The endless ‘war on niqab’ in Egyptian universities

On December 11, the American University in Cairo AUC announced a ban on the niqab, the face veil, citing security concerns. “In order to ensure a safe and secure environment for all members of our community and visitors alike, we determined that the identity of all persons on campus and AUC-operated transportation must be immediately apparent,” said a statement issued by AUC President Francis J. Ricciardone.

The ban, originally due to go into effect on December 21, triggered a wave of protests across campus including by unveiled female students who marched while donning the niqab in solidarity with their colleagues who are affected by the ban. On December 18, the AUC backtracked on its decision and face-veiled students are now allowed on campus. The ban and its annulment were not the first and are not expected to be the last as the fight over the niqab on Egyptian campuses does not seem to be ending any time soon.

The battle for niqab at AUC started in 2001 when a doctoral student at al-Azhar University was denied entry to the library for wearing a face veil, citing safety concerns. The student, who was then stripped of her library privileges after refusing to take off her face veil, sued the university. The court ruled that the face veil was a matter of personal and religious freedom, hence the university had no right to ban face-veiled students from accessing campus facilities.

In 2007, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that a ban on the niqab is a violation of constitutional rights, yet noted the necessity of women’s compliance with rules of identification followed by public institutions and which would require revealing their faces to security personnel.

The controversy about the niqab reached its peak in Cairo University in 2015 when former President Gaber Nassar issued a decree that banned all professors and their assistants from wearing the face veil during lectures or lab work, citing communication difficulties. The same applied to doctors and nurses at university hospitals. Affected faculty members, estimated at 77 at the time, filed a lawsuit, yet the Administrative Court upheld the president’s decision in 2016 citing article number 96 of the Egyptian Universities’ Regulation Law and which stipulates the necessity of “direct interaction with students.”

This was preceded by a series of disputes pertaining to the sitting for exams of face-veiled students as they became required to take off the niqab throughout the exam following a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in 2010. In 2009, a similar controversy erupted in al-Azhar when late Grand Imam Mohamed Sayed Tantawi forced a junior high student to take off her face veil and insisted it is a habit rather than a religious obligation. However, no measures were taken in al-Azhar towards banning the niqab whether for students or professors.

Salah Fawzi, legal advisor to Mansoura University, explains the difference between absolute and organizational ban when it comes to the face veil. “When the Administrative Court upheld the decision of Cairo University’s president, it was an organizational ban since the face veil hinders communication between professors and students or medical staff and patients, but they are allowed to wear it anywhere else on campus as long as they are not working,” he said. Fawzi explained that it is only when the ban is absolute that it becomes a violation of personal freedom. “The same should apply to the AUC since it is on Egyptian territories,” he added.

Security concerns

As for safety concerns, Fawzi said that all face-veiled women have to comply whenever they are asked to verify their identity. For Fawzi, comparing the problem of the face veil in Egyptian universities with that in France, for example, is not valid since in the latter it is more of a cultural problem. “There, women who are wearing the niqab are obviously not willing to integrate into the culture and this is a different story.”

Salafi preacher Sameh Abdel Hamid, who launched a campaign calling for boycotting the AUC, argued that absolute ban on campus is sheer discrimination and dismissed the security argument. “If students’ identities are verified at the entrance why should they keep the face veil removed while walking around campus?” he wondered, adding that even the argument of poor communication promoted in Cairo University was not applicable in the case of AUC. Abdel Hamid added that it was unfair of the university administration to take such a step right before the finals.

“This way they trap the students so that they don’t even have the choice to leave if they want to.” Saeid Sadek, professor of political sociology at the AUC, disagrees and sees that walking around campus with one’s face covered is in itself a security threat. “This is especially the case when American institutions in the Middle East keep receiving several threats and anyone can carry out a terrorist attack while covering his/her face and it would be impossible to identify who he/she is,” he said. “This gives the AUC every right to take all the necessary precautions and to set the rules it deems necessary to protect its grounds.” Sadek added that the AUC had hardly had any face-veiled students and that those who came to campus were usually external students who did research at the library. “I personally never had a face-veiled student.”

Despite the fact that the decision to revoke is official and face-veiled students were already informed they can go into campus without having to remove the niqab, AUC Communications Officer Rehab Saad said that this does not mean it is final. “This decision will be applied to face-veiled students who are already enrolled at the university, three in total, until they graduate” she said. “However, we don’t know what’s going to happen with students who enroll next year.” Saad explained that the ban was reversed following meetings between the representatives of the university administration and face-veiled students and added that this ban had no religious grounds whatsoever, but was mainly security-based.

How Egypt’s Al-Azhar aims to crack down on unauthorized ‘TV fatwas’

In a press conference held at the Egyptian Supreme Council for Media Regulation, a list of the names of 50 scholars authorized by al-Azhar, Egypt’s top religious authority, to issue religious edicts fatwas in Egyptian media outlets was released.

