By Reem Abdellatif
CAIRO – Islamists have filed defamation suits against Mohamed ElBaradei, claiming the Nobel Peace Prize laureate referred to them as “clowns” and “merchants of religion” in an increasingly tense political atmosphere surrounding the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution.
State television reported that Islamists have filed at least 40 complaints against ElBaradei for disparaging comments he made at a press conference in southern Egypt last week. The suits reflect the animosity between secularists, such as ElBaradei, and Islamists, who are seeking to instill sharia law in the constitution.
ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been a voice for change in Egypt, supporting youth groups in last year’s uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. After Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist, was elected president in June, ElBaradei repeatedly called for an inclusive government and a constitutional assembly to represent all Egyptians, not just Islamists.
The 100-member assembly, which is dominated by Islamists, is expected to finish the constitution in December. It will then go to a referendum. The lawsuits against ElBaradei – Mubarak officials used similar tactics to silence critics -- suggest Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are attempting to isolate a popular reformist political leader.
Thousands of Islamist supporters took to the streets on Friday in a protest to demand that Sharia heavily influence the new constitution. Radical clerics and ultraconservative Islamists politicians have become increasingly vocal, leading to firebrand rhetoric and isolated attacks to menace Christians and moderate Muslims.
On Saturday, Morgan El Gohary, a radical salafist who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, stunned many Egyptians when he said the Pyramids of Giza and ancient statues should be destroyed because they were once idolized. El Gohary, who was featured on a private Egyptian satellite channel, said he would destroy even the Sphinx because it represented a pagan culture anathema to Islam.
“God ordered Prophet Mohamed to destroy idols,” said El Gohary, who, like scores of radical Islamists, was pardoned from a jail term after Mubarak’s downfall. “When I was with the Taliban we destroyed the statue of Buddha, something the government failed to do.”
A day later, two women wearing full-face veils cut off the hair of a Christian woman after getting into an argument in Cairo’s subway, according to Egypt Independent newspaper.
A similar incident occurred last week when a fully veiled woman cut off the hair of a 13 year-old girl on the subway. That same week, an Egyptian court sentenced a female school teacher to a six-month suspended prison sentence for cutting off the hair of two 12 year-old girls because their hair was not covered.
Although Egyptian society prides itself on its traditional, yet moderate culture, extremists have pushed for dominance since Morsi’s election. Morsi’s politics are now being put to the test as he tries to maintain friendly relations with the West, while preserving his support among ultraconservatives.
Many Egyptians are concerned that the new constitution may limit civil rights. The country’s Supreme Constitutional Court is reviewing the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly, which could be dissolved if it is found unrepresentative of Egypt’s diverse society.
(Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman contributed to this report)