The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The other failed dialogue

A couple of weeks ago I received a very funny email out the of blue from Nour Youssef, a young reader of the website. It started like this: “Would you be interested in taking on a slave under the pretense of an internship?” After some further quite funny correspondence and a meeting, we decided to try things out — I was not sure I had the time to work with an intern but she was persistent. She calls me Mr Miyagi and I have created a rule for my email that takes her emails and files them under a folder labelled “grasshopper”.[1] She has heen sending me some very useful links and notes that I will be putting up periodically. A few days ago, she went to the debate AUC hosted between ”Egypt’s Jon Stewart“ Bassem Youssef and ultra-conservative Islamist from the Gamaa Islamiya (once a terrorist group) Nageh Ibrahim. This is her account of the debate, and serves as the inaugural post of the contributor who shall henceforth be referred to as ”Nour the intern”.

  1. Fans of The Karate Kid will appreciate.  ↩

The debate on political satire between the famous political satirist, Bassem Youssef, and member of Gamaaa Islamiyaa Nageh Ibrahim, moderated by Hafez Al-Mirazi at AUC on February 7, did not have much to do with political satire or debating. While Bassem Youssef stood his ground, Nageh Ibrahim defied gravity to hover several inches above his.

Ibrahim, who is an accurate representation of the current Salafi mood — in the sense that he is a loyal Morsi supporter, but is openly, and politely, critical of the Muslim Brotherhood — was under palpable pressure to liberalize his views to mollify the high-class audience of embittered liberals and moderates, whose main reason for attending (apart from admiring Bassem Youssef up-close) was to see an Islamist get an intellectual beat down and have the “Islam they know and love” reinforced. They got more than they bargained for: a subdued and eager-to-please Salafi who let Youssef set the tone for the argument-turned-ditto and was content to smile benevolently and merely build on Youssef’s points.

In brief, Youssef’s main points were that a) islamists, at least the ones in power, have monopolized Islam, appointed themselves its guardian and official spokesperson, b) they used their religious standing to demonize their political opponents via labeling, citing examples like the Islamic bonds, the Islamic project, etc (all of which have little to do with religion but were nonetheless marketed as divine products), and c) that if the islamists continue their abuse of religion, they will alienate — and even disgust — people from it. He used his non-islamist family by way of example, saying that they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, but then turned against them because of their offensively exclusive statements and later on, offensive decrees.

Every point received a hot round of applause, whistles and wooos from the crowd, which seemed willing to cheer for just about any noise Youssef made and boo anyone who said something they didn’t like the sound of. Despite Youssef repeatedly, often jokingly, reminding them that “democracy is about listening to things you don’t want to hear, ” the scene was somewhat reminiscent of Islamist protests, where Brothers and Salafis would chant against mustard if it pleased the cleric.

Across Youssef’s charm and his command of the overflowing auditorium, sat an awkward Nageh Ibrahim, who cautiously agreed with everything Youssef said and spent his speaking turn paraphrasing Youssef’s points in fancy Arabic, including references to his books to prove for the consistency of his views.

When it came times for questions, members of the audience took the opportunity to make snide comments directed at a cornered Ibrahim; most of these remarks were focused on what Ibrahim conceded to calling “the deterioration of the Islamists’ rhetoric” and actual demands to denounce the Brotherhood in disguise, whereas the questions for Youssef lacked substance and were more like musings. “Err- where do you see Egypt in 50 years? ” an old man asked him. “No one knows where we are going to be in five months. We don’t know where we are going, but let’s hope we have fun going there, ” Youssef joked.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim was held responsible for everything any bearded man has said or done since 2010.

“Tell (the Islamists) that these liberals and seculars (they) attack, may not look very religious on the outside, but some of them are more religious and closer to God than they are! ” yelled a man into an innocent microphone, earning him loud cheers. “Why don’t Islamists ever criticize the president? ” asked a young AUC student, after sarcastically noting the Islamists’ unwavering support for Morsi’s decrees before and after they are declared and canceled. “Who’s really funding the Brotherhood? ” and “Hey, answer the question, old man! ”

Again and again, Ibrahim would strain to smile and almost demurely voice his reserved agreement or watered-down view.

