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February 20, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8570

Egyptian Regime On Restoration Of Alexandria Synagogue: An Expression Of Egyptian Tolerance And An Important Tourism Enterprise; Muslim Brotherhood: A Waste Of Money And Pandering To Jews

February 20, 2020
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 8570

On January 10, 2020, the Eliyahu Hanavi (Prophet Elijah) Synagogue in Alexandria was reopened following comprehensive restoration and renovation lasting over two years and costing some 70 million Egyptian pounds (~ $4.5 million). The synagogue was built during the reign of Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha in the late 19th century, over the ruins of a 14th century synagogue that had been destroyed following Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. In 2018, after years of neglect that caused parts of the building to collapse, the Egyptian government decided to restore the synagogue and reopen it.[1]

The restoration of the Alexandria synagogue serves two of Egypt's goals: first, it presents Egypt to the world as a tolerant and open country which respects all the religions and their places of worship. At the inauguration of the renovated synagogue, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled Al-Anany stressed the importance that the Egyptian government attributes to the heritage of all religions, noting that he had also participated in inauguration of churches, monasteries, and mosques.[2] Magda Haroun, head of the Jewish community of Egypt – which numbers only a handful of people – reinforced this message in her speech at the ceremony. She praised the efforts of the Egyptian government to renovate the synagogue, as well as other synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, saying that it demonstrates the extent to which the Jews were an integral part of Egyptian society and culture.[3] This goal is in line with objectives set out by Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who since coming into office has been calling for "a renewal of the religious discourse"[4] and has acted to establish Egypt as a civil state belonging to Egyptians of all faiths, not only Muslims.

The second goal of the renovation project is to establish the synagogue as a tourist attraction, as noted by Assistant Minister of Tourism and Antiquities for Engineering Affairs Hisham Samir, in statements he made to the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily. The article, titled "After Its Restoration, Will the Alexandria Synagogue Become a Tourist Attraction?", also quoted a source in the Jewish community in Egypt, who said that "the synagogue is a historic site belonging to all Egyptians," and called to open all of Egypt's synagogues to the general public and to renew prayers at the restored Alexandria synagogue.[5]

The reopening of the synagogue was widely covered in the Egyptian press. Reports about it featured photographs of the renovated synagogue, and briefly described its history, structure and contents. Assistant Tourism and Antiquities Minister Hisham Samir boasted that the synagogue holds "important Torah scrolls," as well as menorahs and extravagant ornaments.[6] Other  articles in the Egyptian press praised the restoration of the synagogue and stressed that it was a sign of the openness and tolerance of the Egyptian regime, and that it would promote tourism to Egypt. Conversely, news websites of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which opposes the regime, criticized the restoration project, calling it a waste of public funds and an act of pandering to the Zionists and Israel.


The restored synagogue (Source: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, January 12, 2020)

This report reviews the reactions in the Egyptian media to the renovation and reopening of the Prophet Elijah synagogue:

Articles In Egyptian Press Welcome The Restoration Of The Synagogue As 'Expression Of Egyptian Tolerance'

Articles in the Egyptian press, most of which supports the Al-Sisi regime, praised the restoration of the synagogue, describing it as an important step in preserving Egypt's Jewish heritage, which they claimed formed an integral part of Egypt's heritage, and as an expression of Egypt's tolerance towards all religions. Many of the articles also emphasized the synagogue's potential as a tourist attraction and therefore as a significant source of revenue.   

Former Editor Of Government Daily: Jewish Heritage Is Part Of Egypt's History; The Opening Of The Synagogue Is An Expression Of Its Tolerance

Gallal Dowidar, former editor of the Egyptian government daily Akhbar Al-Yawm, wrote: "The civilized character of peoples and countries is measured by the extent of their commitment to the divine directives that are based on tolerance, coexistence and acceptance of the other… Over the years, Egypt has been a meeting point of the monotheistic religions and a safe haven for Allah's prophets, [shielding them] from the oppression and tyranny of their opponents. It is only natural that the houses of worship belonging to these religions should be part of Egypt's heritage, which is rich in cultural tolerance. In this spirit, Tourism and Antiquities Minister Dr. Khaled Al-'Anany called last Friday [January 10, 2020] to celebrate the completion of the renovation of the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria, which took two and a half years...

