A controversial fatwa issued by a prominent Muslim cleric sanctioning violence against anti-Muslim Brotherhood activists planning demonstrations in Cairo on 24 August, has sent shockwaves throughout Egyptian society, triggering public outcry and angry denunciations by political activists and rights groups. The fatwa comes at a time of increasing fears of an Islamist crackdown on freedom of expression as well as reports of physical assaults against journalists critical of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Speaking at a seminar at the Diplomatic Club in downtown Cairo on Tuesday, Shiekh Hashem Islam, a member of the Fatwa Committee of Al Azhar — Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, told a gathering of intellectuals, activists, civil society members and journalists that it was a “religious duty” to fight protesters planning to rally against the Muslim Brotherhood next week outside of the presidential palace. He described them as “Khawarej” — a term often used to describe deserters of the Islamic faith. He reminded his audience that President Morsi had been chosen by the people and “the world has attested to the fairness of Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential elections”.
He said, “If they kill you, kill them. Those of you killed will be martyrs, but if they die no blood money will be required”.
The Sheikh’s inflammatory words came in response to calls by anti-Islamist activists for a “second revolution” on 24 August against the Muslim Brotherhood. The activists have been using social media networks to mobilise for the protests which they say are aimed at toppling the Islamist President as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Rumours have circulated of possible attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices but some liberal activists — who have confirmed their participation in the protests — say they want to keep the demonstrations peaceful.
Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have been careful to distance themselves from the Sheikh’s provocative statements, insisting the group opposes any calls to violence. The Brotherhood released a statement today on its English language site, Ikhwanweb, saying that while respecting the right to free expression, individuals calling for “illegal acts of violence, vandalism and destruction of public and private property” during protests will be “held to account by the law”.
Muslim Brotherhood members have in turn said they are considering a rally of their own — the date of which is yet to be determined — to support President Morsi against the threats to unseat him. The ultra-conservative Salafists have vowed to show their solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood if such a rally were to be held.
Sheikh Islam’s inflammatory message meanwhile drew harsh criticism from politicians and activists alike after a clip of the Sheikh’s statements were posted on social networking sites. Several activists took to Facebook to show their outrage, saying “it was not within the scope of the Sheikh’s authority to issue religious edicts” and that “fatwas should only come from the Grand Mufti”.
Reform activist Mohamed ElBaradei blasted the Sheikh on his Twitter feed saying “if such clerics are not put on trial, fascism will rule masquerading under the guise of religion”.
Liberal MP Abu Hamed echoed the call to place the Sheikh on trial. “This is what happens when we mix religion and politics”, he was quoted as saying by state-owned newspaper Al Ahram.
Abu Hamed is one of the organisers of next week’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests, which have also been called for by former MP Mostafa Bakry and TV talk show host Tawfik Okasha. All three are known for their close alignment with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In recent weeks, the anti-Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric of both Abu Hamed and Okasha has only become more venomous. Okasha is also the owner of Al-Faraeen, an independent TV channel that was shut down by authorities earlier this week on charges of defamation and incitement to violence against the Muslim Brotherhood as well as President Morsi.
The majority of Egypt’s Christians — who make up approximately 12 per cent of the country’s population — are expected to join the 24 August protests amid mounting fears that their religious freedoms may be restricted under Islamist rule. Many liberals have also declared their intent to join the rallies, amid rumours that there is a possibility that the protests may turn violent. An inherent fear of the Muslim Brotherhood — outlawed under the previous regime — and growing concerns amongst secularists that their freedoms may be curtailed under the newly elected President (a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood) are key reasons behind mobilisation against Islamist rule.
Morsi’s decision last week to replace the chief editors of state-run newspapers with mostly Islamist-leaning editors and journalists — more likely to adopt the state line without debate — has fuelled fears that the Muslim Brotherhood wish to exercise control over the media and other state institutions. Dr Shahida el Baz, an independent researcher, warned that “The Muslim Brotherhood are infiltrating state institutions with the hope of eventually asserting their control over key institutions in the country”. She expressed concern that “the group’s non-inclusive policies threaten to undermine the democratic transition”.
Between the heightened tensions, speculations of violence, and a lot of finger pointing, analysts wonder if a second eruption will indeed take place only days from now. The one thing that’s certain to say is that if a direct confrontation between Morsi’s supporters and his opponents does occur — there will be no winners this time around.
Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.