Eyewitness to Egypt: An Interview with Imam Ahmad Azzaari

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Last September (2013), a special forum on the crisis in Egypt was held at the Women's Democratic Forum in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the forum was far from a balanced discussion (it was heavily weighted in favor of the military coup); and while the organizers promised a follow-up forum to allow the other side to be heard, this has not yet occurred. With that said, the following interview provides an opportunity for a voice from the other side to be heard (in a non-demonstration format).

Imam of the Prince George’s Muslim Association (PGMA) Ahmad Azzaari, a Washington area leader of Egyptian descent, recently returned from a visit to his native land. It was his first visit to Egypt since the so-called 25th of January Revolution (2011) – a "revolution" that would be rendered mute by the counter-revolution (aka, military coup) of July 3, 2013. It should be noted that General Sisi supporters also refer to the coup as the "30th of June revolution."

I asked the Imam if his observations (upon arrival) measured up to his expectations. He said they did. He noted how anxious he was to assess what the conditions on the ground in Egypt were for himself, and described how he was able to comfortably mix with all strata of Egyptian society to get a good idea of how the people of Egypt (across the board) were thinking.

He noted how the imam is always looked on (in Egypt) as the person who is living and communicating with the "regular people... the poor people." But as a physician with a number of friends who are also physicians, and professors of medicine at the university, he had access to the well-educated as well as the regular folk (those who are often viewed as the "religious people").

Question: Which areas of Egypt did you visit, and how did you get around?

Imam Azzaari: I stayed in Cairo for three weeks; I visited many neighborhoods in Cairo. I mainly took public transportation because that is the best way to connect with the people and see everything on the ground. I took the public buses, the subway, taxis, and walked a lot as well.

Question: You actually have a subway?

Imam Azzaari: Yes, we have a very good subway in Cairo. It was a gift from France.

Question: What are the social and political conditions in Egypt like today, in the wake of the coup?

Imam Azzaari: There is severe polarization in Egypt now... everywhere, from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south. The polarization has never before been this severe in Egypt's modern history. The divisions are not just restricted to friends, or co-workers, or neighbors, or with people who you meet by chance in your travels, it now extends within the families – between a father and son, a brother and brother, brother and sister, mother and son; between other family relations, between uncles and aunts, grandparents – it's a big disruption in the family life. There are even some people who were engaged to be married who ended up severing their relationships because of politics.

Question: Who has the majority of support in Egypt today... Morsi and the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood, aka; MB), or Sisi and the military? And why?

Imam Azzaari: We cannot make an accurate determination on this question for one reason. It would be easy to determine this question if we had democracy, because everyone would be able to express his or her opinion freely. But now people are very afraid that they would be taken to jail, or they could be shot, or lose their job, or a family member might be taken if they express their support for Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood.

In this atmosphere I don't think any poll would be accurate. The massacre – I would call it the genocide that happened in Rab'ah and An-Nahdhah (referred to as Rab'ah Al-Adawiyyah Square in Nasr City in Cairo, and An-Nahdhah Square in Al-Geezah) when they killed over 3,000 protestors on the 14th of August (right after Eid Al-Fitr) – have made people very afraid to share their honest opinion. The people with the louder voice, who are not afraid to express their opinion, are of course the people who are supporting the coup. If you publicly support the coup they will not touch you. If you publicly support Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood you will be put in jail.

I will share with you an incident that happened to me. I went to one of the famous tourist attractions in Egypt that sells antiques; actually it's a religious and tourist site. It's called Al-Hussein Square; Al-Hussein (Radhiya Allahu Anhu, after whose name the famous square was named) is the grandson of the Prophet, Sallalaahu Alayhi Wa Sallam. There is a very big mosque right beside Al-Azhar Mosque; Al-Azhar Mosque is across the street from Al-Hussein Mosque. This square has all kinds of antiques and other things that tourists like to buy. Every year that I would visit Egypt I would always see several buses full of tourists – in one hour it could be six or seven hundred tourists in the same spot. This year I didn't see any buses; I didn't see any tourists that I could talk to in English or any other language. It's just the people from the area begging people to come inside.

