Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Morsi, Anti-Semitism, and Free Speech in Egypt

by Isobel Coleman
January 17, 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood's president-elect Mohammed Morsi is seen on screens at the Egyptian Television headquarters control room during his first televised address to the nation in Cairo on June 24, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters). The Muslim Brotherhood's president-elect Mohammed Morsi is seen on screens at the Egyptian Television headquarters control room during his first televised address to the nation in Cairo on June 24, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters).

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has been making headlines this week for his hateful and anti-Semitic remarks made in 2010 when he was a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” Through a spokesman, Morsi has since argued that these remarks were taken out of context, although I’m struggling to see how.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and a popular Egyptian television show are responsible for shining attention on Morsi’s comments. On January 3, MEMRI released a disturbing video of another set of anti-Semitic comments made by Morsi in September 2010, putting it with English subtitles on YouTube (Morsi disparaged Zionists in this one as “the descendants of apes and pigs.”) Then, a political satire show in Egypt broadcast (in Arabic) Morsi’s hateful comments. The New York Times then picked up the story, bringing it to the international stage.

The big winner here is the Egyptian television show. Hosted by Bassem Youssef and titled the Program, it offers commentary on current events in Egypt and is often compared to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Youssef highlights clips from news and other popular programming such as religious channels to reveal the absurdities and contradictions of the media and politics in Egypt.

The episode of the Program that aired on January 11 focused on recent comments by Essam El Erian, a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, and a presidential advisor. El Erian said that Egyptian Jews in Israel should return to Egypt ostensibly in preparation for the end of the Israeli state, which he predicted would be in the next ten years.

El Erian’s comments whipped up a storm of protest in Egypt questioning the logic of this claim, and Morsi’s office felt compelled to issue an announcement that it was not responsible for El Erian’s statement. Youssef then aired a clip of Morsi’s 2010 comments inciting Egyptians to rear their children on hatred of Jews and Zionists. Youssef sarcastically encouraged viewers to be sure to put that hatred in a baby bottle.

“Speaking of hatred, people rear their children to hate many people, not just the Jews: Christians, Shia, Baha’is, many other Muslims, women, and fans of the Zamalek soccer team [one of the Egyptian soccer teams based in Cairo].” Upon naming each of these groups, Youssef pulled out a baby bottle and placed it in front of him. Gesturing to the bottles, Youssef finished the segment by sadly noting that Egypt “already has hatred enough and more.”

Part of Youssef’s popularity is that he spares no one–neither other media personalities, nor politicians and religious leaders. His barbs have earned him the respect and loathing of many different groups of Egyptians. (It also earned him a court case accusing him of insulting the presidency, which was just thrown out.)

The Program started as a homemade operation with episodes posted on YouTube during the January 2011 uprising. It is a great example of the vibrant discussion of politics that the uprising in 2011 has birthed in Egypt. Media literacy and critical engagement with politics are an essential part of any democracy. Youssef’s tenacity and creativity–and that of other political satirists–are playing an important role in helping Egyptians understand the importance of protecting freedom of speech, as well as speaking out against hate speech when it does occur.

Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing the Arabic translations.

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