According to the council, this step aims at putting an end to a series of groundless fatwas issued by unqualified preachers who appear on TV shows until a legislation is issued to regulate religious discourse in the media.

The council, which in charge of monitoring the content of media outlets on both the professional and moral levels, threatened to penalize channels and anchors that do not abide by the list it provided. While this decision was met with relief by most Egyptians who have for a long time been complaining of fatwas they labelled “sick,” many were taken by surprised since a number of prominent religious scholars who made frequent appearances on TV were not part of the list. This, consequently, raised questions about the criteria based on which the selection was made in the first place.

Veteran journalist and chairman of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Makram Mohamed Ahmed said that the decision came in response to the recommendations of the International Conference on Iftaa, held in Cairo in October 2017, and which included the regulation of fatwas to make sure they have scholarly basis.

“We have especially seen a number of abnormal fatwas that tarnish the image of Islam,” he said in the press conference held at the council headquarters to announce the release of the list.

“Following negotiations between the council and both al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti we came up with a few decisions including the necessity of issuing a legislation to regulate the issuing of fatwas and the compilation of a list of names of trustworthy scholars who can issue fatwas in the media.”

Ahmed said that all scholars are permitted to discuss different religious issues in the media, but only fatwa is restricted to the 50 on the list.

“Scholars are free to talk about religion as long as they are qualified, adopt a moderate discourse, do not deride religious symbols, or incite violence.” Ahmed added that until the law is issued, violators will be penalized in accordance with the council’s rules.


Professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University Souad Saleh expressed her disappointment in the list, from which she was excluded. “I have the highest degrees in jurisprudence that enable me to compare between all schools of thought in order to reach the proper fatwa, I wrote several books in this field, and I have been an expert in religious edicts for the past 30 years during which all TV channels hosted me,” she said.

“I’ve also had my own religious TV program for the past seven years.” Saleh also noted that the list only has one woman out of 50, which is not practical for women who seek fatwas and also signals a decline in the role of women in religious affairs. “Women are more comfortable seeking advice from women, especially in private matters, and this has been the case since the time of Prophet Mohamed. Now, you are forcing women to ask around in the mosques near them instead of qualified scholars.”

Saleh argued that she does not see the point of appearing on TV at all if she is not to issue fatwas. “What if people call and ask for a fatwa. Shall I just deny it to them?” she wondered, adding that in all cases women from all over the Muslim world call her to seek her advice on different religious matters.

Problematic fatwas

Abdel Ghani Hindi, member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, argued that the list is not the right way to deal with problematic fatwas, which need to be addressed directly instead. “The list is not going to put an end to those fatwas that will still keep coming through the internet anyway,” he said. “Actually, what the list did is excluding a number of moderate preachers that were quite popular in the media and could’ve helped a lot in countering any extremist discourse.” Abdel Galil al-Sharnoubi, researcher in Islamic movements, said that al-Azhar is repeating the mistake of making procedural changes and not addressing the core of its discourse.

“If al-Azhar wants to modify the religious discourse as it keeps saying then there is a serious need for producing a new form of jurisprudence that suits the present time like what the four Imams did back at their time,” he said. “Al-Azhar has for years been assigning itself the responsibility of safe-guarding Islamic heritage rather than adding to it.” Sharnoubi noted that several of the controversial fatwas that this list aims at curbing were, in fact, issued by Azhar scholars.

According to journalist Moussa al-Utaibi, the list might be a form of compromise between the presidency and al-Azhar, whose relationship has not been at its best in the past couple of years. “This particularly started when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wanted al-Azhar to issue a fatwa that verbal divorce is not valid and the latter objected and several fatwas were issued at the time to back al-Azhar’s position,” he wrote. “There were also many times when several al-Azhar scholars issued fatwas that angered the authorities.” That is why, Utaibi added, the two parties could have decided to issue a list of scholars they both approve. Utaibi also noted that the list excluded many scholars who are known to support the regime and the president and saw this as a possible change of strategy on the part of the state. “The state could have realized that those pro-regime scholars are no longer popular, possibly for their obvious bias, and was worried that youths would instead start resorting to Salafi channels so decided to give them new faces.”

Understanding the (mis)calculations made by Egypt’s Ahmed Shafiq

Former Egyptian minister of aviation, the last prime minister in the Mubarak wra, and runner-up in the first post-revolution presidential elections Ahmed Shafiq had been away from the limelight for almost five years, during which he stayed in the UAE. In quite a sudden move, he recorded a video that was first exclusively aired on Reuters and in which he announced his intention to run for the 2018 presidential elections and to return soon to Egypt to start his campaign.