I went inside to buy some antiques for my family. Here in America I am a member of one of the human rights organizations, one of the political organizations called the Egyptian Americans for Democracy and Human Rights; aka, EADHR). They were looking for the shirt of Rab'ah; the shirt has the sign of Rab'ah – extending the four fingers of one's hand and bending the thumb. I wanted to buy several dozens. When I asked the shop keepers if they had the shirt of Rab'ah they didn't want to talk to me. They would turn away, 'we don't have it.' If you ask me to sell you drugs I will get you drugs, but I cannot sell you this shirt. My store will be shut down and I will be put in jail. He said this shirt is threatening the national security of Egypt now. It was like a joke and we started laughing with each other.

But this is true. Even my mother expressed fear when she found out I was looking for the shirt. She said if they check your baggage in the airport before you leave, and they found this shirt, you would never go back to America. The other thing is the check points at the airport used to be easy; if you were an American citizen they had a separate line for you. People who were not American could suffer a lot, but if you were American they would make things easy for you. Nowadays if you are an American they make things more difficult for you. Things have changed a lot!

The party that supports Morsi and the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) says America is against us; and the party with Sisi and the coup also says America is against us – so America is condemned by everyone now. It's very weird; it's very polarized and both sides view America as being with the other side.

Question: You mentioned in your lecture after Fajr prayer a couple of days ago, how one of the prominent Imams in Egypt got arrested and lost his job as a result of something he did, or failed to do. Can you give the name and location of that Imam, and explain what happened?

Imam Azzaari: Yes, actually this Imam appears to be in his early 40s, and he didn't show any political affiliation. He's not even allowed to talk to the media without permission, and if he talks to the media by mistake his speech should be in favor of the coup. What happened was a group of about 200 people were protesting peacefully, and a group of police and thugs – from the government, military and National Security Forces; formerly known as State Security Investigations – with knives and small guns attacked them. So they ran and took shelter in the mosque – Al-Fat'h mosque in the midst of the very famous Ramsis square in downtown Cairo. They locked the doors of the mosque and took shelter the whole night in the mosque. The people on the outside who were trying to get in were supported by the police.

The people on the outside started throwing gas bombs [what we in America would call Molotov cocktails] in the mosque, and some people who had problems like asthma died. One of the young women inside called Al-Jazeera from her cell phone, and Al-Jazeera began to broadcast live from inside the mosque through her iPhone's camera. People on the outside also called Al-Jazeera to say 'the reason why we have surrounded the mosque is because terrorists are inside the mosque.' It was like 16 terrible hours for everyone on the inside. Al-Jazeera cut all of their regular programming and just broadcasted live.

A claim was made by the instigators on the outside that terrorists were firing weapons from the minaret of the mosque. This is one of the tallest minarets in Egypt; it's called Al-Fat'h Mosque. So the military, the police, and their thugs, supported by the [Egyptian] media wanted everyone to be on the same page with them... the Islamists or the terrorists have taken hostages and are firing upon the people in the street. And it's interesting that no single person was injured in the street; so it was fake bullets or propaganda. The [then] Imam of Masjid Al-Fat'h stated to the media correctly that there were separate doors to the main hall where the people in the mosque were located, and the one that provided access to the minaret. The door to the minaret was on the outside, and you had to use an elevator to go up to the minaret.

Once they heard that the Imam was telling the truth about the situation, they put him in jail, accusing him of supporting terrorism; an always-ready accusation against anyone who opposes the coup. In Egypt you have to be absent from your job without an acceptable excuse for at least 30 consecutive days, or for 60 non-consecutive days, before you can be fired from your job. But on the eighth day they sent a letter to his wife telling her that your husband has been fired from his job because he has been absent from work. Until now he is in jail, and this happened about two months ago.

Question: How long do you think the destabilization of Egypt will continue? And what are some examples of that destabilization?

Imam Azzaari: First of all the curfew was just removed after being enforced for more than three consecutive months! During the curfew you were not permitted to be in the street after seven o'clock on Friday – on other days after 1 AM. One day I was visiting my mother – and my mother is just 10 blocks away from my brother's residence. My mother's neighborhood was full of tanks, they stop you and ask you for identification – and this wasn't police, this was military. When you have a checkpoint of police it may be acceptable, but when you find the military establishing checkpoints it's really scary. Many drivers were removed from their cars and taken to unknown places. Alhamdulillah, they allowed me and my brother to proceed to our destination.

