It is now a punishable offense in Egypt to refuse to stand for the national anthem or to “insult” the country’s flag. The new law passed by the military-backed interim government on Wednesday is revealing in that it underlines the strategy authorities are using to tighten their grip on power: discredit political Islam by highlighting its incompatibility with nationalism.
The decree comes after a media frenzy over reports that a single Salafist member of the constitutional committee refused to stand for a moment of silence in honor of slain police officers. Coupled with an earlier fracas over reports that other ultraconservative Islamist MPs remained seated for the national anthem, the outcry has extended beyond the specific politicians involved in these incidents and is now a broader indictment of the patriotism of Islamists as a whole.
The Salafists are also not doing themselves any favors in battling the PR fallout here: a representative of the Salafi Al-Nour party was quoted as saying that it was better to pray for those killed than to stand in silence in their honor. In different circumstances, such a statement would have been largely uncontroversial in the predominantly conservative Muslim country. However, Egypt’s current political environment is entirely inhospitable to any type of sentiment that could be construed as unpatriotic — and particularly those of the Islamist variety.
Having politically neutralized the Muslim Brotherhood, it has become clear that Egypt’s military rulers, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are widening the scope of their political crackdown, with Islamists of all stripes now in their sights. Though the opposition to standing for the anthem likely represents only a small faction of the more radical Salafists, it is no surprise that the issue has been seized on by the government to the point where it is now being legislated.
It is a convenient way to reinforce the idea of Islamists as outsiders — while simultaneously avoiding riling religious sensibilities. Salafists have painted themselves into a corner by representing the act of standing for the anthem and the act of prayer in opposition to one another. The argument Egyptian authorities are trying to push is that it’s not an either/or proposition– you can do both without compromising your faith or your duty to your country. Those who see it in such terms, i.e. radical Islamists, are thus deemed unpatriotic and at odds with the Azhar-sanctioned strain of moderate Islam widely accepted in Egypt.
This fight is a winner for the government because in a showdown between Islamism and Nationalism it’s obvious which will come out on top among the broader Egyptian public which does not view religious expression and nationalist expression as diametrically opposed. Islamists, on the other hand, in being so unyielding on this issue, appear to reject their duty to their country (which many moderate Muslims are quick to point out is scripturally un-Islamic — thus also reinforcing the narrative of Islamist hypocrisy).
As Egypt’s chauvinistic undercurrents become increasingly prominent in wider society, fights like these only serve to bolster the supremacy of Egypt’s military, which has long positioned itself as the guardian of Egyptian nationalism. Expect to see the usual nationalistic frenzy around Egypt’s upcoming October 6th holiday (a celebration of its 1973 war with Israel and, not coincidentally, also its Armed Forces day) to be even more zealous this year — an anniversary that may well have been on the interim government’s mind vis a vis the timing of the law’s passage. As its rhetoric against the military reaches new incendiary heights, the Muslim Brotherhood plans to use protests ahead of the holiday to boost its anti-government message. And with insulting the flag now a crime, there will be plenty of opportunities for the government to employ this new legal tactic in cracking down on a crowd of anti-government Islamists protesting on one of Egypt’s most patriotic holidays.