"This synagogue, believed to be one of the oldest in Alexandria, was built in 1850 on the orders of and in cooperation with the family of Muhammad 'Ali [Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt]. [It was built] over the ruins of an ancient Jewish synagogue that was destroyed during the French attack on Egypt [in 1798]  and was known as one of the most ancient synagogues in the Middle East.  What Egypt has done and continues to do in this context, with the aim of preserving its heritage, demonstrates its grandeur and the grandeur of its people.  Its efforts in this domain are not confined to [sites belonging to] any particular religion, but encompass all the monotheistic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism… Nobody disputes that the activities of the antiquities ministry, including excavations and new discoveries, are among the main factors that attract the culture-seeking tourists who flock to Egypt. Linking tourism and antiquities is an important step…"[7]

Egyptian Journalist: In Addition To Renovating The Synagogue, There Is Need To Open A Museum Of Jewish History In Egypt

Fathiyya Al-Dakhakhni, a columnist for the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, wrote: "In an effort to demonstrate that Egypt is the land of tolerance and the cradle of the monotheistic faiths, Tourism and Antiquities Minister Dr. Khaled Al-'Anany made a four-hour tour last Friday [January 10], during which he inaugurated a historical ancient mosque in Cairo, the royal Al-Fath Mosque in 'Abdeen Palace; visited St. Mark Church in Alexandria, the most ancient Church in Egypt, and then crossed the street to attend the main event of the day: the inauguration of the Prophet Elijah Synagogue in Alexandria…

"[The message of tolerance] is perhaps the main and overt message [that was meant to be conveyed] by scheduling all three events in the same day. However, I think there is another reason [the authorities] did not suffice with inaugurating the synagogue [on that day], namely [their desire] to preempt any pointed criticism that might be leveled against the investment of 65 million [Egyptian] pounds in the renovation of a synagogue that will not [even] host religious ceremonies on a regular basis because there aren't enough Jews [for that] in the city [of Alexandria] or in Egypt as a whole. [Minister] Al-'Anany preempted any attack by saying: 'This is a message to the world that Egypt cares for all [aspects of] its heritage: Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic or Jewish.' Whoever attacks [the renovation] of the synagogue forgets that it is part of Egypt's heritage. The fact that no prayers are held there does not mean that it should be neglected. This synagogue, and the other 11 synagogues in Egypt, can be tourist sites that will narrate and document an important chapter of Egyptian history and welcome those who are interested in this type of heritage.

"The attack [on the renovation of the synagogue] reminds me of what happened in the era of Farouk Hosny, who was culture minister [under president Mubarak], when the renovation of the Moshe ben Maimon Synagogue in Cairo began. This triggered a similar attack [by people questioning] the benefit of the renovation and its cost. But Farouk Hosny, known for his boldness, not only renovated the synagogue but also called to establish a Jewish heritage museum in Egypt, which prompted an attack on him, on the grounds that Egypt does not have enough [Jewish] exhibits for such a museum.  Now, after the renovation of the Prophet Elijah Synagogue, I think it's time to revive this idea, and I already discussed [it] with some members of the Jewish community at the periphery of the [inauguration] ceremony. They said there were rare books and artefacts that could form the nucleus of a museum that can be established in the basement of the [Gate of Heaven] Synagogue on Adly Street in Cairo. The establishment of such a museum may be a clear response to those who attack [the restoration of the synagogue], for it will place the synagogue on the tourism map and will make it possible to capitalize on this important [Jewish] heritage in the spheres of tourism and culture."[8]


Tourism and Antiquities Minister Al 'Anany at the inauguration of the renovated synagogue(Source: Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, January 10, 2020)

Egyptian Columnist: The Renovation Of The Synagogue Should Have Been A Global Celebration

'Alaa 'Uraybi, a columnist for the Al-Wafd Party newspaper, expressed disappointment that the inauguration of the synagogue had not been an international ceremony that could have demonstrated Egypt's tolerant character to the entire world. He wrote: "The opening of the Prophet Elijah Synagogue should have been a global celebration attended by [many figures]: rabbis from numerous countries; Jewish authors, artists, media figures, politicians and businessmen from countries with large Jewish communities; officials from religious institutes in those countries as well as some of their ambassadors in Cairo, and Egyptian Jews. True, Egypt's Jews number about five, and most of them are bedridden on account of their age, but the presence of some of them at the inauguration, even in wheelchairs, would have been very meaningful[9]

