What really happened at the SOAS Egypt debate

The School of African and Oriental Studies in London

Kia Golsorkhi-Ainslie says the media has distorted what really happened at the recent SOAS Egypt debate when a pro-Egyptian coup speaker was forced to leave the stage.

On Friday 18th October, a public panel discussion jointly organized by the SOAS Palestine and Arab societies was terminated following repeated interruptions from the audience.

The event, held in the Khalili Lecture Theatre, was entitled “What Next for Egypt?: The Challenge of Transition.” The guest speakers were Reem Abou-El-Fadl, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations of the Middle East at Durham University, and Mohamed El-Nabawy, co-founder of the Egyptian Tamarod Movement.

The controversy surrounding the “What Next for Egypt” event was perpetuated this week by articles in The SOAS Spirit, Evening Standard and Huffington Post newspapers, which failed to provide a full account of the discussion. The articles, which were based on a two-minute video of the event’s aftermath https://5pillarsuk.com/video/muslim-brotherhood-supporters-chase-away-guest-speaker-at-soas-egypt-lecture/ and a statement by the Palestine Society, did not feature testimony from attendees. A separate opinion piece by The SOAS Spirit Editor, Mohammad Tahboub, who was not present at the event, was criticized online for alleged inaccuracies.

Military coup

The panel discussion aimed to address Egyptian politics following the 3rd July military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. However, a sizeable portion of the capacity audience immediately expressed their displeasure at what they perceived to be the panel’s pro-coup bias. Two attendees interrupted the opening remarks of the event organizers in order to demand that ample time be afforded to the audience to contest the views of the speakers.

Former president Mohamed Morsi
Former president Mohamed Morsi

When Mohamed El-Nabawy was introduced, many in the audience, which comprised SOAS students and members of the public, responded with boos. El-Nabawy’s Tamarod (Rebellion) movement played a key role in organizing petitions and mass protests demanding the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, and endorsed the July 3 military coup.

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Tamarod also supported the government’s crackdown on supporters of the deposed president, which culminated in the events of the 14th August, when state forces violently dispersed pro-Morsi sit-ins. Human Rights Watch described the attacks as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”

El-Nabawy’s opening remarks were immediately and repeatedly interrupted by sections of the audience, who chanted “down with military rule”. One particularly vocal attendee, a middle aged Egyptian man, claimed that his nephew was among the protestors killed during the crackdown on pro-Morsi sit-ins. El-Nabawy antagonised the audience at several points, implying that they were not patriotic and were backed by Qatari funding.

Security guards

Responding to repeated interruptions, the event organizers swiftly terminated the discussion, and demanded that the audience leave the venue. Many refused to comply with this request, remaining behind to direct chants at El-Nabawy, who was eventually escorted out of the building by security guards. Several members of the audience unveiled T-shirts, flags and balloons bearing the insignia of “R4bia”, an international movement opposed to the coup. This suggests that sections of the audience had planned the disruption.

A statement by the SOAS Palestine Society claimed that “the disruptions pre-empted any possibility of fruitful exchange. They were clearly orchestrated by non-members of the SOAS community in order to silence and intimidate our invited speakers and attendees, and to forestall any debate.”

The Egyptian army cleared Muslim Brotherhood sit ins in Cairo
The Egyptian army cleared Muslim Brotherhood sit ins in Cairo

Hamida Moallim, a SOAS undergraduate who was present at the discussion, disagrees. “I was shocked at the negative reactions and the charged language used to de-legitimise those who exercised their right to protest at the event. Both El-Nabawy and Abou-El-Fadl were propagating a pro-coup narrative, and it is understandable that many were outraged by the lack of representation for opposing viewpoints. Abou-El-Fadl was ostensibly neutral, yet conveniently failed to mention the 14th August massacre. I don’t know how an audience which included individuals whose family members have been imprisoned or murdered as a result of the coup could fail to challenge the views of the speakers.”

The SOAS Spirit’s reporting of the event, which was the basis for subsequent articles in The Evening Standard, The Huffington Post and The Spectator, was criticized online. Johannes Svensson, a SOAS undergraduate, questioned the evidence for the Spirit’s assertion, repeated elsewhere, that those who disrupted the event were “Muslim Brotherhood supporters”.

“The protestors’ chants, and the presence of the Rabia symbol, are not sufficient grounds for labelling them ‘Brotherhood supporters.’ They are the symbols of a broader movement opposing the military takeover,” Svensson said.

“When I confronted [Mohammad Tahboub] with this argument, he simply referred to the ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ in the video, but failed to provide any other evidence. The assumption of Brotherhood-supporter involvement featured in the Spirit article has been repeated in other outlets, and even echoed in a tweet by former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson.”

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