Reinstatement of Salafist preacher angers moderates in Egypt

By allowing the Salafists to be present, Sisi perhaps wants to discredit Muslim Brotherhood propaganda that his government is waging a war against Islam, in general, and political Islam, in particular.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Yasser Borhami (C), deputy head of the Salafist Call, walks with his supporters in Alexandria. (Reuters)
Back to preaching. Yasser Borhami (C), deputy head of the Salafist Call, walks with his supporters in Alexandria. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Moderate circles in Egypt reacted with alarm after religious authorities gave permission to an extremist preacher to deliver sermons at a mosque in Alexandria.

The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments, which controls the mosques, gave Yasser Borhami, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the umbrella organisation of Salafi movements, approval to deliver sermons before Friday prayers at the Wise Caliphs Mosque in Alexandria.

“Everybody is shocked at the decision to allow this man to preach at the mosques,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of the Strategic Studies Centre, a local think-tank. “These people [the Salafists] have invented a new religion that is totally foreign to the tolerant nature of the people of Egypt.”

Salafists adhere to a strict version of Islam. They do not believe in women’s rights and call for women to be clothed from head to toe. The Salafists adopt a hostile stance towards non-Muslims, saying they are not full citizens. They order followers not to congratulate Christians on their religious occasions.

Borhami is notorious for many controversial edicts. He once said that a husband, who runs for his life, leaving his wife behind to be raped, is not a sinner. Another time, he said Mother’s Day is only celebrated by “infidels.”

Perhaps anticipating a backlash to its decision, the Ministry of Religious Endowments set rules for Borhami to abide by, including abstaining from discussing politics, complying with topics determined by the ministry and limiting sermons to 20 minutes. Few expect Borhami to hold to the restrictions.

There were also rumours of an unfolding alliance between the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi government and the Salafists with the aim of choking the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi has been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood since he became president in 2014 after the Brotherhood was implicated in terrorist attacks. An August 4 bombing outside the main cancer hospital in Cairo, in which 20 people died, was blamed on a Brotherhood militia.

The authorities disbanded the Muslim Brotherhood’s party in 2014 and seized the group’s assets. However, the August 4 attack suggests the Brotherhood is a danger, even though the group might be dismantled at the organisational level, analysts said.

This makes it necessary for Sisi’s regime to nurture alliances with important political groups, they added.

“The government acts very smartly, given the media war began by the Brotherhood,” said Tarek al-Beshbeshi, an Islamist affairs specialist.

By allowing the Salafists to be present, despite public opposition, Sisi perhaps wants to discredit Muslim Brotherhood propaganda that his government is waging a war against Islam, in general, and political Islam, in particular.

Sisi has been a champion of religious reform, calling several times for removing extremist content from textbooks used in religious schools, reforming religious discourse and renewing the understanding of religious texts.

His calls for reform were precipitated by the spike in terrorist attacks in Egypt, including those by a branch of the Islamic State in Sinai.

There are apparently cultural and social aspects to the wave of terrorism. Following the August 4 bombing, authorities aired videos showing the perpetrator of the attack bidding farewell to his parents at a park in southern Cairo. The video, analysts said, proves that the perpetrator’s parents knew of the attack beforehand, which suggests deep social and cultural problems in Egypt.

This is why opposition to Borhami and other Salafists returning to mosque pulpits engendered fears that such problems would increase.

“We are in a fierce war against terrorism,” Zunt said. “This is why we are badly in need of strengthening the domestic front.”

Alexandria is a Salafi stronghold. The city’s mosques were controlled by Salafi preachers who espoused extremist ideologies.

The Salafists abhor recognising Egypt’s ancient civilisation. In 2012, a Salafist preacher called for demolishing the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx. When the 2011 uprising erupted, there were debates among Salafists on the need to covering ancient statues with wax.

Sisi, however, appears to be repaying the Salafists for backing him all through.

The Salafists, who used to act in synchronisation with the Muslim Brotherhood, backed the uprising against Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013. They backed Sisi in the 2014 presidential election. Salafist representatives in parliament approved most of the bills and economic reform measures proposed by Sisi’s government.

“The Salafist al-Nour Party stood by the Egyptian state at the time of the anti-Brotherhood uprising,” said Sameh Eid, a specialist in Islamist affairs. “The Salafists, in general, are keen to politically act in a balanced manner.”