MEMRI puts its foot in it

Over the last week or so I have been quietly fuming over the fuss MEMRI has made of this Wafa Sultan affair -- as Abu Aardvark has written, what she's saying isn't so unusual at one would believe by reading the writings of some naive columnists and bloggers, notably on the right. In fact, making seem so unusual only helps to reinforce the notion that the Arab world is composed entirely of unreasonable bigots, which it is not.

Egypt-watchers will delight at this offering:

According to a report in the independent Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yusouf, Egyptian MP Ragab Hilal Hamida, from the Muslim Brotherhood, said during a parliamentary session discussing the Inter-Arab Agreement on Combating Terrorism, that the Koran encourages terrorism, and that he supports the activities of Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi. The report also stated that another MP from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Ahmad 'Askar, supported Hamida's statements, and that MPs from the governing National Democratic Party (NDP) did not denounce them, but instead joked with Ragab.

I can't verify what Ahmad 'Askar said from here, but I can say one thing: Ragab Hamida is not a Muslim Brother. He is... wait for it... from Al Ghad. Not Ayman Nour's Al Ghad, but the rebel Al Ghad that led the party to split. Prior to that, he was in the erstwhile liberal Ahrar party, where he also caused a leadership crisis that led to the party being frozen by the Higher Parties Committee. In other words, he is a known troublemaker who has made a career out of being an extremely crass populist and a man who can make himself useful to the regime when needed. In a previous life, he has said in the past, he was a member of the Gamaa Islamiya, the violent half-fundie group half-mafia that terrorized Upper Egypt during the 1980s and early 1990s. But he may just be boasting, because he's the type of guy who thinks people will think the better of him if he had been in the Gamaa Islamiya. In the MEMRI article, Hamida mentions other organizations but he might be changing the story every time, so who knows. No one seriously thinks he had any role of consequence in any terrorist group or fundamentalist movement.

In other words, Hamida is a total opportunist and I would very much doubt that the Brotherhood would have anything to do with him, or endorse his proposal on backing Bin Laden at a time when it is not only trying rather cleverly to show its moderate side, but having public war of words with Ayman Zawahri! I may be wrong on that one, but the joviality that MEMRI mentions in its intro probably has more to do with the general boisterousness (and inconsequence) of the People's Assembly than anything else.

So what does that make of MEMRI's scoop? Basically, "slimy politician-for-hire says something silly."

Funnily enough, that silly thing will be useful to do some amalgamation and say Hamida is an Islamist (I doubt any real Islamist would touch him with a ten-foot pole; those people tend to have integrity even if they are fanatics), or that he is a Muslim Brother. Count on it to be picked up in Washington, since MEMRI does an excellent job of promoting its material to key columnists and decision-makers, and why not, eventually be recycled in an Egyptian paper (a sad state of affairs, but the reflection of the poor state of local media and the reach of globalized outlets), and then make the rounds at the Gezira Club among the Francophiles who long for the days of King Farouq (I can hear them already: "C'est une honte!" etc...)

Arabist readers will remember that I flagged Hameida in December of last year after he proposed banning alcohol. That was just after the new parliament convened, and he chose to conveniently set the tone of a large Islamist minority (that does not include him) but asking for what everyone expects Islamists to ask, but that they never do!
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.