A few hours later, the Qatari-owned al-Jazeera aired another video in which Shafiq said he was not allowed to leave the UAE and criticized the UAE for interfering in Egypt’s affairs. While Shafiq’s lawyer and his party The Patriotic Movement insisted the video was leaked to al-Jazeera, Shafiq was reportedly given 48 hours to leave the UAE, his arrival in/ deportation to Egypt was shrouded in mystery until he gave a phone interview to one of the popular TV shows, and the drama intensified as accusations of collaborating with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood were leveled at him. In the meantime, why Shafiq started it all and how aware he was of the repercussions remain open to speculation.

Journalist and MP Mustafa Bakri explains the “plan,” as he calls it, behind Shafiq’s announcement. According to Bakri, Shafiq intended to head to several European cities, starting with Paris, to garner support for his candidacy. “There the plan was to start. This plan involved Qatar, which was to fund his campaign, and several leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote. “This was to be done under the protection of the Turkish intelligence.”

The plan, Bakri added, included mobilizing prominent media agencies and outlets to support Shafiq and he cited Reuters, The New York Times, and The Guardian as examples. “The next step involved bribing several democracy and human rights organizations to support the campaign and to report alleged violations committed by Egyptian authorities to pave the way for calling upon the International Community to intervene like what happened in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections.” For Bakri, the entire plan was aborted when the UAE decided to deport Shafiq to Egypt. “What the Emirati authorities did was quite normal, though, since making the announcement from there gave the impression that the UAE supports him. This was part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s plan to embarrass the UAE against which they hold a deep grudge for supporting Egypt after their ouster in 2013.” Shafiq, Bakri said, did not also realize that he had not sought political asylum in the UAE, therefore the moment he crossed the line in the second video, his visa was cancelled and he was sent back to his country. “This is totally legal.”

Three scenarios

Journalist Moayed Kanaan looked into the possible scenarios that led to Shafiq’s announcement, with three being the most likely. “First, Shafiq could’ve asked the Emirati authorities to announce his candidacy from the UAE and they refused, so he did it anyway to embarrass them and claimed they are barring him from leaving to make sure they let him go,” he wrote. “This is the most logical scenario.” The second scenario, Kanaan added, was that Shafiq decided to make the announcement without consulting with the Emirati authorities at all and when he did their first reaction was to stop him from leaving so he decided to escalate through al-Jazeera video. “This is more unlikely bearing in mind how much time he spent in the UAE.” Third, several European countries, particularly France and Germany, gave Shafiq the impression that they would support him if he decides to run for president. “Being a European-backed candidate would definitely give him a lot of leverage.” Shafiq did say in his second video that he planned to meet with Egyptian communities abroad. Kanaan noted that apart from Europe, and possibly the United States, the question about whether Shafiq is supported by Qatar, hence Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, remains valid.

For Journalist Adel Hamouda, al-Jazeera video was the biggest mistake Shafiq made. “His decision to appear on al-Jazeera means he is allying with Qatar, hence also involved in attempts at undermining the Egyptian state in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote. “That explains all accusations of betrayal that he faced right after.” Hamouda added that it is hard to believe that al-Jazeera hacked his daughters phone to get the video as Shafiq claimed. “He kept swearing that he never contacted al-Jazeera and maybe he didn’t personally. He could’ve had someone send the video to the channel. Doing that he lost a lot of sympathy.” Hamouda argued that the situation would have been different had Shafiq announced his candidacy from Egypt and while in the headquarters of his party.

According to journalist Walid Abbas, Shafiq misread the political scene in Egypt, believing that the criticism the Egyptian regime is facing for a number of issues such as the war on terrorism, the economy, and the Renaissance Dam standoff would give him a chance in the elections. “He also judged by the support he had in the 2012 elections, a large part of which was the result of not wanting to see the Muslim Brotherhood in power,” he wrote. “At the time, he was also supported by the military and state institutions.” Abbas added that most of powers that supported him then now support President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with few exceptions, such as businessmen whose interests are affected by the military’s economic power. “He also did not take into consideration that if the UAE does not support him, then most likely the rest of the Gulf region wouldn’t.”

Hossam Badrawi, the last secretary general of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, said that while making the announcement from outside Egypt was not the best idea, it is not fair to call Shafiq a traitor. “So many details are still not clear including why he decided to make the announcement from the UAE,” he said. “We are also not sure he decided to record a video to al-Jazeera so we cannot judge based on this.” Badrawi criticized accusations leveled against Shafiq and lawsuits calling for stripping him of the Egyptian citizenship or charging him with destabilizing state security. “No matter how mistaken he was, nothing he did makes him a criminal or a traitor. This is character assassination and it gives a bad image of freedoms in Egypt.”

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

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.”