In a rousing speech in Tahrir Square on Friday, Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, told the crowd that he will work to free Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh.” Rahman is currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks.
Morsi’s call for Rahman’s return to Egypt was a curveball for all those Western watchers who are looking to brand the new president a moderate. At times, including during his speech on Friday, Morsi does use language that sounds quite conciliatory. But peppered throughout his rhetoric are troubling red flags.
Sheikh Rahman was a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden. The deceased al Qaeda master credited a fatwa authored by Rahman for providing the religious justifications for the September 11 attacks. Rahman has also served as the spiritual guide for Gamaa Islamiya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, both of which are terrorist organizations that have been close allies of al Qaeda for decades.
Morsi’s call for Rahman’s freedom is, therefore, the latest red flag.
The invaluable MEMRI organization recently published excerpts from a speech Morsi gave in May. During the speech, Morsi struck a strident tone, insisting that “[t]he Koran was and will continue to be our constitution.” Morsi elaborated by saying that the new Egyptian constitution “will truly reflect [the sharia],” or a version of Islamic law. “This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic sharia,” Morsi claimed.
“Jihad is our path,” Morsi said. “And death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration.”
Like other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Morsi has frequently claimed to be pro-democracy and comparatively liberal in his beliefs. But such rhetoric is often contradicted or mitigated by other statements he has made.
Consider an interview with Eliot Spitzer, then of CNN, in early 2011. Even during a television appearance in which Morsi had a strong incentive to put the Muslim Brotherhood’s best foot forward for a Western audience, he had some troubling things to say about Israel and terrorism.
On the issue of Israel, Spitzer pressed Morsi to say whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood would recognize Israel’s right to exist if its candidate for president was elected to office. (Morsi was not the candidate at the time, but was instead a spokesman.) After offering several muddled responses Morsi finally offered this (emphasis added):
Sir, sir, sir, this is a heavy question. You want to talk about the future, and you do not look into the past and the present. This is a heavy question. It's out of faith. It's ridiculous to ask about the future.
Why you don't have even your freedom in your country and you are close by, the foreign policies of the United States against the Palestinians and others. The blood is shed from the Palestinians for more than 60 years. Let us stop the bloodshed of the Palestinians and then talk about such matters in the future.
We are not against people. We are not against mankind. We are not against the Jews. We are against Zionism. We are against torturing the Palestinians.
Spitzer had asked for a yes or no answer to his simple question: “Would you recognize the state of Israel?” Morsi couldn’t say yes.
Instead, Morsi insisted that the Brotherhood is not against “the Jews,” which isn’t really true. The Brotherhood is deeply anti-Semitic. Morsi could then not stop himself from adding: “We are against Zionism.”
Then there is the question of whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood supports terrorism. It is fashionable in some circles to claim that the Brotherhood is strictly “nonviolent,” but that is really not true either. The Brotherhood gave up on violence against Mubarak’s regime after decades of brutal oppression. Violence, from the Brotherhood’s standpoint, simply wasn’t working.
But the Brotherhood has routinely advocated and endorsed violence elsewhere, including in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Spitzer asked: “Will you then right now disavow the use of violence against the state of Israel?”
Morsi’s answer is an example of doublespeak. “We do not use violence against anyone,” Morsi said. “What's going on [sic] the Palestinian land is resistance.” Morsi continued: “The resistance is acceptable by all mankind and it's the right of people to resist imperialism.”
Of course, such “resistance” is violent and includes Hamas’s extensive use of suicide bombers. (Hamas is a self-described chapter of the Brotherhood.) In Iraq and Afghanistan, other senior Brotherhood leaders have advocated violence against American-led forces under the same mantra of “resistance.”
Morsi is known to be a 9/11 truther. And during his interview with Spitzer, Morsi seemed to condemn the 9/11 attacks only to then equivocate on who was responsible. This is another example of doublespeak. Spitzer asked if he would “right now condemn the attacks by al Qaeda both in - on the United States and elsewhere in the world as acts that violate…”
We did before. We are against whoever did this to the civilian people. We are against this act and we said we want a fair trial, not just an accused, and if you prove by a fair trial - you Americans, if you prove by a fair trial who did this, we are against that whoever did it with you. We stand with you against whoever did this if you can prove really who did this.
As late as 2011, therefore, Morsi claimed that we do not know for sure whether or not al Qaeda was responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Some will continue to focus mainly on Morsi’s moderate-sounding rhetoric. The truth is that he often makes not-so-moderate statements as well. His speech on Friday is a good example of this.
“We will complete the journey in a civil state, a nationalist state, a constitutional state, a modern state,” Morsi said of Egypt’s revolution.
And then he called for an arch-terrorist, long allied with al Qaeda, to be freed.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.