"We should take every opportunity to project an image of tolerance and showcase Egypt's tourism sites… Egypt should focus on religious tourism, especially since it has many unique Christian and Jewish sites… Jews can visit the sacred valley in Sinai where Allah the Almighty spoke to the Prophet Moussa [Moses]; in Cairo is the tomb of rabbi and philosopher Moshe ben Maimon [the Rambam], who was Saladin's Jewish physician; and the rabbi and philosopher Saadia Al-Faiyoumi [Saadia Gaon]… was [also] of Egyptian origin and lived in the city of Faiyoum…"[10]      

Muslim Brotherhood Website: Al-Sisi Is Sacrificing The Egyptian People For The Sake Of His Friends, Family and Tribe – The Zionists

Unlike the Egyptian government press, websites of the MB, which opposes the Al-Sisi regime, criticized the decision to renovate the Alexandria synagogue. Over the past year, as the renovation of the synagogue took place, the website of the MB's Freedom and Justice party, a party which is identified with the movement's old guard, posted several reports claiming that the restoration was a waste of public funds at the expense of the destitute Egyptian people.

For example, in March 2019, the website posted a report claiming that social media users were complaining that the project was wasteful and unnecessary.[11] Another report, from November 7, 2019, made similar claims. It stated that the project lavished tens of millions of Egyptian pounds on a community numbering a handful of people, while Egypt's infrastructures suffered ongoing neglect, a fact that became especially noticeable following floods and caused tangible suffering to the common Egyptian citizen.[12]

On December 23, 2019, after the renovation of the synagogue was completed, the MB party website claimed in an article that Egyptians on social media had reacted with rage to a Facebook post by the Israeli embassy in Cairo that had welcomed the tourism minister’s upcoming visit to the synagogue.[13] On January 10, 2020, the day of the opening ceremony, the website posted a sarcastic article titled “The Pandering Campaign of the Synagogue’s Opening: Al-Sisi Gives His Family and Tribe 67 Million Pounds.” The article, whose title hints at the claim made by the  MB that Al-Sisi serves Israel and is even of Jewish origin, stated: “’Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, the leader of the blood-soaked coup [against the MB regime], continues to pander to the Zionists in every domain: in politics, economy, culture and even archeology… The synagogue’s opening ceremony and that media hype surrounding it prove that Al-Sisi is willing to sell Egypt and sacrifice its people for the sake of his Zionist friends, family and tribe, so that they will support his remaining forever in the seat [of power that he won by means of his] blood-soaked coup, and in order to gain the American’s approval by means of the Jewish lobby.”[14]

The website of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera channel, which supports the MB, posted a similar article which claimed that, while the Alexandria synagogue was being opened, Egyptian citizens were demonstrating against the closing of mosques in the country.[15]  

 

[1] Al-Masri Al-Youm (Egypt), January 12, 2020.

[2] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi (Egypt), January 10, 2020.

[3] Misralnharda.com, January 12, 2020.

[4] The term "renewal of the religious discourse" was first coined by 'Adly Mansour, acting president of Egypt (2013–2014) following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in the country. It refers to rectifying the misunderstanding of the meaning of Islamic law in Egyptian society, in order to stop the spread of extremism and terrorism. See MEMRI reports: Inquiry & Analysis No. 1265, Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad, August 16, 2016; Special Dispatch No. 6114, Egyptian Columnists On Al-Sisi Regime's Campaign For 'Renewal Of Religious Discourse' As A Way Of Fighting Terrorism, July 23, 2015; Inquiry & Analysis No. 1326, In Egypt, Clashes Between The Institution Of The Presidency And The Institution Of Al-Azhar, August 21, 2017.

[5] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 12, 2020.

[6] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 11, 2020.

[7] Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 12, 2020.

[8] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 13, 2020.

[9] It should be mentioned that the head of the Jewish community in Egypt, Magda Haroun, attended the ceremony along with some elderly Jewish women.

[10] Al-Wafd (Egypt), January 11, 2020.

[11] Fj-p.com, March 4, 2019.

[12] Fj-p.com, November 7, 2019.

[13] Fj-p.com, December 23, 2019. For the Israeli embassy’s post, see Facebook.com/IsraeliinEgypt, December 23, 2019.

[14] Fj-p.com, January 10, 2020.

[15] Aljazeera.net, January 12, 2020.

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