One day I wanted to go shopping and my brother was taking a nap. I decided to let him rest and I took a bus, but I wasn't mindful of it being Friday and the early curfew. At around six o'clock I noticed everyone running and buses starting to disappear; even the taxis didn't want to stop. In Egypt you wave the taxi down by hand and tell them where you want to go, if they don't want to go where you need to go they just drive off. At one point someone asked me if I was Egyptian, and I said yes, but I live abroad; they said the curfew is in 30 minutes. I called my brother and he was able to reach me five minutes before the curfew started. After learning that I was an Egyptian from America, two police officers ended up staying with me until my brother came, to protect me from possible surprises in the empty street.

While waiting for my brother I had a chance to speak to one of the police officers and he complained a lot. He said my salary is 470 Egyptian pounds, which would be equal to about $70 per month. He's married with three children, and he's living outside of Cairo. He has to travel four hours every day to work, and he said our conditions in Egypt are very bad. I started to ask him some questions. You know that the minister of defense and other leaders of the army, and some police head-officers make $3,000,000 (three million Egyptian Pounds) per month; and he said, yes I know that. Egypt will never be in good shape again because of this corruption. He talked to me very freely when he knew that I was a temporary visitor in the country, and that I would soon leave.

Question: What are some of the things older Egyptians are saying about today's crisis in Egypt, as compared to other crises that have taken place in the past?

Imam Azzaari: The vast majority of the elders are against the coup because they have suffered a lot from something similar, during the time of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser. Nasser was a very bad dictator, he was a tyrant, and during his rule Egypt deteriorated in all areas of public life. He killed hundreds of innocent Egyptians – but at that time the media was not active like today, and he didn't do it in as shocking a way as Sisi did. He did it in a way that was sneaky and gradual; he used to take people for interrogation, people would disappear. But what Sisi did, and the people around him, they shoot people in the head while they were praying or protesting nonviolently. The estimates now are that about three thousand people were killed in about three or four months. My father (a 76-year old retiree) says we are now trapped in a nightmare, even as compared to what we saw during Nasser's time. Sisi doesn't apologize or even attempt to offer condolences or an excuse for what he does. People are being killed and he's celebrating at parties in public with his military leaders, in the company of half-naked movie stars, actresses and singers!

One of the things I have seen in Egypt that is deepening this polarization is the media is serving as the "prostitute" of the event. The purpose of the governmentally controlled media in Egypt now, and before, is to lure people, deceive and distract them away from the magnitude of what's going on, and to promote and beautify what's going on. So the media are in fact using renowned singers who the young people love, to make songs against Morsi and the "Islamists." For example there are two newly produced songs that have shocked everybody. One song goes: "You are people and we are different people, you have your own god and we have our own god."

This song is causing more division among people, number one. The other song is praising the military and the police for killing such a large number of people, so now the thing that broke the hearts of people – especially those who lost loved ones in the genocides of Rab'ah and Al-Nahdhah – is that they broadcast this song in the morning assembly in every school. This goes against the very old and deep-rooted customs and traditions that we as Egyptians were raised in. We were raised to salute the Egyptian flag and to listen with respect to the Egyptian anthem, followed with a short Qur'an recitation. The Egyptian anthem is very dear to the hearts of every one of us. To broadcast this song instead of the anthem is very hurtful, and for the people who lost loved ones, it's traumatizing.

So the people – a few brave students and teachers – react by making the sign of Rab'ah (making the four fingered salute); and even the young kids when they do this are taken to jail to scare them and to scare their parents. Parents are told, after their children are held for four or five days, that you have to discipline your kids. Discipline my kids for what? My kids are just expressing their opinion.

Question: What does the sign of Rab'ah symbolize?

