Alien Invasion

Amid all the considerable political and media noise about foreign NGOs in Egypt and excitable discourse of interference in Egypt’s affairs, there is rather less attention to the arguably far greater foreign intervention represented by Salafism.

This is not an original observation on my part. Secular and liberal-minded Egyptians say it. But their voices are not loud in parliamentary debate or the state-dominated media. Salafism is largely alien to Egyptian society, long a minority tendency but recently grown more significant due to funding by Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, by means of support for radical preachers including airtime on transnational and local television channels.

Similar processes are underway, although with a much more recent history and more limited social reach, in Tunisia. This has been thrown into relief by the visit to Tunisia of Egyptian Salafist preacher Wagdy Ghoneim. Many in Tunisia have reacted strongly and negatively to his visit and message. In particular, his advocacy of female genital mutilation (FGM), a dangerous practice unfortunately widespread in Egypt and some other parts of northeastern Africa (among people of all religions), but hitherto unknown in the northwest (Maghreb) has produced outrage. Protests have disrupted his preaching events in various parts of Tunisia. The Tunisian Ministry of Health has publicly warned against FGM. At least one legal case is reportedly underway to shut down his activities.

In an interview this morning on the business-focused Express FM radio station, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, President of the Constituent Assembly responsible for drafting Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, responded to a question about Ghoneim briefly and rather dismissively: (I paraphrase) Tunisia is a diverse society and open to all sorts of influences, and Ghoneim is free to come and say what he will. But one must recognize this for what it is – alien interference.

Salafism may be too widespread now in parts of Egypt, and (at least temporarily) too politically powerful for leading political figures to call it out in this way. Criticism of Saudi Arabia has long been a red line for much of the media there due to its financial as well as political clout. But one can hope that if Egyptians feel empowered by their revolution to question the political forces that have been shaping their society, such as questioning the costs of accepting US and other western aid, that they will begin in larger numbers to question also the decades-old attempt to Salafize them.

(I recognize that ‘Salafize’ is almost certainly not a real word. It should be. It is now.)

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8 thoughts on “Alien Invasion

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Ed,

    just to say that I’m really enjoying following your blog. Looking forward to sharing your discoveries on this first visit to another interesting country. Enjoy.

  2. Ed,

    Great post. Interesting that President Marzouki first said, “Ghoneim is abnormal and those that invited him are bacteria”–but later retrieved his comments.

  3. Christina says:

    I continue to enjoy reading your observations and insights and am grateful to you for sharing them. You are making this baby addled brain smarter!

  4. Jason says:

    I think there are interesting parallels between the rise of Salafism and the rise of ultra right-wing Christian conservatism and radicalism in the West (e.g., and yet the former has until very recently had far more media coverage than the other. With the likes of Fox News holding such power, there is little wonder why. Are such media empires the West’s ‘Saudi Arabia’, creating similar reluctance to challenge by politicians? It seems that it takes a specific legal crowbar, like the phone hacking enquiry, for governments to directly take on the Rupert Murdochs of this world. The worrying thing is that there doesn’t seem to be the grassroots movement challenging this trend in the West to mirror that seen in the Arab world, which means such insidious radicalism has a much greater chance of gaining a strangle hold on Western policy.

    • edwebb says:

      I agree, in general, that this can be a useful parallel. In Tunisia these issues are raw and new, due to shaking off decades of a very locked-down public sphere and tight control of religious speech. This means levels of public awareness are high, and it is therefore easy to mobilize some sectors of opinion against the ‘alien’ threat. Absent scandals or crises, westerners tend to be more complacent about the state of public and media discourse. The phone hacking scandal has done the UK a favour, in general, therefore. A similarly critical debate in the US seems unlikely for the moment, alas.

  5. Jason says:

    Indeed – if anything it’s going the other way with the candidates in the primaries falling over each other to see who is more to the right. It’s quite grotesque.

    It appears that the protest movement in neighbouring Morrocco is starting to wane however:
    Do you get a sense that the feeling on the ground in Egypt or Tunisia is similarly starting to falter?

    • edwebb says:

      Each is a quite different situation. Although populations of all countries in the region are aware of each other’s struggles and achievements, the countries have rather less in common than one might imagine from the outside. Morocco seems to me to be an instance of the Monarchy continuing its generally successful tactics of adaptive autocracy, giving here, taking there. No revolution. In Tunisia the revolution has more or less succeeded in the sense of a genuine transfer of power, and opportunities to build something new. Tunisians are now struggling with what to build, and with the realization that they are more diverse than they had realized, including in their desires. Egypt is in a slow-motion transition, with all sorts of entrenched powers resisting forward motion but getting in each other’s way as they do so, leaving space for revolutionary entrepreneurs to move things forward bit by bit.

      • Your wee brother says:

        And maybe this is a fundamental problem with the Western media portrayal of these events – they tend to get lumped into the same simplistic ‘Arab Spring’ basket whereas the reality is more of a series of coincidental uprisings triggered by the right set of international conditions and the growth and freedoms of digital democracy. Which means it is perhaps not that surprising that the international community is frozen in the headlights of such varied sparks of dissent and feels powerless to react when needed, for instance to the atrocities in Syria.

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