White-clad girls dancing in a circle and playing ball in a pastel-toned, soft-focus garden. Children’s laughter and a joyful mood. A promotional film for a theme park? A commercial for a toy brand? We finally understand what it’s all about when a heavily bearded man comes on screen: It’s an online promotional video for the Egyptian Al Nour Salafi party.
At some point in the video, a little girl with long dark hair stops playing with her friends in order to talk politics with the bearded gentleman, who answers her questions with a smile.
“Tell me, Uncle, is it true what we hear, that the Al Nour party will force women to wear the niqab?”
“Of course not. If a woman wants to wear it, let her wear it. If she does not, it’s her choice and many ulemas actually agree with her.”
“And, like Mum says, will the Al Nour party keep women from working and have them stay at home?”
“No, this will not happen, because women are at the heart of our society. But their freedom and dignity in the workplace will be safeguarded.”
Holding the little girl’s hand, the Al Nour member then takes her for a tour of an Egypt as envisioned by the Salafi. “In order to quell you mother’s fears,” he tells her.
They visit a school, a hospital and then get in a very comfortable bus for a tour of the countryside. Everything is clean, tidy and modern. It is certainly a very attractive vision for the average Egyptian man, who struggles every day in crowded and rundown buses; who generally cannot get proper health care due to lack of money; and whose children learn nothing at school in their 50-pupil classes. The Egyptian women, on the other hand, might not be as comforted by the “Salafi dream”: no female teachers, doctors or peasants in the Al Nour video. Safe for the little girls there to ask uncomfortable questions in the name of the female gender; there are quite simply no women in this perfect world.
“They say they won’t keep the women from working, but there are none to be seen in the places they are showing. It’s something of a contradiction,” notes Bola Abdu, a human rights activist from Qena, in southern Egypt. The very simple reason is that the Salafi consider the showing of women on television “haram”.
This campaign video is the target of both the laughter and the anger of Egypt’s pro-democracy online activists and bloggers. They make fun of the odd absence of women, of the fairly awful “halal” music and the “Garden of Eden” inhabited by little girls. The latter has inspired a remake in which the bearded gentleman becomes an evil pedophile posing as Santa Claus, his sweet smiles to the little girl taking on an altogether different meaning.
The parody was deemed shocking by many of young Egyptians. “It’s vulgar and really not funny,” says Asmae, a literature student, “but it’s a pity because there was a lot to say against Al Nour’s video”. According to Bola Abdu, there is even a risk of the prank’s backfiring: “People will find it shameful to represent men of faith in this way, and will come to the conclusion that the liberals respect nothing while Al Nour people have real values”.
Egyptians tend to laugh at everything and haven’t spared the Salafi their barbs. An increasing number of jokes have popped up after they won 25% of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections. Asmae relates one she recently heard from a student friend: A Salafi gets in a taxi and asks the driver to turn off the radio. “There was no radio in the time of the Prophet Mohammed,” he says. The driver turns off the radio and then responds: “There were no taxis either in the time of the Prophet. Why don’t you get off and wait for a camel to pick you up?”.
Such jokes have become a way for worried Egyptians to play down the growing power of the Islamists, but the deriding of the Salafi seems to be missing its aim and could well be a case of preaching to the converted.
French to English translation and editing: Gregory Dziedzic and Helen Southcott.