Is Nazism resurgent in Egypt? The spectacle of Egyptian demonstratorsopenly displaying swastikas and shouting ‘the gas chambers are ready’ in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week, as one tore down the Israeli flag, certainly sends shivers down one’s spine.
Of course similar spine-chilling cries are uttered at soccer stadia in Holland. (The equivalent in Egyptian soccer is the Cairo team Ahly. Their supporters, who call themselves the Ahlawi Nazis, unfurl a long swastika bearing-banner.)
So what makes Nazism in Egypt more threatening?
Egypt sheltered thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators after the Second World War, including the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. King Farouk employed the Germans to re-organise his army. Nasser used their expertise in anti-Jewish propaganda. Many converted to Islam, married local girls and melted into the general population. Some of them were big fish, like the so-called Butcher of Mauthhausen, Aribert Heim. The Algerian author Boualem Sansal bumped into one such Nazi, who became a sheikh and the headman of his village. The man was the inspiration for Sansal’s novel An unfinished business. Earlier this year, in the full flush of the Arab Spring, Egyptian activists announced the formation of a new Nazi party.
The Cairo-based Liberation correspondent Claude Guibar tells how a Frenchman he met was shocked to visit a Cairo publisher two years ago whose walls were festooned with a portrait of Hitler, Nazi daggers and memorabilia. The name Hitler – as in General Hitler Tantawi – was very popular in the Arab world in the 1930s.
The almost complete absence of the Holocaust from school books, together with Holocaust denial and anti-Jewish literature and incitement on TV and in the mosques renders antisemitism mainstream. Egypt has not been the same since it evicted its Jews, Greeks and Armenians, and anti-Jewish feeling has increased a hundred-fold since Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel.
A character in Boualem Sansal’sUnfinished business writes about Egypt:
“You quickly realise that the old Egypt, the cheerful, cosmopolitan, raucous, romantic Egypt of Naguib Mahfouz does not exist anymore. Modern Egypt – Misr -is dominated by twin giants as formidable as the great pyramids – religion and the police – leaving not one square inch where a free man may set foot. If he’s not taken to task by the police – the chorti – he will by the fanatic – the Irhabi. In Egypt, the police force of the Rais and the religion of Allah conspire to make life a living hell for every single person here on earth.”
Many Western observers concur that the Islamists are those most likely to gain from the so-called Arab Spring.Seth Franzman, for instance, sees the Spring not as a prelude to democracy, but merely as the twitching death throes of rotting Arab nationalism. If Islamists do take power, Nazism will again be in the ascendant, for it provided the main ideological inspiration and funding for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s.
There is a scene in Boualem Sansal’s novel where a character locked up by the police in an airport hangar in Algiers imagines that he is standing in a gas chamber. Sansal, who lives under the Islamist regime in Algeria, certainly sees a continuum between Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Looking on the bright side of things, however, only a few hundred – and not the million the organisers anticipated, attended that demonstration in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. And the Israeli flag is now fluttering above the embassy once more.
Perhaps Egypt is not such easy prey after all – yet.