After Long Exile, Sunni Cleric Takes Role in Egypt
CAIRO — Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Sunni cleric who is banned from the United States and Britain for supporting violence against Israel and American forces in Iraq, delivered his first public sermon here in 50 years on Friday, emerging as a powerful voice in the struggle to shape what kind of Egyptian state emerges from the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
On the same day, other signs of a changing Egypt emerged. The military warned restive workers that it would stop what it declared were illegal strikes crippling Egypt’s economy, declaring “it will confront them and take the legal measures needed to protect the nation’s security.”
It also allowed two Iranian Navy ships to pass through the Suez Canal — a first since the 1979 Iranian revolution and a move that some Israeli officials called a provocation. Egyptian officials reportedly said the ships did not contain weapons.
Sheik Qaradawi, a popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide, addressed a rapt audience of more than a million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate the uprising and honor those who died.
“Don’t fight history,” he urged his listeners in Egypt and across the Arab world, where his remarks were televised. “You can’t delay the day when it starts. The Arab world has changed.”
He spoke as the authorities in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen were waging violent crackdowns on uprisings inspired in part by the Egyptian revolution. The sermon was the first public address here by Sheik Qaradawi, 84, since he fled Egypt for Qatar in 1961. An intellectual inspiration to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Sheik Qaradawi was jailed in Egypt three times for his ties to the group and spent most of his life abroad. His prominence exemplifies the peril and potential for the West as Egypt opens up. While he condemned the 9/11 attacks, he has supported suicide bombers against Israel and attacks on American forces in Iraq.
On Friday, he struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching. He began his sermon by saying that he was discarding the customary opening “Oh Muslims,” in favor of “Oh Muslims and Copts,” referring to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. He praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt’s revolution and even lauded the Coptic Christian “martyrs” who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. “I invite you to bow down in prayer together,” he said.
He urged the military officers governing Egypt to deliver on their promises of turning over power to “a civil government” founded on principles of pluralism, democracy and freedom. And he called on the army to immediately release all political prisoners and rid the cabinet of its dominance by officials of the old Mubarak government.
“We demand from the Egyptian Army to free us from the government that was appointed by Mubarak,” Sheik Qaradawi declared. “We want a new government without any of these faces whom people can no longer stand.” And he urged the young people who led the uprising to continue their revolution. “Protect it,” he said. “Don’t you dare let anyone steal it from you.”
As the uprising here intensified in recent weeks, Sheik Qaradawi had used his platform to urge Egyptians to rise up against Mr. Mubarak. His son, Abdul-Rahman Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is an Egyptian poet who supported the revolution, and, though Sheik Qaradawi is considered a religious traditionalist, three of his daughters hold doctoral degrees, including one in nuclear physics.
Scholars who have studied his work say Sheik Qaradawi has long argued that Islamic law supports the idea of a pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy.
But he has made exceptions for violence against Israel or the American forces in Iraq. “You call it violence; I call it resistance,” said Prof. Emad Shahin of the University of Notre Dame, an Egyptian scholar who has studied Sheik Qaradawi’s work and was in Tahrir Square for his speech Friday.
“He is enormously influential,” Mr. Shahin added. “His presence in the square today cemented the resolve of the demonstrators to insist on their demands from the government.”
Egyptians streamed back into Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution, for a rally that was part prayer service, part celebration and part political protest. State television put attendance at two million.
A raucous spirit of flag-waving celebration prevailed. Women in full face veils painted their daughters’ faces in the colors of the Egyptian flag. Young men danced to thrumming drum beats on balconies, lampposts and trucks. There were many signs bearing the dual images of a crescent and cross, the symbol of Muslim-Christian unity.
Many said they had come to remember “the martyrs — the people who gave their lives to change Egypt to a new society of justice and freedom,” as Wael Lotfi el-Said, 39, put it. Vendors sold plastic cups emblazoned with the pictures of the “martyrs” — many now easily recognizable here from posters that have hung in the square and portraits that have appeared in newspapers. The Egyptian Health Ministry has said at least 365 people died in the uprising.
But many, including Mr. Said, said they were prepared to return every Friday “if necessary” to ensure that the Egyptian military kept its commitment to hand over the government to a civilian democracy as quickly as possible. Many said they worried that the military had not yet clearly ended the so-called emergency law allowing detention without charges or trial. Nor has the military yet incorporated any civilian input into the interim government.
And many complained that the military had kept most of the cabinet ministers put in place during the last days of Mr. Mubarak’s rule. Mohamed el-Beltagui, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who played a leading role in the square during the protests, pointed at Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general and businessman appointed by Mr. Mubarak. “Can we stop the protests when the government of Ahmed Shafiq is still there?” Mr. Beltagui asked. “No, no, no,” the crowd answered.
There were signs that the demonstrators had not forgotten their disappointment with what seemed to be American support for Mr. Mubarak until the end of the revolt. Though the demonstrators had returned to remove most of the graffiti around the square, one billboard remained inscribed with a message in English: “USA Admin — we will get democracy with our will. Play your games with the tyrant.”
By nightfall, however, most politics were forgotten. Fireworks exploded over the square to mark the first week since Mr. Mubarak’s fall, and after midnight the square was still packed with revelers.