Witch-hunt politics in Egypt

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid
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The term “witch hunt” always brings to mind two major incidents; one explains its historical origin and the other highlights its most memorable political manifestation.

The story goes that in 1692 in the village of Salem in colonial Massachusetts, two young girls dropped the white of an egg in a glass and waited for it to make shapes that would show them what their future husbands would looks like. Coming from a Puritan society, they knew the game was forbidden and so was any attempt to see through the future. That is why all hell broke loose when one of the girls imagined she saw the shape of a coffin. It is not clear what followed this incident, which in itself is now more of a folk tale than an actual occurrence, but they say that the girls started exhibiting eccentric behavioral patterns like muttering unintelligible words that sounded like incantations and contorting their bodies into physically challenging postures.

Failing to reach a medical diagnosis for their condition, the doctors finally concluded that the girls were bewitched to the horror of their parents, the clergy, and the entire village. After being severely questioned, the girls claimed that a Caribbean slave taught them voodoo and told them about her encounters with the devil. A spat of accusations followed with each of the accused pointing fingers at others to save their lives and with several girls in the village starting to show similar symptoms. Hundreds were put into jail and trials on witchcraft charges started. Dozens were hanged while others perished in prison or were tortured to death as the craze was fuelled by both an increasingly hostile religious discourse and a mass hysteria that made claims of a diabolic intervention seem credible. And that was what “which hunt” meant in the literal sense.

In 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that the State Department was infiltrated by Communists. At a time when the Soviet Union’s influence was growing in Eastern Europe and with the Chinese Civil War concluded in favor of Communists, Communism was already a major concern for the United States that served as the ideal soil for the “Red Scare” to take hold of citizens and officials alike. McCarthy accused many high ranking officials, both military and civilian, of Communist loyalties. His campaign included the administration of President Harry Truman, the United States Army, and Voice of America.

If we can call the June 30 protests a popular uprising with military support then the current stance on the Brotherhood can be considered a witch-hunt with real witches

Sonia Farid

For two whole years, he interrogated his suspects, many of whom were reportedly tortured and forced into confessing crimes they did not commit and many others losing their jobs after their reputation was compromised. McCarthy was, however, unable to support his accusations by tangible evidence and he eventually failed to uncover any Communists whether inside or outside the government. Yet the reason for McCarthy’s fame, and which still endures till the present moment, was his astounding ability to engage the American public in a relentless pursuit of an imaginary enemy. It was this ability that led to the emergence of the term McCarthyism, which later came to mean the dogmatic leveling of unfounded accusations and the systematic use of intimidation to extract confessions as part of an attempt to eliminate an unproven threat. As McCarthy was referred to as a “witch hunter,” McCarthyism became the modern version of “witch hunting.” And that was how “witch hunt” became a political term.

Fear in Egypt

It was impossible not to remember those two classical examples when talk of witch-hunts started spreading across Egypt since of ouster of Mohammad Mursi and the subsequent clampdown on Muslim Brotherhood members and Islamic satellite channels. It was also impossible not to make a quick comparison between the current situation in Egypt and that of the United States in the 17th and 20th centuries. I managed to find one common factor and that was fear. Fear of witchcraft in an extremely religious society and fear of Communism in the context of the Cold War could be compared to fear of the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the political scene. This fear is seen by a large number of activists and politicians as the main impetus behind the series of arrest warrants issued against leading figures in the group and the popular support for all measures taken to guarantee their exclusion from any future road map. This is not entirely untrue. This fear does exist and it is making many go as far as wishing to see every single Brotherhood member or sympathizer perishing in jail or banished to Siberia. Yet, unlike the devil and the red infiltration, this fear is not illusory and the communal shape it is taking cannot by any means be categorized as mass hysteria simply because the enemy is not imagined and its destructive powers are proven beyond any doubt.

Debating whether on not the official and popular reaction against the Brotherhood is a witch-hunt is similar to the revolution-versus-coup controversy in the sense that both cannot be evaluated in accordance with normal criteria. If we can call the June 30 protests a popular uprising with military support then the current stance on the Brotherhood can be considered a witch-hunt with real witches, each being an oxymoron that can only be addressed in a manner that is as exceptional as the circumstances through which Egypt is going at the moment. Arbitrary arrests and the closure of media outlets constitute a violation of civil liberties and collective punishment is definitely detrimental to the rule of law, yet it is only when seeing such actions in their context that the picture becomes clearer.

Used as cannon fodder

Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the former president, clerics pledging allegiance to them, and channels promoting their ideologies are all implicated in a series of factional and sectarian crimes that were committed by their loyalists, who they use as cannon fodder, against whoever they perceived as a threat to their grip on power. The killing of Shiites shortly before the second revolution, attacks on Christians that have been going on since the Brotherhood came to power, and the recent attacks on peaceful protestors across the country and on a military establishment in which the ousted president is believed to be detained are but few outcomes of the jihadist discourse that has for the past year been breeding hatred against non-Islamists and which is still adopted by Brotherhood demagogues who are still at large. The victims would have doubled and tripled had the channels which were closed on the day of the ouster and which are known for their instigation of violence against religious minorities, women, and liberal parties and figures been left to do business as usual.

It is also important to note that while worshipping the devil might be a personal choice and espousing Communism is definitely an ideological preference, the Muslim Brotherhood is not an entity that can be integrated into the Egyptian political scene if not for all the disasters it had brought upon Egypt during its one single year in power then for the threat it poses on national security through sponsoring terrorism and pledging allegiance to an international organization whose project takes precedence over national interests. A quick look at the presidential pardons issued for militants serving prison sentences on terrorism charges, the fall of the Sinai Peninsula into the hands of extremist groups, and the suspicious alliance with Hamas all serve to drive the point home.

Nations go through life-changing moments that require drastic actions and the exclusion from public life of a party whose hands are tarnished with innocent blood and with whom the South African “truth and reconciliation” approach seems impossible becomes at times a national duty. If de-Stalinization was possible, there is no reason why de-Brotherhoodization would not. Plus, it is always permissible to hunt witches if you know for a fact that they exist!


Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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