For instance, when asked to comment on the fatwas issued, by famous Islamists like Mahmoud Shaaban, permitting the murder of opposition figures, Ibrahim uncomfortably dismissed them as the actions of “an odd few” and not respected religious figures. “Surely, we are not going to listen to the words of one young scholar out of 30 good ones, ” he concluded, anxiously. Adding that Islamists were and are not infallible – ignoring their claims to the contrary – and denouncing the labeling of liberals and seculars as ‘infidels’ because that’s Allah’s business, going as far as claiming that the majority of Islamists share this sentiment. “These words are good, but their application is bad, ” Youssef remarked, with an obvious note of speculation in his tone. He repeated that line after every particularly optimistic claim Ibrahim made.

The climax of the debate was when Ibrahim was asked for his thoughts on the Brotherhood and Morsi’s performance as president. After the oohs and aahs subsided, he began his answer in the name of God (which irritated the girls seated next me who muttered “(Ibrahim) does know we’re not infidels? ”). In what can only be described as a Richard Nixon move, Ibrahim started quoting a chapter in one his old books that criticizes the Brotherhood’s leadership for having an inadequate “party-based mentality” as opposed to the “country-based mentality” required to rule a country, and then moved on to detail the life story of Nelson Mandela, the history of South Africa, and the role the memoirs of Prophet Mohammed played in resolving the racial conflict in the then-torn nation – in a blatant attempt to put the audience to sleep. After the moderator, Mirazi, finally woke up and insisted he answer the actual question, Ibrahim grudgingly sighed and said: “I know Morsi is a good, well-meaning man… but he has not, yet, applied the proper Islamic solution to Egypt which will unite the people… unlike the great Mandela, who may not have been Muslim, but managed to learn, appreciate and apply true Islam. ”

Meanwhile, Youssef breezed through his questions. “What do you think of the opposition’s performance? ” asked a young man. “The opposition is trash. To put it lightly, they’re disgusting. They do nothing, ” answered Youssef, chuckling. That question was followed by a restless freshman who wondered if “(they) like, made Morsi leave, you know” who will fill the power vacuum. “Egypt has plenty of qualified options to take over after Morsi… but personally I don’t want Morsi to leave, let him finish his term, ” he answer, not unkindly, explaining that if Morsi did leave, and the people chose someone like ElBaradei to lead, the Islamists would riot.

It was not all compliments for Youssef: a veiled female student criticized him for being a bad influence on the youth, which is now “copying his sexual innuendos and raunchy jokes” to which he replied, “The show has an 18+ disclaimer and I don’t say anything you don’t hear every day on the streets. ” Later, a young man wearing a neat taqiyah (Islamic hat) with a trimmed beard, criticized Youssef for “attempting to correct a mistake with another mistake” by making fun of Islamists who make fun of him and liberals.

“I get to make fun of people, I am a political satirist” Youssef said, smiling, before getting heated. “I don’t make fun of someone’s name or appearance, I just point out their inconsistencies, ” he added, defensively. He went on to remind the speaker that he isn’t a cleric preaching things he doesn’t do, unlike the islamists, who gave themselves that responsibility, but are not living up to it. He angrily concluded that since “(he is) a clown, and a joke as they say, why are they stooping down to my level? ”

Just when the debate was coming to a close, and to Ibrahim’s great discomfort, he was asked if he would support a Copt as president. “According to our constitution, they can run, and if he wins, we must respect it, whether or not I support him is a personal matter, ” he answered briefly (visibly made uneasy by the mere prospect). But that’s not what he said in this televised interview when he was not outnumbered, as Youssef put it, in “a very hostile environment. ”

In his last attempt to win the crowd, Ibrahim stressed that only the holy Quran and authentic hadiths, not a party or the president, have authority over Muslims, which is rendered meaningless by the fact that Quran greatly stresses obedience to authority and some authentic hadiths forbid the act of rebellion in and of itself, even if the leader is corrupt. However, the trick gave the audience the false sense of security it craved, and earned him his perhaps only genuine round of applause.