(Photo Al-Jazeera English)
Initially published in Tahrir Squared
Samira Ibrahim: a tragic tale of courage and bigotry. As a young Egyptian activist, she stood up against sexual exploitation and the virginity tests in Egypt carried out by army personnel under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). As such, many eyebrows were raised when Samuel Tadros, research fellow at the conservative think-tank, the Hudson Institute, published an article on Ibrahim’s anti-American and anti-Semitic comments, leading to her name being dropped from consideration for the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage award. After returning back to Egypt, empty handed, Ibrahim said in an interview to an Egyptian TV channel: “I admit my fault: I should not have accepted the award in the first place.”
In another twist, the New York Times’ Robert Mackey, who also reported on the story, latertweeted Tadros, enquiring about his religious background: “Is it correct to say you’re from Egypt’s Coptic Christian community? If so, does that inform your criticism of Islamists?” The exchanges that ensued on Twitter went far beyond Mackey and Tadros, and included some Egyptian activists online as well.
There are quite a few lessons to be learnt from this unfortunate episode, which go far beyond one or two people.
First: we must admit that Ibrahim is not an isolated example. The level of anti-Semitism has sharply risen in Egypt over the last few decades; a phenomenon that has emerged after decades of oppression and ignorance, as well as effects from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Coupled with conspiracy theories, this has resulted in a hateful discourse that was neither addressed, nor corrected, by large swathes of Egypt’s political and religious leadership. It was interesting to watch Ibrahim saying: “I did not know that there is a difference between Zionism and Judaism, and I don’t hate Judaism as religion.” It is a weak argument – and one that ought to have been critically evaluated by the presenter. Cheering for any death is unacceptable in Egypt’s cultural traditions, as well as its religious ones, including Islam.
Second: it is crucial to remember that Ibrahim is now part of a bevy of others who have tried to deny their own invective comments. She joins many Egyptian politicians, including President Morsi himself, who only a few weeks ago claimed in Germany that his anti-Semitic remarks “had been taken out of context.” Such lack of courage is part of the poisonous parcel of post-Mubarak Egypt, where too many, from members of the political establishment to the activist youth, do not have the courage to admit their own mistakes. Ibrahim, however, went even further. Not only did she refuse to renounce her comments, she claimed that her account had been hacked. After she realized her hacking claim was unsustainable, she then claimed she, “refused to apologize to the ‘Zionist lobby’”. That has only lost her more respect, and cast further doubt on her integrity.
Third: the suggestion by some that it is possible to honour Ibrahim’s battle for her stance against the military, while condemning her anti-Semitic remarks, is simply wrong. Although we might want to honor the action, the award and the associated prestige ultimately go to the person. Just as in professional life, a fall from grace may not just result from an unprofessional mistake, but also from scandal and individual failings. Can an award for courage be given to those who try to cover up their mistakes? Moreover, could the Department of State in the U.S. congratulate someone who exhibited such public and vehement anti-American sentiment?
Fourth: rejecting conspiracy theories. The role of the U.S. administration (if any) in managing post–Mubarak Egypt has been a subject of wild conspiracy theories by both Egypt’s Islamist leadership and non-Islamist opposition. If both camps reflect on Ibrahim’s case, it highlights the mismanagement of both the State Department, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Both failed to do basic background checks about Ibrahim, which would have avoided them this embarrassment. Surely, such performances do not merit the notion that the United States has such deep knowledge about what is truly happening within Egypt, or that the U.S. has the seemingly limitless power that many conspiracy theorists attribute to it.
Fifth: while the exchange between Mackey and Tadros was hardly an internal Egyptian affair, it did touch on Egyptian internal dynamics – mostly positively, ironically. Egyptian activists saw the exchange, and jumped in, criticizing Mackey’s Tweets. In calling him to account, they also showed that some members of the Egyptian activist and Twittersphere communities have certain principles. Mackey indirectly labeled Ibrahim as an Islamist, in all likelihood because of Ibrahim’s religious conservatism indicated by her wearing of a headscarf. The activists debunked that false correlation, making it clear that the idea political Islamism is actually Islam is false. Egyptians are generally conservative; many women, like Ibrahim, wear the Islamic headscarf; but the same women, like Ibrahim, are not necessarily supportive of Islamist parties. There is a fundamental difference between Islam or religious conservatism, and Islamism – and Egyptians are not wont to confuse between them. In a time when political Islamists try so hard to make them equivalent for political goals, this is another positive move.
More inspiring than that was the insistence of some Egyptian activists online to criticize Mackey on his enquiring about Tadros’ religious affiliation. A journalist of Mackey’s caliber ought to know better than this – surely he would think twice before writing a similar tweet to a Jewish American researcher? Furthermore, Mackey tried to link between Ibrahim’s Tweet about Coptic Egyptians prior to this episode, and a report Tadros wrote. While Mackey later explained that he was trying to “understand the dynamics,” and to find out “whether tension between the Muslim and Christian communities in Egypt was a backdrop to the story”, the response was clear from manyEgyptians in the Twittersphere. On both counts, Mackey received resounding criticism from many Egyptians, who rejected the engagement of sectarian dynamics in such an issue – that in itself is something to be positive about.
Finally: people’s affiliations, and whether or not they ought to be relevant to the impact of their work, or how their work is assessed. Some Egyptian activists raised the affiliation of Tadros with Hudson, perceived as a conservative and pro-Israel think-tank, in the midst of this episode – is this really relevant? Had the same story been broken by the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, would it have made a difference? All of these are legitimate questions, which no one has really sought to address.
In a way, Ibrahim’s fall from grace reflects how some of the members of the protest movement that began in Tahrir Square have lost their once dignified and romantic image. Egyptians are brave, courageous, and willing to explore taboos; but they also are not saints. Rather, they are the byproduct of oppression, ignorance, and an often-poisonous environment. Their various strengths and weaknesses have collectively led to the current mess engulfing Egypt.
The whole episode of Ibrahim’s saga should be taken as a learning opportunity. It is also a chance to appreciate the complexities of Egypt; to honor integrity, and fight the maladies, including bigotry, left over from Mubarak’s miserable heritage. The quest for freedom will not be achieved until all Egyptians confront their own demons, and learn from their mistakes. Thus far, it seems Ibrahim, and many others, are learning the wrong lessons.