Safwat Hegazi has long been an interest of mine due to his inflammatory rhetoric in favor of Islamism. This article was written for Arab West Report before the removal of President Morsi from his office, in preparation for a hopeful interview. Cornelis Hulsman was able to secure this interview during the sit-in protest, and this will be published here in a subsequent post. Since then, Hegazi has been arrested for inciting violence. Unfortunately, the database of AWR remains inaccessible due to hacking.
The Islamist landscape in Egypt is often seen through the lens of two dominant groupings: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, the latter of which have splintered into several smaller political parties. But Sunni Islam, lacking an organizational hierarchy, facilitates the emergence of independent scholars on the basis of their knowledge and charisma. Though the Brotherhood and Salafi Nour Party are rightly understood as the prime movers in Islamist politics, the influence of individual actors must not be discounted. Among the most prominent is Safwat Hegazi.
Despite his general independence, Hegazi is often identified – rightly or wrongly – as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless, his strident pro-revolutionary and pro-Islamist positions frequently place him in support of President Muhammad Morsi in general, and in support of an even larger Islamist project in particular, as will be seen. These positions are not just his own, but reflect his position as the secretary-general of the Revolution’s Board of Trustees, one of many revolutionary groupings, and from membership in two Islamist/Salafi organizations, the Legitimate Association for Rights and Reform, and the Association of Sunnah Scholars, which he heads.
Most controversial, however, is Hegazi’s membership in the National Council for Human Rights. This semi-governmental watchdog was reconstituted by Morsi to replace the Mubarak and NDP dominated council with twenty-five new members. Liberals and leftists received a share of the seats, but critics complained of Islamist domination and the appointment of figures with no experience or demonstrated commitment to international human rights norms. Hegazi was singled out as an example.
Among the complaints is Hegazi’s willingness to shed blood.
He issued a fatwa not only licensing the assassination of Syrian President Bashār al-Asad, but also declaring ‘a sinner’ anyone who did not do so. ‘Killing Asad is a duty of the Islamic nation,’ he declared, taking legitimacy from other organizations who issued similar statements.
While Syria can be considered a domain of war, Hegazi’s pronouncement of death extends further. lAnother fatwa urges Muslims to kill any Israeli found walking in the streets, saying the day will come when Muslims rule the world. He also announced he would personally kill someone who insults Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, though he was careful to emphasize he was not asking the public to assume this responsibility.
Finally, in the context of demonstrations at the presidential palace over Morsi’s controversial constitutional declaration placing his decisions beyond judicial oversight, Hegazi warned demonstrating Copts. Repeating Islamist claims that over sixty percent of protesters were Christians, he saw a conspiracy to overthrow the president. Copts share this country with us, he admitted, but declared there were red lines. ‘Whoever threatens it [presidential legitimacy] with water,’ he said, ‘we will threaten him with blood.’
An anti-Christian sentiment can be detected as well in earlier incidents. Upon return of the fiery and polemical Islamist preacher ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Kāfī to Egypt after thirteen years in exile, Hegazi was there to meet him at the airport. But it was his conduct in Qena which speaks more fully to the issue.
After the revolution the ruling military council replaced Mubarak-era governors and appointed new ones in their stead. Qena, with a large Christian minority, had been the one governorate with a Coptic head, and his replacement with another Copt sparked huge protests and cutting of the railway line. Some rejected him for his role in suppressing protests as a member of the police force during the revolution, but much of the protest centered on his religious identity.
Hegazi was part of a team dispatched by the military council to help calm the situation, but instead took the side of the demonstrators. ‘Your demands are our responsibility,’ he declared. ‘No one can impose on us something we do not want.’ In a later, unrelated incident, Hegazi also condemned Shia Muslims, declaring their faith to be blasphemy.
In the accessed media, the motivation for Hegazi’s stances is unclear, but there is space to see it primarily as revolutionary, rather than as sectarian. His is an Islamist activism, but it is revolutionary all the same. Sometimes, these come into conflict.
