BRIEFS

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 47

SALAFISTS TARGET WORKS OF THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS

Egypt’s Salafist parties, which did surprisingly well in the first round of parliamentary elections with 24% of the vote, have tried hard to present themselves as compatible with modern norms, so long as they fit the moral standards established by Islam’s earliest generations. Youssry Hamad, a leader of al-Nour (The Light) Party, the leading Salafist movement in Egypt, has protested claims that the Salafists wish to turn back the clock in Egypt: “"We are surprised to find that the liberal and secular current, which rejects the doctrine of Islam, distorts our image in the media through lies and speaks about us as if we came from another planet… We will not tell people to ride camels, as others have said about us. We want a modern and advanced Egyptian society of people" (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 19).

Egypt’s rapidly expanding population is facing a host of major problems that will require the attention of any new government. There have been fears, however, that an Islamist-dominated parliament might devote itself to social issues such as reforms directed at dress, gender mixing and alcohol consumption at the expense of more pressing concerns. While the Muslim Brotherhood continues to keep its distance from suggestions it might have a radical Islamist agenda, many Salafists have embraced the opportunity to express extremist interpretations of Islam in the post-Mubarak environment. Some Salafist preachers have suggested it is time to put an end to the “idolatry” encouraged by the monuments of Ancient Egypt. Though the last known worshipper of the ancient Egyptian religion converted to Christianity in the fourth century C.E., these Salafists have suddenly decided to address the danger posed to Islam by these monuments, suggesting their destruction or concealment as a solution.

A Salafist leader and al-Nour Pary candidate for parliament in Alexandria, Abd al-Moneim al-Shahat, described the civilization of ancient Egypt as a “rotten culture” that did not worship God (Ahram Online, December 2). While al-Shahat has not called for their complete destruction, he has suggested that the ancient works be covered with wax to prevent their worship (Reuters, December 9). Al-Shahat has also voiced his concerns over the literature of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, denouncing it for inciting “promiscuity, prostitution and atheism” (Ahram Online, December 2).  Though running in an Islamist stronghold in Alexandria, al-Shahat lost the run-off election last week to an independent candidate supported by the Muslim Brotherhood after Copts and Liberals banded together to defeat the controversial al-Nour candidate (Reuters, December 8).

The growing signs that the newly ascendant Salafists might begin a campaign against Egypt’s vast archaeological and cultural legacy, one of the most impressive in the world, have sent shock waves through Egypt’s tourism industry. The legacy of the ancient Egyptians represents the nation’s principal source of foreign currency and over a tenth of Egypt’s gross domestic product.

In response to the Salafists’ verbal attacks on the ancient remains, a group of roughly 1,000 protestors gathered in Giza near the site of the Great Pyramid to denounce the Salafists’ remarks (Reuters, December 9; Ahram Online, December 10).  Al-Shahat’s suggestions for dealing with the issue of idolatry in Egypt were later soundly refuted by Shaykh Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy leader of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the most respected center of Islamic scholarship in the world. Referring to the great Caliphs and other respected Islamic leaders who had ruled Egypt, Ashour noted that neither the 7th century Muslim conqueror of Egypt and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Amr ibn al-As, nor any of the other Islamic rulers of Egypt “had a problem with ancient Egyptian monuments or thought they have to be destroyed or that they are against Islam” (al-Arabiya, December 12; Bikya Masr [Cairo], December 13). Abd al-Nour, a former leader of the Wafd Party and current Minister of Tourism in the interim government, blasted the Salafists’ approach to tourism, saying that the “rejection of God’s blessings [such as Egypt’s] unique location, a shining sun and warm water, is tantamount to atheism” (Ahram Online, December 10).

To counter fears that an Islamist government could mean the end of Egypt’s vital tourism industry, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hizb al-Hurriya wa’l-Adala (HHA – Freedom and Justice Party) and the Salafist al-Nour Party both announced they would hold “tourism conferences” to promote the industry. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have shaken hands with tourists in Luxor and visited the Giza Pyramids to show their support for tourism based on Egypt’s ancient monuments. A Nour Party spokesman, however, has said his party supports tourism, but prefers a type of “Halal tourism” that would ban immoral conduct and be consistent with Salafist ethics (Bikya Masr, December 12).

