Ali al-Jifri, the UAE-based preacher has long been a vocal supporter of Egypt’s military dictatorship, despite its mass atrocities.

In the last few days, a Muslim preacher from Yemen who heads up an Abu Dhabi-based think tank has been visiting the UK. Ali al-Jifri, known to his admirers as al-Habib Ali, has visited the UK many times in the past. Why should his arrival on this occasion deserve any special attention? Let me explain.

Over the course of the past decade, I have been carefully studying the actions of scholar-activists in the Middle East, and Ali al-Jifri’s record should raise concerns for observers in Britain, given his unstinting support for Egypt’s military dictatorship and its systematic repression of democratic forces in the country.

Egypt is currently ruled by the autocrat Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 coup in which he violently brought an end to the country’s incipient Islamic democratic experiment. Sisi’s ruthlessness after coming to power has been unprecedented, with likely thousands killed and tens of thousands incarcerated in overcrowded prisons where torture is as systematic as it is dehumanizing.

An Anti-Democratic Preacher

Usaama Al-Azami bookIn my book on the role of Muslim clerics in the Egyptian revolution, I explore arguments for Islamic democratic reform put forward by some clerics, as well as counter-arguments from those who support dictatorship.

Jifri is part of a small coterie of counter-revolutionary clerics who actively participated in the Egyptian revolution and would go on to support the worst kind of authoritarianism in the region — the kind that systematically killed hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy protestors in the streets of Egypt in the summer of 2013, in full view of the international press.

Jifri’s support for the Egyptian coup and its deadly aftermath appears to derive from that of his mentor, the prominent Egyptian cleric, Ali Gomaa. Gomaa forcefully supported the Egyptian military and security forces as they perpetrated mass murder on the streets of Egypt’s capital that summer.

Supporting Mass Murder of Pro-Democracy Protestors

Ali Gomaa’s advocacy for mass murder in the streets of Egypt is somewhat better known, and I deal with it extensively across two chapters and two appendices in my book. While Jifri did not directly advocate for mass-murder at the height of tensions in Egypt in 2013, he resolutely defended his mentor’s actions as entirely justified at the time, as I extensively document in my book.

And these massacres in the summer of 2013 were not ordinary event s— according to some estimates, thousands of peaceful pro-democracy protestors were killed in Egypt that summer. Human Rights Watch’s report on the massacres, entitled All According to Plan, concluded that the mass murder appeared to have been premeditated.

Yet, in the years that followed, Jifri would emerge as one of the Egyptian army’s most vociferous defenders against accusations that it behaved improperly over the course of the Egyptian coup of 2013. He would repeatedly celebrate the army as the protector of the nation over the years, despite its perpetrating mass killings.

Consistent Support for Military Dictatorship

The violence of the massacres perpetrated on the streets of the most populous city in the Middle East continues to reverberate in subsequent years, and Jifri has been nothing if not consistent in his support for the Egyptian security establishment that perpetrated it.

In its aftermath, over several years, the UAE-based Jifri has become one of the Egyptian dictatorship’s most celebrated champions. He has been frequently invited to speak before the military cadres at special events, often with Sisi in attendance, to lionize the Egyptian army and offer religious legitimacy for its actions.

Such engagements have taken place in the context of the army’s propaganda war, legitimating the absolute rule of General-turned-President-for-Life El-Sisi. While far from exhaustive, below are some examples of Jifri’s expressions of support for the Egyptian military, President Sisi, and their actions.

As I note in my book, immediately after the Egyptian coup and subsequent massacres, after it emerged that Jifri’s mentor, Ali Gomaa, had encouraged the Egyptian army to massacre pro-democracy protestors on the largely baseless pretext of their being armed, Jifri would offer his wholehearted support for Gomaa’s stance.

By early 2015, President Sisi was praising Jifri in publicly broadcasted military events. Jifri would be repeatedly invited to offer religious legitimacy and prayers for the army and Sisi in subsequent years. He was invited to give such addresses in 2017 and 2018.

“Crimes Against Humanity”

Ali Al-Jifri, apologist for dictatorsIt was in February 2015 that Jifri began systematically addressing the events of the 2013 Egyptian coup in his TV interviews. One might have expected him to draw on the meticulously researched and definitive report on the post-coup massacres by Human Rights Watch published some months before Jifri’s first public discussions of these subjects. It is clear, however, that this report could not fit into Jifri’s narrative of unconditional fealty to the Egyptian army and military state.

The reports findings had been damning, concluding in August 2014 that the Egyptian army had likely perpetrated crimes against humanity:

The systematic and widespread nature of the deliberate and indiscriminate killings, coupled with evidence indicating that the government anticipated and planned to engage in mass unlawful killings, i.e. murder, and that they fit into a consistent pattern of protester killings, indicate that the violations likely amount to crimes against humanity.

Six months after Human Rights Watch published its report, Jifri was on Egyptian television declaring his unshakeable commitment to the Egyptian army and state. Part of his defense of the Egyptian army and his criticism of democratic revolution came in the form of attacking democracy as Islamically questionable.

The “Dangers” of Democracy

This hostility to democracy was repeated by Jifri on more than one occasion. For example, he defended his closeness to the Sisi regime and the Egyptian army in a heated exchange with BBC Arabic in early 2018. Here too, his defense was grounded in his opposition to democracy which he portrayed as a threat to the state’s survival. He also asserted that Iraq had been destroyed in 2003 in the name of democracy.

Perhaps most notable in his 2015 pronouncements, however, was his recapitulation of allegations made about his mentor Ali Gomaa, concerning the latter’s support for the massacre of hundreds if not thousands of protestors. He attempted to rebut these allegations with the argument that Gomaa’s statements had been misrepresented.

As my own extensive research of Gomaa’s public statements from the time demonstrate, however, it is in fact Jifri who is engaged in misrepresenting his mentor’s deadly advocacy for mass murder in a remarkably audacious manner. In order for Jifri’s claims to be true, one would have to exclusively adopt the narrative of the Egyptian army and security state concerning the massacres of 2013.

Independent observers, including the likes of the New York Times which had correspondents inside the largest massacre as it took place, as well as the scrupulously documented publicly accessible report of Human Rights Watch, were all simply fabrications designed to undermine Egypt according to this state-backed narrative.

The Opposite of a Warm Welcome

Yet, this would be the narrative that Jifri would repeat year after year, including on trips to the UK made in the mid-2010s when his own backing for the Egyptian military dictatorship was relatively unknown. Today, British hosts of Jifri have little to no excuse to invite such an apologist for mass murderers to the British Isles.

It is unclear exactly who is organizing his trip to the UK to teach certain classical texts on Islamic ethics, but his consistent support for mass murderers would seem to preclude his being a moral exemplar for anybody.

British Muslims who might be awaiting his arrival would do well to ask him to reconsider his deeply unethical stances rather than place him on a pedestal as any kind of religious or moral authority. However they receive him, they should make clear that anti-democratic defenders of mass murderers are far from welcome in Britain’s Muslim community.


Related Reading:

7 Stories From Egypt Massacre That Will Break Your Heart

7 Stories From Egypt Massacre That Will Break Your Heart

Egypt’s Bloody Coup and Massacre: Struggle for Media Narrative and the Christian Copts as Pawns

Egypt’s Bloody Coup and Massacre: Struggle for Media Narrative and the Christian Copts as Pawns