Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks
The Egyptian military has enlisted Muslim scholars in a propaganda campaign to persuade soldiers and policemen that they have a religious duty to obey orders to use deadly force against supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi.
The effort is a signal that the generals are worried about insubordination in the ranks, after security forces have killed hundreds of their fellow Egyptians who were protesting against the military’s removal of the elected president — violence by the armed forces against civilians that is without precedent in the country’s modern history.
The recourse to religion to justify the killing is also a new measure of the depth of the military’s determination to break down the main pillar of Mr. Morsi’s support, the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, after ousting Mr. Morsi in the name of tolerance, inclusiveness and an end to religious rule, the military is now sending religious messages to its troops that sound surprisingly similar to the arguments of radical militants who call for violence against political opponents whom they deem to be nonbelievers.
“When somebody comes who tries to divide you, then kill them, whoever they are,” Ali Gomaa, the former mufti appointed under President Hosni Mubarak, is seen telling soldiers in a video made by the military’s Department of Moral Affairs. “Even with the sanctity and greatness of blood, the prophet permits us to fight this,” he said in the video, likening opponents of the military takeover — implicitly, the Brotherhood — to an early Islamic sect that some scholars considered to be infidels, and thus permissible to kill. Mr. Gomaa later said the military had shown the video to troops and riot police officers across Egypt.
In a video against the same backdrop, Salem Abdel Galil, a former senior scholar in the ministry that oversaw mosques under Mr. Mubarak, appeared to say such opponents were “aggressors who have to repent to God.” They are “not honorable Egyptians,” he said.
“If they continue like this, then they are neither recognized by religion, nor by reason or logic,” Dr. Abdel Galil said, adding that “to use weapons when needed” against such foes was the duty of the armed forces. “The heart is at ease about this,” he said. In a Facebook posting Sunday night, Dr. Abdel Galil said that his comments were made in response to questions about “terrorists who attack the military,” not Morsi supporters, but that the video released to the public was edited to distort his meaning.
Amr Khaled, a televangelist who is popular with young Muslims, specifically addressed the question of insubordination in a military video. “You don’t obey your commander while performing a great task?” he asked, adding, “You, you conscript in the Egyptian military, you are performing a task for God Almighty!”
Asked a series of questions about the speeches in an e-mail, Col. Ahmed Aly, a military spokesman, replied that the military held monthly “cultural meetings” about broad subjects, including religion. Dr. Gomaa was one of several scholars who visited “to lecture our officers,” Mr. Aly said.
It was unclear when the military filmed the speeches or distributed them to the troops. Segments of them were posted online over the weekend, at a moment when the government installed last month by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi appeared to be demonstrating its new grip on power.
On Sunday, one Egyptian court opened the first trials of top Brotherhood leaders arrested in the crackdown. In another court began the retrial of Mr. Mubarak, released last week from prison, on charges of directing the killing of protesters. His lawyers are expected to argue that the security forces under Mr. Mubarak were restrained compared with the violence unleashed this month on the sit-in protests against the takeover.
Political scientists say that worries about insubordination are understandable, because the ranks of both the army and the riot police are made up mainly of hundreds of thousands of conscripts drafted into mandatory military service. More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in the crackdown since Aug. 14, and many of the conscripts are likely to have lost a cousin or relative, or heard stories of the carnage.
As grieving Islamists searched for the bodies of the missing after the authorities broke up the pro-Morsi sit-ins, many were eager to talk, and speculate, about family members who were serving in the police and the military.
“There is a fear of disobedience” in the clerics’ videotaped speeches, said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.
“Now we are going into fatwa wars,” he said, referring to declarations of rulings by Muslim clerics. The new government, he added, “is waging an all-out war, and using all the weapons at their hands, including religious fatwas, to dehumanize their opponents and justify killing them.”
Professor Shahin recalled similar clerical statements distributed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser when he cracked down on the Brotherhood after he took power in the 1950s. The Nasser government published them in a pamphlet under the title “The Brothers of the Devil.”
Some Morsi supporters have tried to turn the tables, arguing that General Sisi was the aggressor who divided the country when he overturned a legitimate, democratically elected government.
But Mohamed Omara, a scholar associated with the Brotherhood, said that allegations of religious faith or infidelity had no place in the Egyptian crisis, which was a political disagreement and not a test of faith — even when the tanks were circling the presidential palace. “No one who speaks in the name of religion has the right to excommunicate a faction of those battling in Egypt,” he said. “Excluding others is not the right stance.”
The first fragmentary account of the clerics’ statements appeared on Wednesday in a harsh report on a Web site aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. That suggested that at least some of the soldiers and police officers who heard the speeches sympathized with the Brotherhood enough to leak the information.
Then professional-quality segments of the speeches began appearing on the Internet over the weekend; it was unclear who released them.
In one of the segments, Dr. Abdel Galil is seen addressing the subject of the military takeover directly: “They speak of a coup. What coup? This is the will of the people.” He appeared to call its Islamist opponents “preachers of strife” and to say, “Those are criminals; those are aggressors, and the state needs to take the necessary measures to eradicate them.” He said Sunday night that these comments were also edited and distorted.
Dr. Khaled is seen advising the soldiers and the police not to “let anybody make you question your faith.” He added: “The day you wore that uniform and these boots, and you made that salute, and you stood up in your line — you’re not doing a job for a commander, you’re working for God.”
Dr. Gomaa, the former mufti, said in a television interview that he had spoken for 30 minutes before a video camera at the military’s Moral Affairs department, and the resulting video had been shown to soldiers and police officers across the country “to keep up their spirits.” He said he did not mean to authorize the killing of peaceful Morsi supporters; rather, he said he was referring to use of force against what he described as “an armed rebellion against the ruler.” But he insisted that the unrest since the military takeover amounted to a clash between two armed groups.
As soldiers and security forces dispersed the two pro-Morsi sit-ins, journalists covering the events saw security forces fire lethal ammunition at unarmed demonstrators in the early morning, killing hundreds within hours. But Dr. Gomaa insisted in the television interview that for most of the morning, Morsi supporters were the ones shooting, and that the security forces reluctantly moved in and began returning fire only after 1 p.m.
“If a person wanted to rebel with arms against the military, what would the situation be?” Dr. Gomaa said. “Kill him. I hereby say it again. Those who rebel against the Egyptian military or police deserve, according to Shariah, to be killed.”