In some ways the modern Egyptian Salafists appear to be opposed to the views of the early Arab Muslims they emulate, Muslims who were very familiar with the civilization of Ancient Egypt after centuries of Arab migration to Egypt (there is ample archaeological evidence of some of these Arabs adopting the religion of ancient Egypt in the pre-Islamic era). Though the Arab Muslim conquerors that arrived in the Seventh Century were avid treasure hunters and not above stripping pyramids and other monuments of useful building materials, early Islamic scholars from across the Islamic world visited Egypt to investigate its monuments, culture and history in the interest of expanding knowledge of the world and recording the monuments as evidence of the Holy Scriptures in which they are mentioned. [1]

Note:

1. See Okasha El Daly, Egyptology: the Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, London, 2005.

TURKISH-EGYPTIAN NAVAL EXERCISES RECALL MUSLIM DOMINANCE OF THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN

The combined fleets of the Ottoman Sultan and his Viceroy in Cairo once dominated the eastern Mediterranean.  Beginning in the 19th century, the forces of European imperialism and Arab nationalism began to drive apart the two anchors of Muslim supremacy in the region. Political separation and defeats at sea were followed by a steep decline in naval capacity in both nations. Now, however, new political trends are bringing the Turkish and Egyptian navies together again to restate their military potential in the face of challenges posed by new rivals such as Israel and Iran.

The naval exercises, code-named “Sea of Friendship 2011,” began December 17 and are scheduled to finish on December 23 (Turkish Radio-Television Corporation, December 15).  Turkey is acting as the host nation and the exercises will take place in Turkish waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt’s contribution in terms of ships and personnel is the largest yet in the series of three Turkish-Egyptian annual naval exercises. According to Turkish sources, the Egyptian force will consist of two frigates, two assault boats, one tanker, a helicopter and an underwater assault team, while the Turkish contingent will consist of two frigates, two assault boats, a submarine, a corvette, a tugboat, two fast patrol boats and an underwater assault team (Anatolia News Agency, December 15).

Despite growing tensions between Egypt and Israel, the commander of the Egyptian Navy, Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, publicly insisted that the naval exercises are not directed towards anyone, but were rather part of an ongoing effort by Turkey and Egypt to maintain peace and security in the region (Ahram Online, December 15). A Turkish press release emphasized the development of mutual cooperation and interoperability between the Turkish and Egyptian fleets (Turkishnavy.net, December 15).

The naval exercise with Turkey follows the Egyptian Navy’s biggest live ammunition war games in its history on October 30 in the seas off the coast of Alexandria. Aside from a number of coordinated operations between the navy’s air and sea assets, the games also provided an opportunity to introduce new speedboats to the Navy (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], October 30).

In August, Turkey pulled out of a scheduled naval exercise with Israel and the United States for the second year in a row following the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in May, 2010 (Jerusalem Post, August 6). In September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a decision to increase Turkey’s naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean in light of the attack on the Mavi Marmara and Israeli gas exploration operations in Cypriot territorial waters disputed by Turkey. At a conference held in Tunisia, Erdogan said “Israel will no longer be able to do what it wants in the Mediterranean and you’ll be seeing Turkish warships in this sea” (AFP, September 15). Ankara is also challenging the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

There have also been suggestions that the exercises will present a show of force to Iran as it pursues an aggressive Middle East policy. Turkish friction with Iran over the conduct of Syria’s repression of its growing internal political opposition has increased in recent weeks, with Iranian leaders suggesting that the Turkish government’s Islamist model is unsuitable for the Arab world (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 15). Threats from Iranian military leaders that NATO air defense system bases in Turkey would be attacked in the event of an Israeli/American strike on Iran have further aggravated relations between the two regional powers.

Egypt is in the process of taking delivery of the first of six Turkish-built Yonca-Onuk MRTP-20 (Multi Role Tactical Platform) fast interceptor boats. Some of the boats are being built in yards in Istanbul, while others are being built in Alexandria with technology transfer agreements. Egypt is the fifth country to purchase the MRTP-20, which features the ASELSAN – STAMP weapons system (STAbilized Machine gun Platform), a remote-controlled system which its builders say is designed to defend against asymmetric threats on land or sea-based platforms.

The Egyptian Navy is also preparing to take delivery next year of four Fast Missile Craft being built in Pascagoula, Mississippi by the VT Halter Marine company under a Foreign Military Sales deal worth $807 million. The missile ships will each carry a 76mm gun, Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles designed for use in littoral waters, MK49 Rolling Airframe surface-to-air missiles and a Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) for self-defense (UPI, October 27; AP November 1). Capable of doing 34 knots per hour with a crew of 40 sailors each, the ships are intended for use in the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the coastal waters of the Mediterranean.

As Turkey’s former strategic alliance with Israel begins to fade away, Ankara appears to be turning towards the new Arab regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to strengthen its expanding role in the Middle East. Efforts to increase military cooperation through exercises such as “Sea of Friendship” represent important steps in spreading Turkish influence and exerting a more independent post-Mubarak foreign policy in Egypt.

Note:

1. For STAMP, see: Undersecretariat of Defense Industries Export Portal, International Cooperation Department, http://defenceproducts.ssm.gov.tr/Pages/ProductDetails.aspx?pId=71 .