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Egypt's Top Religious Institutions, Al-Azhar And The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, Unite Against Trump's Jerusalem Move


By Amr Mostafa

December 21, 2017

In Egypt, the fallout from US President Donald Trump's Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has spread beyond popular and official condemnations and protests by many countries. Religious institutions in Egypt, such as Al-Azhar and the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, are now boycotting the United States.

Al-Azhar’s first response to Trump’s announcement was swift. In an official statement on Dec. 6, Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb described Trump’s decision as denying Palestinians and Arabs the rights to their holy city. “It disregarded the feelings of more than 1.5 billion Muslims and millions of Arab Christians who are deeply attached to Jerusalem's churches and monasteries.”

The second reaction came on Dec. 9, when Sheikh Abbas Shoman, the deputy sheikh of Egypt's Al-Azhar Institute called for a boycott of American products in Cairo.

He posted to Facebook, “Boycott US and Zionist products. Trump’s decision undermined and offended our feelings. I do not believe it is appropriate for any Muslim or Christian to buy an American or Zionist product. Be positive and make your own decision.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor by phone, Shoman said, “The campaign has received wide support among many Egyptian circles, spearheaded by the syndicates of pharmacists and veterinarians. The boycott campaign is the only weapon available to the Arab and Islamic peoples against US arrogance and Zionist aggression.”

In Dec. 9 press statement, Ahmad Abu Duma, the spokesman for the Egyptian Pharmacists Syndicate, said the syndicate’s Right to Medication Committee had launched an initiative to boycott all US medicines and products and that the initiative came in cooperation with the Egyptian Medical Syndicate. The Egyptian Veterinary Syndicate also announced at a press conference on Dec. 11 a boycott of US veterinary products and stated that a committee had been formed to inventory these products and find alternatives to them.

The Al-Azhar boycott measure is not limited to US products. In an official statement issued on Dec. 8, Al-Azhar rejected an official US request for Vice President Mike Pence to meet with Tayeb on Dec. 20, when Pence had been planning to visit the region. Pence later delayed his trip until 2018, citing the possibility his vote would be needed to pass US tax legislation.

The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church also announced Dec. 9 that it would not receive Pence in objection to Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“The unified position by Al-Azhar and the church can have a great impact because it shows the solidarity of all Egyptians of different religious affiliations with the Palestinian people and their right to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital,” said lawmaker Omar Hamroush, who is a member of the parliamentary Religious Affairs Committee.

Despite Pence's claims to the contrary, Hamroush attributed the vice president's change of plans to this public pressure. “Following this position, the US vice president postponed his visit scheduled for Dec. 19. If this unified stance is maintained, more can be achieved. This may even lead the US to suspend the transfer of its embassy to Jerusalem, without declaring it publicly," he added.

Nurhan al-Sheikh, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said the calls by Al-Azhar and the church to boycott US products and decision-makers could have a clear impact if they turn global.

She explained to Al-Monitor that the volume of trade between Egypt and the United States is low and Egypt's boycott of US products will not have a significant effect. “Southeast Asian countries, however, have a huge trade exchange with the US. A simple boycott threat by these states could have a strong impact. Al-Azhar can pass the boycott campaign to these countries with a large Muslim population, such as Malaysia,” she added.

Yusri al-Azbawi, a political researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, shared this opinion. He said, “The internationalization by Al-Azhar and the Egyptian church of their boycott campaigns in objection to the US decision could have a global political impact. These religious institutions influence Muslim and Christian public opinion inside the US. This could push US voters to give more votes in the US midterm congressional elections to the Democratic Party, [to make it] somewhat capable of curbing Trump's decisions.”

Shukri al-Jundi, undersecretary of the parliamentary Religious Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The position by Al-Azhar and the church, although honorable, will not exert the necessary pressure on the US administration. The required pressure will only be achieved if the unity displayed by Al-Azhar and the church is also shown by all Arab and Islamic countries and governments. They must all set their differences aside and focus on finding a unified strategy to pressure the US administration into renouncing its decision on Jerusalem. Together, the Arab and Islamic countries could have a political, strategic and economic effect on the US. A unified strategy will have a major impact on US policy.”

Meanwhile, economist Alaa Rizk believes the boycott campaign called for by Al-Azhar will have no major effect at the political and economic levels. “The Arab region and the Islamic countries will not find a substitute for many US goods, not to mention that the US is supplying the Gulf region with weapons while Egypt is benefiting from US financial aid,” he told Al-Monitor. “I do not think that the boycott campaigns will find support by many Muslims, even if launched by Al-Azhar. Many Muslims reside in the US and work for US companies. Also, many Christians are getting visas from Israel to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

Mr. Mostafa is an Egyptian journalist who has worked for several newspapers, including Youm7, and focuses on diplomatic and legal issues.