For Hatem al-Shenawi, the dream of every preacher came true. The boy finished religious school, went for further study to the most important religious institution in Egypt, Al-Azhar, and went on to become one of the most famed television preachers in the land. Yet despite being a highly regarded and a well known religious scholar, Shenawi did not forgo the pleasures of this world. Women seduced him, millions of Egyptian liras found their way to his bank account, he collaborated with the intelligence forces and avoided peeving the authorities.
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Shenawi had a hand in every plate except his own – if only because the famed preacher isnt a real person. He is the hero of a thick book (550 pages) written by the Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa, Mawlana (The Preacher), published in 2012. That was the year in which Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the target of a barrage of arrows from Eissas sharp pen and tongue.
Four years later, in January, Mawlana the movie, based on the novel, hit the big screens. The script was written by Magdi Ahmed Ali, who also directed the film. In its first month, Mawlana was extremely popular, raking in 11 million Egyptian lira.
Then the trouble began.
Mawlana was shown at the international film festival in Dubai, and was also bought by a lot of television networks. But when it was broadcast in Beirut, that capital of Arab pluralism, protests broke out.
The charge was that the movie not only demeans Muslim religious figures but could even spark religious conflicts. Lebanese censors mulled for days whether to ban the movie, continue showing it in full, or cut out bits. Finally they decided to delete nine minutes out of the full 136-minute film. Kuwait banned it outright.
In Egypt the film was allowed to be shown in full, despite its criticism of Egyptian religious people and its mockery of Al-Azhar. That is no great surprise, since for the last three years, Egypt has been embroiled in a battle against the radical Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. This movie serves the purposes of the president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, perfectly.
Much water has flowed through the Nile since Egyptian rulers routinely banned any publications that could anger the preachers. The famed psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi,who led a well-publicized campaign against the sages and the corruption in the religious establishment, was tried under then-President Hosni Mubarak because of her novel The Fall of the Imam. Published in the 1980s, it accused religious leaders of greed, corruption and hypocrisy. Her trial fell through on technicalities but the legal sword remains hovering over her head. Other books critical of the religious establishment were banned, including A Banquet for Seaweed, a novel by Syrian author Haydar Haydar.
Within the larger dispute over the movie Mawlana is an interesting story about Eissas permit to publish the book. The writer had been hounded by Mubarak, and was even indicted for reporting in the press that the president had hypertension that caused him to lose consciousness from time to time. It is true that Mubarak pardoned him, but Eissas articles continued to be banned. Eventually Eissa moved onto television, and for the last two years he has been broadcasting a talk show four times a week on the network Cairo and The Public (which is owned by the Egyptian publishing magnate Tarek Nur).
At first Eissa supported Sissi. Lately he became critical of the presidents policy. In early January, his show was terminated.
Eissa didnt spare Saudi Arabia either, after it suspended aid to Egypt when Sissi criticized Riyadhs policy in Syria.
Tarek Nur claimed that Eissa asked to stop broadcasting the show, to give him more time to write. But according to reports in Egypt, Eissa received notice that the show would be terminated just two days in advance. Who leaped to Eissas defense? His old enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, reporting that the decision was based on Nurs sister Nihad being married to Sissi and worse, she began her career as an actress in a Persil laundry soap advertisement. That, said the Muslim Brotherhood, was the reason for Eissas dismissal.
The only problem with that story is that Sissi isnt married to Nihad but to Entissar Amer, a modest women who has appeared by her husbands side in public exactly once. But all is fair in war, including to marry the president to Nurs sister.
However, despite the personal wars between Sissi and Eissa, the president chose not to ban the book or the movie. He is conducting a holy war and using anything he can to help him. That is the spirit he wishes to imbue. Sissi is not secular; his liberalism is not based on enlightenment. His war is not one of values, but one of politics. But if, en route, Egypts liberals gain a little more freedom of expression on religious affairs, all the better.