mekay reports in The New York Times:

Stimulated by deregulation and an insatiable demand for news and information amid the uncertainties that have followed the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, investors are racing to set up new television channels.

Since Mr. Mubarak was toppled on Feb. 11, a total of 16 new Egyptian channels have obtained licenses to broadcast to the country's 85 million people and via satellite to the larger market of 310 million in the Arab world.

That said, this new press freedom may not be entirely beneficial. As Mekay notes, many extremist groups are gaining a new mouthpiece:

... The cement mogul Hassan Rateb, who owns Al-Mehwar TV, devoted air time discrediting democracy activists during the first days of the revolution as foreign agents paid by Jews, Israel and the United States... But most notably among the new political powers to get involved in the media is the previously outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the largest group opposing Mr. Mubarak. The group has soft-launched Egypt 25, an around-the-clock general interest channel named after the first day of the uprising. The channel has been broadcasting nonstop footage of the Tahrir Square protests that unseated Mr. Mubarak along with patriotic songs eulogizing the achievements of the Egyptian people.

But of course, there are also grounds for optimism:

... News reports say Mr. Sawiris, a Christian, set up a new political party vowing to challenge the rising influence of the country's Islamist groups by paying top dollar to hire television anchors with avowedly secular views. One of his new channels will broadcast during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, usually the peak viewing time.

...Al-Wafd, a liberal-leaning party, set up its own Al-Masry Channel, while the maverick journalist Ibrahim Issa started Al-Tharir Channel as an all-around talk show forum "to represent the young people who led the revolution."

A sports network, Modern Sports, also launched a political news and debate channel called Modern Freedom.

Information and ideas play a major role in defining a society. If they truly wish to build a democratic nation, it is now up to the Egyptian people to ensure that ideas consistent with democratic principles are broadcast and heard, and that radical groups are sidelined by more moderate voices. That said, while those of us in the West can certainly lend a hand, one thing that will never help is to apologise for extreme groups and paint intolerance in rosy colours.

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