This was apparent during a summer demonstration in Tahrir Square in 2011 against military rule. Hegazi had earlier withdrawn from a national consensus conference due to the presence of old regime figures, and in this his action was similar to liberal response. But in the square it was non-Islamists who felt the need to withdraw as Salafi protestors used the occasion to chant decidedly Islamist slogans. Hegazi rejected claims there was an agreement among all revolutionaries to use only consensus slogans and demands. Other Islamists admitted there was, however, though they interpreted it differently. In any case, Hegazi became a part of the deteriorating unity of the revolution and the decent into political polarization.
In an earlier example, following the burning of a church in Imbaba in May 2011, representing the first major sectarian attack after the revolution, Hegazi appeared at a massive joint Brotherhood-Salafi rally. He interpreted the attack as part of the counter-revolution, saying it was carried out by thugs, rather than by Islamists. He also took the opportunity to declare the soon coming of the United Islamic States, with one caliph to rule all Muslims.
This theme appeared again during the presidential election campaign, which Hegazi declined to participate in – possibly on behalf of al-Jamā’ah al-Islāmiyyah – due to the large number of worthy candidates, mentioning specifically the liberal Ayman Nūr along with other Islamist candidates. But eventually he threw his support behind Muhammad Morsi, declaring him the only candidate who promised to implement sharī‘ah law.
But Hegazi’s rhetoric went much further. He declared Morsi to be a new Salāh al-Dīn who would unite the Muslims and liberate Jerusalem. A few days later at a huge rally in the Delta, in front of Morsi and Brotherhood leadership Hegazi called for ‘millions of martyrs’ to go to Jerusalem, establishing it as the capital of a new caliphate. The green flag bearing the Islamic shahādah, he defended, belongs to Islam and not to Saudi Arabia.
Part of Hegazi’s motivation is revolutionary. Prior to the first round of elections he called for people to reject the former regime candidates, labeling especially ‘Umar Sulimān, Ahmad Shafīq, and ‘Amr Mūsa. But it is also fully Islamist; a few weeks later he said it was ‘against religion’ to elect a candidate with a vision for liberal, secular, communist, or socialist state. As for the Salafi political parties which endorsed ‘Abd al-Mun’im Abū al-Futūh for president, Hegazi called their leaders agents of state security.
Hegazi’s support for Morsi has continued after his election. He defended the sacking of military council leadership, saying it was not to monopolize power but to secure the demands of the revolution. He supported the constitutional declaration, as described above, and has even approved the practice of kissing the hands of religious leaders, placing Morsi among their number. His partisan positions have earned Hegazi a good deal of opposition – and possible maligning – in the press. An admitted NDP thug has accused him and Brotherhood leadership of orchestrating the revolutionary Battle of the Camel. He was also quoted as seeking to turn the political struggle in Egypt into a civil war, as the opposition was against God and his caliph, a statement he subsequently denied.
As a controversial Islamist in Egypt, Hegazi is not alone. Many have made comments even more outrageous, but none have received such official government endorsement. Appointment to the National Council of Human Rights is a major statement of presidential approval, in which President Morsi implicitly signals toleration of Hegazi’s rhetoric, if not appreciation and approval. France, meanwhile, has barred him from entering the country.
More than likely, Hegazi’s appointment is a political reward for necessary support, keeping secure the president’s right flank. Policy makers in the West appear content to allow Morsi to nurture sectarian discourse as long as practical international obligations are kept sacrosanct. These obligations, however, include a measure of respect for human rights; how far Islamists can transform domestic religious realities is yet to be delimited.
But President Morsi is accountable for the views of Hegazi. Having chosen the politically expedient road of endorsing him domestically, he must endure the politically difficult road of explaining him internationally. Egypt is free to create the society it wishes, but the global community is free to criticize accordingly, and determine the level it welcomes and aids Egypt’s ongoing transition.
These matters are not easy, either for the president or the international community. Safwat Hegazi, however, symbolically stands in the nexus. By all appearances he enjoys his position.