Imam Azzaari: Rab'ah al-Adawiyyah was the name of a very renowned female Muslim scholar who lived in the second Hijri century in Basrah, Iraq. This scholar was so renowned that there are many schools and buildings named in her honor. One of the rich people of Egypt built a very big masjid in a square in Nasr City, in Cairo, called Masjid Rab'ah Al-Adawiyyah. The word Rab'ah in Arabic means four (she was the fourth one among her siblings). The feminine is Rab'ah, the masculine is Rabi'. So the protestors in favor of Morsi surrounded this Masjid and protested for 60 continuous days, even during the month of Ramadan. Imagine thirty to fifty thousand people in and around the masjid; they even turned the clinic inside the Masjid into a hospital to treat the wounded during the demonstrations.

The military shot people, and they reportedly went into the makeshift hospital and they found maybe 300 wounded, and they shot them in the head. After they did this, with the need for autopsies to determine cause of death, they had to explain why they killed so many people, so they set the Masjid and hospital on fire. The fire was so intense that the walls of the masjid melted. The wealthy military has since repaired the masjid; but to this day there are about 58 charred bodies still in the famous morgue of Zeinhum – and they have to use DNA testing to identify who they are. So Rab'ah became the international symbol of resistance against the military coup, and this has become the most annoying and provocative sign that anyone can do.

I'm going to share with you a very interesting story. In Egypt the people like soccer very much. One of the most famous soccer teams in Egypt is called Al-Ahli. They beat a team in South Africa called the Orlando Pirates. The player who was most responsible for Al-Ahli's win was Ahmad Abdel Zhahir; and when he scored he made this sign [the Rab'ah sign]. While normally he would be given gifts and money for the victory – every player on the team would get something like $50,000.00 as a gift, while he would receive even more – they suspended him instead, froze all of his money, and then they put him up for sale. He was no longer welcome on the team just for making this sign.

Final Question: What in your opinion can people in other parts of the world do to help alleviate the situation in Egypt?

Imam Azzaari: First of all the people in the military coup are in a very difficult situation. The African Union has frozen Egypt's membership and refused to recognize the new coup administration. If all the countries follow the example of the African Union – particularly, the United States, the European Union, and other "democracy" ruled countries – they will be in bad shape and they will have to go. But if the coup makers keep receiving support – directly or indirectly, secretly or publicly – at the level of governments, they will survive longer.

Because of that they are trying to market the coup. Marketing the coup actually happens by sending renowned public figures, like TV show hosts, singers, movie stars, and diplomatic convoys to talk to the Egyptians who are living in western countries. Egyptians who are against the coup go to these special events, these fundraising dinners and lectures, and make the sign of Rab'ah and force the lecturer to stop and sometimes to leave. This has proven to be very effective.

And lastly, the demonstrations. People in Egypt are considering a public strike, not going to work; others are refusing to pay for governmental services like electricity, phones, water and sewage, and they tell the government even if you cut this service we don't care. This represents a big loss for the government, because even the process of cutting the service involves loss. So there are many things that the people against the coup are doing now, but it's very difficult because all of their leaders are already in jail.

One of the supporters of the coup is my long-time best friend and classmate in medical school; he's an associate professor of internal medicine at one of the universities in Egypt. He told me something that I really didn't like. He said the current strategy that the coup leaders are following is causing the protestors to bleed. Bleeding here means that they are exhausting their energy and wasting their time, they're demonstrating without really achieving anything; while the supporters of Morsi believe that if the demonstrations continue they will win out in the end. So the polarization is escalating.

However, there are three facts on the ground right now that no one can deny or ignore. First, is that the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) led by Sisi has succeeded very well in creating a very deep – and maybe permanent – rift or division within the entire Egyptian society. Second, is that a very large number of misled Egyptians – who assisted and supported Sisi in leading the coup and ousting the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt – are now waking up and realizing what disaster they have dragged their country into by their ignorance, laziness, blind submission and misjudgment. Third, is that the military coup happened at the appropriate time for the benefit of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), when their popularity went down during the last months of their rule – due to the unfair, concentrated and targeted defamation campaigns against them by the SCAF and their intelligence, and facilitated by the unprofessional Egyptian media.

This campaign and its consequent fall have been cited by many political analysts as a favor to the MB, and as a trap and long-term threat to the whole military institution in Egypt. People in the West, including Egyptians living abroad, can help by continuing to demonstrate and giving a hard time to those who come into the west to market the coup; and also by encouraging western governments to consider boycotting the coup.