Egypt’s political landscape is dotted with people and issues that, from a reasonable distance, are incomprehensible.
Unfortunately, when you share a neighborhood with some of those people, you can’t always afford the luxury of trying to comprehend “root causes” and socio-demographic dynamics. The dangers are existential, not intellectual and so you need to first take defensive measures and then try to understand. People who fail to understand this tend – usually – to be those who live far from the threats, or think they do.
The Dubai-based Al Arabiya news site carries a report from Egypt today. It focuses on a televised sermon delivered Friday by Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a “holy man” and lawyer who is “the country’s most charismatic Salafist politician” and a front-running candidate in Egypt’s 2012 presidential election. He was reckoned to have a serious chance up until his electoral run was forcibly ended by the disclosure, denied by the candidate but subsequently confirmed by the Egyptian authorities, that his mother was a citizen of the United States. It appears he is still laboring to overcome that disgrace.
He favours lowering the legal age of marriage to puberty (for girls, of course); chopping off the hands of thieves, naturally; ending the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty; supports the veiling of women and their segregation from men in the workplace (according to the L.A. Times). He calls Iran a successful model of keeping your independence from the United States. And about the 9/11 massacres, he said
I am one of those who believe these events were fabricated from the outset as part of the global groundwork for the distortion of Islam’s image. I mean, this is part of a comprehensive global plan that includes a media aspect. [Interview on a 2004 Saudi TV program]
There’s an eye-popping selection of other public pronouncements of this person here.
On Friday, according to Al Arabiya, the ultra conservative Abu Ismail preached that
The only way to build a strong Egypt is to have tens of thousands fight and be “martyred” under the name of God, a prominent Salafist politician told worshipers during a televised sermon on Friday. “So what if a hundred or a thousand, or even ten thousands are martyred to build a long-prevailing nation,” Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a former presidential candidate, said. “There is no other plan but to be martyred.”
A lunatic, right? Yes, and/or a cynical manipulator. But that’s not necessarily the impression you would get from the mainstream Western media coverage he has enjoyed during this past year.
A handful of examples from just one source: the L.A. Times:
* Abu Ismail’s is “a robust voice in the fractious political Islam” of post Mubarak Egypt;
* He embodies “a new Egypt searching for a religiously resonant yet pragmatic brand of politics that can fix the nation’s deep economic and social problems“;
* “He’s a favorite on talk shows and internet videos, a charismatic speaker who can charm a university crowd as easily as he can raise cheers from mill workers in the provinces”;
* “He skims the edge of fundamentalism — he once suggested that he and Osama bin Laden shared the same ends, if not the means, to create an Islamic state — but connects with Egyptians’ everyday worries.
The Economist has said he is “committed to replicating the seventh-century ways of the Prophet Mohammed [and]could be the country’s next pharaoh.” More recently, it has also called him a man with “folksy charm putting the dour Mr. Morsi in the shade.” He’s a politician whose followers are “rowdy enthusiasts.”
There is no suggestion that Abu Ismail himself has any intention of embracing martyrdom. It’s a near certainty that his inspiration will bring less discerning Egyptians (aka rowdy enthusiasts) to that end. Martyrdom-minded religious fanatics have a bad reputation in this part of the world, so this “folksy” sermon is less than good news.
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