x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egypt's Salafist Sheikh Ismail turns ire on media

The dream of an Egypt governed by Sharia has many champions, but fewer with more determination than Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

Islamist protesters supporting Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi outside the Media City complex in Giza. Their sign reads "journalist remnants will destroy Egypt”.
Islamist protesters supporting Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi outside the Media City complex in Giza. Their sign reads "journalist remnants will destroy Egypt”.

CAIRO // The dream of an Egypt governed by Sharia has many champions, but fewer with more determination than Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

In a trajectory that mirrors the political ascent of Islamists in Egypt, the Salafist lawyer, politician and sheikh has emerged from the political oblivion of the Mubarak years and now enjoys unprecedented influence.

After running unsuccessfully for president last summer, he has now taken up the defence of a fellow Islamist and the country's embattled leader, Mohammed Morsi.

The sheikh's increasingly aggressive tactics mirror the tone of tit-for-tat political confrontation that now stalks the streets of the capital, as Mr Morsi and his supporters square off against a coalition of liberals, secular groups and moderate Islamists.

Sheikh Ismail is an ultraconservative Salafi. He has called for an end to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, a law making it mandatory for women to wear veils and defining the marriage age as "puberty".

Last week, the sheikh urged thousands of his supporters to surround Cairo's Media Production City in a protest dubbed "Sharia First".

The sheikh's supporters responded to his call, converging on the media enclave from across the country aboard at least 100 buses. During the eight-day protest, tents were pitched and checkpoints erected with private guards checking identification cards.

The protest - and the choice of venue - was a carefully planned show of force whose meaning the sheikh made plain.

Appearing at the protest site surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, he urged his followers to continue protesting until Egypt's media is "cleansed" and stops "agitating" the public.

The sheikh later warned that his followers would not back down.

"My message was to let those so-called 'revolutionaries' attacking the presidential palace and attempting to smear the president's legitimacy [know that] if they storm into the palace then we will respond by storming into Media City, the hub of despicable, privately-owned TV channels working day and night to distort the image of Islamists," he said.

Indeed, Egypt's media is a particular target of scorn from the sheikh and other Islamist political parties and organisations.

A recent joint statement by the groups criticised the media for alleged anti-Islamism, singling out news organisations by name, including Dream TV's 10pm talk show hosted by Wael El Ibrashy, Orbit TV's Cairo Today programme hosted by Amr Adib, and the Al-Sabah newspaper managed by Wael Al Ibrashy.

During the protest, demonstrators smashed the windows of a car carrying Dr Saad El Din Ibrahim as it entered the compound, where the prominent pro-democracy activist was scheduled to be interviewed on a talk show. The same day, Khaled Yousef, the respected film director, was attacked as he entered the compound.

"They pointed at me and yelled, 'Get this blasphemous man!'" he recalled. From now on, he said, he would "carry a weapon".

In a television interview, Mr Yousef had accused the sheikh and his supporters of being responsible for the attack.

A spokesman for the sheikh said Mr Yousef had provoked the demonstrators.

Jamal Saber said Mr Yousef's speeding BMW almost ran over protesters "standing peacefully" along the way and he waved his middle finger at them. "Their reaction was normal," Mr Saber said.

Since the uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from office in February last year, Sheikh Ismail, 51, has tried many avenues to achieve a Sharia-governed Egypt.

During last year's election campaign, he exchanged his traditional Salafist robe for a suit and tie, in an attempt to appear more moderate. He appeared regularly on television, casting himself as a soft-spoken Islamist and advocate of the "gradual" establishment of Sharia.

His name never made it to the ballot.

Authorities disqualified him from the race after allegations surfaced that his deceased mother held US citizenship - a violation under Egyptian election laws.

He now says the allegations were the product of "a conspiracy orchestrated by the Americans and the military junta running the country" aimed at preventing his certain election victory and the establishment of Sharia in Egypt.

His presidential ambitions sidelined, he is now pursuing another route - an international organisation of Sharia advocates.

The sheikh said he has been in contact with leading Egyptian religious scholars and Islamists in Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the US and elsewhere to discuss his plan to establish a "Sharia governance project", with Egypt as its base.

"I have not decided on the name of the coalition yet, but I was ready to announce my organisation in October but had to delay it due to the unstable political developments in the country," he said.

The sheikh has drawn some supporters outside Egypt that are likely to complicate his ambitions.

In a video released last week, Ayman Al Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda, urged the sheikh to "complete" the Egyptian revolution, whose gains, he said, "were played with".

"You must meet the request of the Egyptian people for Sharia to obtain dignity and pride," Mr Zawahiri said.

"The corrupt powers in Egypt must be forced to bow to the demands of the people through popular revolution, preaching and inciting action. The battle isn't over, but it has started."

Sheikh Ismail denied having any direct contact with any member of Al Qaeda or its leader, whom he described as a "wise man who understands the nature of the political scene in Egypt".

At the same time, he did not distance himself from Mr Zawahiri or his message, replying: "He knows my global approach is the correct one and that I have the support internally and outside of Egypt to reach our goal.

"Al Zawahiri understands that the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood is too soft and the proof is how they allowed the anti-Morsi protesters to get so close to the palace and challenge the president so easily."