An Egyptian interview with a Libyan terrorist: What went wrong?

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Abdel Rahim al-Mesmari, a Libyan national, is the only surviving militant among the group involved in the shootout with Egyptian police in Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert.

Apprehending him alive a week after the attack, which took the lives of 16 officers, was considered a major achievement as he was expected to provide answers to the many questions surrounding the incident.

For the same reason, Egyptian viewers impatiently awaited Mesmari’s interview on a private Egyptian satellite channel and were glued to the screen to get a glimpse of what cold-blooded terrorists looked like talking and explaining their actions.

Contrary to expectations, the interview, conducted by veteran media professional Emad al-Din Adib, turned out to be disappointing to many not because of what was said in the interview as much as how the interview was managed and the fact that it was conducted in the first place.

Security expert Refaat Abdel Hamid objected to hosting on TV a terrorist who has not yet been tried and sentenced. “Such interviews should only be conducted with terrorists who do their time and renounce violence afterwards,” he said. “Appearing on TV before going to court and receiving the penalty he deserves is disrespectful to the law and the judiciary.”

Abdel Hamid added that the public would feel offended to see a terrorist who was involved in killing many Egyptians getting airtime to say things like, “I am not a killer. I am a freedom fighter and a hero.” He also argued that hosting terrorist on TV would not be acceptable anywhere in the world. “Had it been acceptable, we would have seen it done in France, Belgium, or the United States.”

Journalist Ahmed Nada focuses on the mistakes in which Adib fell while interviewing Mesmari. Nada uses excerpts from the interview to cite examples of these mistakes:
- Adib: Don’t you feel guilty for killing people you share the same country or religion with?
- Mesmari: The prophet killed his uncles.
- Adib: But those were infidels.
- Mesmari: Exactly!
Adib, Nada noted, acknowledged a completely false historical statement about the prophet killing his uncles, which did not happen. “He also justified the alleged killings by the fact that the targets were infidels, which is exactly the logic used by the terrorist and all terrorists,” Nada wrote. “Adib unknowingly defended the terrorist.” Nada also criticized Adib for turning the interview in certain parts into a religious debate:
- Adib: The killings you carried out are they sanctioned by God?
- Mesmari: Yes, and I have religious evidence.

For Nada, Adib turned the problem into a religious one that revolves around the interpretation of religious texts and made it seem like they only had an ideological difference. “Meanwhile, he allowed the terrorist to explain to us how what he does is based on firm religious foundations.” Nada added that Adib gave a chance to Mesmari to gain sympathy when he asked him, “What is your message to the audience?” and Mesmari replied. “I pray for them all to find the path of God.” According to Nada, Adib was not well-prepared and it was not clear what he wanted from the interview. “Did he want to beast the terrorist’s arguments? Did he want him to repent? Or did he think he can just belittle him in front of the audience?”

Journalist Mohamed Ali Hassan criticized Adib’s calmness, which he believes made the terrorist prevail. Hassan compared this interview with that conducted in 1954 by the late Mohamed Hassanein Heikal with Mahmoud Abdel Latif, who attempted to assassinate then president Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Heikal was extremely powerful in the interview and managed to provoke Abdel Latif into admitting several things including his disobedience of the Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide,” Hassan wrote. “He even made him admit that Nasser was brave since he resumed talking to the people after he was shot at.” Hassan argued that Adib’s tone sounded too reconciliatory, which allowed the terrorist to have the upper hand in the interview. “He looked very composed and even smiled at times and was calm enough to be evasive and not to answer several questions because his interlocutor gave him such leeway,” he explained. “Had Adib been firm, he would have forced the terrorist to reveal his weaknesses and appear shaken instead of confident.”

Professor of mass communication Sami Abdel Aziz argued that the calmness with which Adib addressed Mesmari was more of an advantage. “It was through this calmness that encouraged Mesmari to talk, hence revealing to audience a lot about his and his likes’ ideology and how brainwashed they are,” he said. “When Mesmari spoke candidly, we were illuminated about a lot of things, on top of which is the fact that the security solution alone cannot eliminate terrorism.” Abdel Aziz added that many critics of the interview made the mistake of dealing with Adib as an interrogator who is in charge of extracting confessions from a suspect, which was not the case.” When asked whether hosting terrorists on TV is wrong on the professional or social level, Abel Aziz replied in the negative. “If such interviews will be beneficial for society then why not? Exposing the ideologies of terrorists directly to the people is a form of protective measure and is likely to reduce the risks of falling into the trap of extremism.”

While considering the interview quite successful and supporting the initiative, General Fouad Allam, member of the National Counter-Terrorism Council, argued that the presence of a religious scholar was necessary. “A scholar specialized in Islamic jurisprudence should have been in the interview to refute the terrorist’s allegations whether about the justification of the killings or historical falsities like the prophet killing his uncles,” Allam, who also supervised the ideological revisions initiated by Egyptian militants in the 1990s, said. It was particularly important, he added, that this scholar would stress that the ideologies promoted by the terrorists are not part of Islam. “It is necessary to make sure that youths are not affected by his ideas.”

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