Campaigning for Egypt’s presidential elections, which will take place on May 26-27, officially kicked off last Saturday, a day after blasts in Cairo and Sinai left at least four people dead. The two-horse race between the army’s man, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and the candidate supported by many revolutionaries, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, is unlikely to deliver any surprises, with the outcome in the ex-army chief’s favor all but a foregone conclusion, most observers believe.
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As we approach the big day, one recently released video claims that the “question on the minds of all Egyptians” is not the state of the nosediving economy, wide-scale human rights abuses, the derailed revolution or the quest for elusive stability and security, but whether Sisi’s mother is Jewish.
“The strange thing is that the [military’s media] did not meet with Sisi’s mother nor his maternal uncles, but only with his father’s relatives,” said Saber Mashhour, the maker of this “exposé” – as if there were a conspiracy of silence to hide the former defense minister’s roots.
But aside from supposed omissions, what evidence does the video present to back up its claims?
The main “evidence” is the circumstantial coincidence of location. Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter of Cairo’s old city.
“Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area was always a mixed one, albeit with a strong Jewish character.
“Sisi was raised among Jews. He was raised by Jews,” Mashhour stressed, in case anyone was uncertain about the point he was making.
And what were the implications of Sisi spending his formative years in this way?
It would seem that the Jews, entrepreneurial whizzes that they are, saw an obvious gap in the market and imported “sex and dance” to Egypt, never mind that Egyptians have been swiveling their hips since at least the time of Herodotus. Besides, the maker of this video has very obviously never visited Mea She'arim or any of Israel’s other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
To take the outlandish to a whole other continent, the video claims that the Egyptian president most-hated in Israel, Gamal Abdel Nasser – who also spent a short part of his youth away from his native Alexandria in Cairo near the Jewish Quarter – was childhood chums there with none other than Israeli military icon Moshe Dayan. And these unlikely pals hatched the improbable conspiracy to give Egypt a clobbering in 1967.
Never mind the fact that Dayan was born and grew up in what was then northern Palestine and never entered Egypt in Nasser’s lifetime, except as a conqueror.
So, does anyone believe this patent, counterhistorical nonsense?
Well, judging by the fact that the video has clocked up nearly 200,000 hits (at the time of writing) in just two weeks, there are obviously some who do – though a small number, given Egypt’s population of 85 million. The video is most popular among supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which publicized it through its official website and other affiliated social media outlets.
Mashhour, the man behind the documentary, appears to share the same sympathies, and has developed quite a sideline in exposing anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood conspiracy theories for some time now – not to mention the “revelation” that Egypt has become neither an Islamic nor a secular nation, but a Christian one.
Mashhour almost explicitly spells out his allegiances when he makes the preposterous claims in the video that Egyptian Jews never loved Egypt – which goes against all the historical evidence – and hated the Muslim Brotherhood not because they were religious bigots, but because the Islamist movement foiled the Jews’ plans to “control Egypt.”
If these crackpot ideas were coming from just some random guy on the street, they’d be less troubling. However, it appears that Mashhour’s day job was at Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the banned Egyptian offshoot of the famous Qatar-based network.
This could well fuel another brand of conspiracy theory, the type that has had the dangerous consequence of leading to the imprisonment and trial of Al Jazeera journalists on trumped-up and ludicrous charges.
But why, with all the genuine grievances that pro-Morsi supporters have against Sisi since he declared his so-called War on Terror (which is largely a bloody purge against the Brotherhood), focus on this kind of fantastical and fanciful fiction when there is no shortage of damning facts?
This is partly because facts have not put the Egyptian public off Sisi, despite the murderous dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, the outlawing of the Brotherhood and mass death penalties meted out against its members. The savvy ex-general has not only marshalled the media behind him, but is riding and stoking a wave of anti-Brotherhood resentment.
Casting aspersions that Sisi is Jewish and an Israeli agent is perhaps a desperate, last-ditch bid to discredit him. In fact, alleged allegiances to Israel – and especially the United States – are regularly used to defame political opponents in Egypt.
But this also betrays a deeper pathology. Since it was founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has mostly been an underground movement, and one that has been persecuted to varying degrees by every Egyptian leader since King Farouq, who outlawed it in 1948 following a spate of bombings and assassination attempts. This creates a mentality of paranoia and victimhood.
Founded in response to the trauma felt by conservative Muslims at the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the Muslim Brothers have a tendency to see events in terms of a grand clash of civilizations, between a teetering Islam and a resurgent, hegemonic Christendom.
In this battle of the titans, the Muslim Brotherhood believes that the Jews are very much in the Christian camp, counterhistorical as this may be. “Zionism is perceived to be part of the Western plot against Muslim societies, which means Israel has a contemporary dimension which is not fully connected to its Jewish character,” says Ofir Winter, an Israeli academic specializing in Egyptian politics and Islamism.
Even though Israel is only regarded as a foot-soldier in a new Crusade, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist view of Jews is not only bigoted but anti-Semitic, argues Winter. “The view of the Jews as eternal enemies of Islam, regardless of time and place, and as owners of inherent almost genetic negative characteristics like meanness, evilness, manipulation, and so on, is very common in the writings of many prominent Islamists,” he observes.
By the same token, this would make much of the conservative anti-Arab rhetoric in Israel equally racist.
Others are not convinced, and argue that Israel and the Jews are tools of political expediency for the Brotherhood. “Frankly, I don’t even buy the caliphate business. I think it’s pure and simple political opportunism really,” counters Mohamed El Dahshan, a prominent Egyptian commentator, blogger and researcher. “Consequently, the Israel business is rhetoric.”
Despite the alarm a possible Brotherhood takeover of power elicited in Israel in the early days of the revolution, “The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t really seem to have Israel in their target list. They have always been more focused on building their own organization and fighting the state,” notes El Dahshan.
El Dahshan’s assertion gets confirmation from the unlikeliest of quarters. Although it is widely assumed, for instance, that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated because of the Camp David Treaty with Israel, his assassins say otherwise. “[Sadat] made that deal and no one killed him or planned to,” said Aboud al-Zomor, one of the convicted plotters. For al-Zomor and his Islamist cohorts, Sadat’s refusal to implement Sharia “was the primary reason that this regime must be removed”.
Even more surprising is the fact that, in addition to vilifying Jews, many Islamists also express admiration for Israel and the Jewish experience as an example to aspire to, as research by Winter and Uriya Shavit of Tel Aviv University has revealed.
“Our book My Enemy, My Mentor contains many Islamist texts which call on Muslim societies to follow the lead of the Jews and Israel and learn from them in different fields, such as religiosity, long-term planning and even women’s rights and democracy,” explains Winter.
Fascinatingly, an audio recording uncovered by Winter, apparently of the popular TV theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who some have accused of anti-Semitism, expressed, back in the 1990s, admiration for the achievements of Israeli democracy: “We hope that our countries will become like this country [i.e. Israel].”
Why? “There, it is the people who govern. There, they do not have the ‘four nines’ which we know in our countries,” he added, referring to the 99.99% of the vote with which Arab dictators once used to “win” elections.
“These kind of narratives are surprising and prove that the Islamists’ view of Israel is more complex than many tend to assume,” concludes Winter.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has lived, studied and worked in the Middle East and Europe, including Egypt, the UK, Belgium, Israel-Palestine and Switzerland and is currently based in Jerusalem. His book profiling the 'intimate enemies', Palestinians and Israelis, is forthcoming at the end of 2014.Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea, or on his website: www.chronikler.com