The grand imam of Al-Azhar will not drop his libel case against Al-Fagr
, reports Reem Leila
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi has refused to drop his libel suit against Adel Hammouda, the editor- in-chief of the independent weekly Al-Fagr, and staff journalist Mohamed El-Baz.
On the front page of its 17 March 2007 edition, Al-Fagr published a doctored photograph of Tantawi wearing Papal garb, with a cross hanging at his breast, accompanied by a story headlined "Don't visit the pope who insulted the prophet, grand sheikh of the Vatican". Tantawi had then received an invitation to visit the Vatican.
The ongoing court hearings recently adjourned until 11 October. Tantawi accuses the paper of "intentionally insulting" him and has asked for both journalists to be imprisoned.
In a press release issued by Al-Azhar, Tantawi stated that those responsible for the humiliating image had no right to call themselves journalists.
"I trust Egypt's judicial system which is why I have taken the matter to the courts," said Tantawi.
Hammouda insists no insult was intended and that the image and story were no more than the vehicle for expression of his opinion that Tantawi should not visit the Vatican after Pope Benedict XVI had made remarks that he believed insulted Islam.
Hammouda had requested that a delegation headed by Press Syndicate Chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed visit Tantawi and ask him to drop the court case in return for the publication of a formal apology. A 13-member delegation was duly dispatched but failed to persuade Tantawi to drop his legal action.
"The Press Syndicate delegation was trying to resolve the matter peacefully. We fear that Tantawi's stern attitude might undermine the syndicate's ongoing battle against imprisoning journalists," says Ahmed.
In May 2007 the Washington- based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Egypt as having one of the world's worst records on press freedom. Arrests, detainment and imprisonment of Internet bloggers, newspaper editors and journalists, often following cases of libel and defamation, have become increasingly common.
"It is very difficult for us to see the grand imam appearing in court after filing a lawsuit against journalists, thus becoming the direct cause for them to be jailed," says Ahmed.
If the court issues a custodial sentence the Press Syndicate will not be able to appeal. "All I could do then for Hammouda and El-Baz would be to plead with Egypt's prosecutor- general and other concerned authorities to interfere though I doubt any positive results from such an attempt," says Ahmed. He has already promised Tantawi that he will set up a committee to examine Hammouda and El-Baz's actions and impose disciplinary action accordingly. "The committee would consist of a judge from the State Supreme Council [SSC] and a number of prominent journalists. Unfortunately Tantawi has rejected all our offers and insists on resorting to the courts."
Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, argues that while Islamic and Christian symbols must be respected Islam does not prohibit criticism though it urges critics to be objective and not humiliate people.
"Hammouda and El-Baz committed a hideous act. Yet still the grand imam should have been more tolerant and broadminded. A man in such a sensitive post as Tantawi cannot be impatient... Tantawi should be more forgiving. To forgive when you are strong and capable of punishing is a great trait. As Islam indicates, all people have sins and if they want God to forgive them they should first forgive those who have wronged them."
Hammouda and El-Baz's campaign, say some commentators, may well have helped convince the grand sheikh to turn down the Vatican invitation, thus avoiding a potentially embarrassing encounter. As head of the Vatican Pope Benedict XVI is ranked as a state president while the grand sheikh's rank is equivalent to that of a prime minister. Under current protocol, says Mustafa El-Feki, head of the People's Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee, the pope usually greets his visitors while seated, which could mean that the grand sheikh would find himself obliged to bow to the pope. "It would be improper for the grand sheikh to bow to him especially after he insulted Islam in his speeches," notes El-Feki.
Last year Tantawi issued a fatwa saying that journalists who promote false information and help spread rumours should receive 80 lashes. Tantawi's ruling was published as the editors of four independent newspapers -- Hammouda among them -- were accused of spreading false information concerning the health of President Hosni Mubarak.