Egyptian Antiquities Threatened

By Hiel, Betsy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Egyptian Antiquities Threatened


Hiel, Betsy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


CAIRO -- The Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza have been Egyptian icons for centuries of gawking tourists.

Now the 4,000-year-old wonders symbolize the growing struggle for Egypt's future.

An Islamist leader here wants to destroy the four monuments and other antiquities, just as Afghanistan's ousted Taliban dynamited ancient Buddha statues in 2001.

At the base of the pyramids and the sphinx's feet, struggling tour guides and souvenir vendors are outraged.

If Islamists harm the monuments, says one, "We will kill them."

In the past, such an idea would have been dismissed as foolish. Today it is one of many radical demands by Islamists, especially the ultra-religious Salafis who, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, seized power after the 2011 ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

On Nov. 9, thousands of Salafis massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand that Egypt be ruled under Shariah, or Islamic law.

Days later, Murgan Salem al-Gohary, a gray-bearded Salafi who once fought in Afghanistan, condemned "idolatrous" objects on a popular television program.

"All the pagan statues and idols that were worshipped -- and, we fear, would be worshipped again, or has one person in the world worshipping it -- must be destroyed," he said.

'Salafi jihadis' shareal-Qaida's ideology

Al-Gohary, 50, is one of many Salafi radicals freed from prison after last year's revolution.

Many of them lead weekly protests for "Islamization," encourage Muslim mobs to attack minority Christians, or inspire bloody battles with soldiers and police in the Sinai.

The most radical elements split from the Nour Party, the largest Salafi group. Unlike the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis have no central leader, making it easier to splinter into often competing factions.

Egyptian media refer to the wildest-eyed factions as "Salafi jihadis," a label those groups proudly wear.

In a recent interview, Muhammed Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri, said: "All of us, whether Salafi jihadis or al-Qaida, are following the true Islamic religion with the same ideology."

Twice in the 1990s, al-Gohary was sentenced to prison in absentia for advocating violence. He fled to Afghanistan and reportedly worked with the Taliban, including its destruction of the 2,000- year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Wounded during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he fled to Syria but was handed over to Egypt and imprisoned until Mubarak's downfall.

He has called for renewing "jizya," an ancient tax on "Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians," and abolishing a tourism ministry based on "prostitution and depravity."

During his latest TV appearance, fellow guests objected to destroying antiquities.

"This is a universal heritage," said journalist Nabil Sharaf al- Din. …

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