A rise in superstition in Egypt?

Sherif Tarek , Friday 26 Feb 2016

A focus by the media and officials on exorcism and sorcery may be contributing to the prevalence of superstitious beliefs in Egypt

One of the houses that were hit by an outbreak of mysterious fires in Sharqiya governorate's Manasafor Village, where locals insisted it was jinn that had ignited the flames. (Photo: Al-Ahram)

A Zamalek dressing room worker recently captured the country's attention when he splashed water on the ground ahead of his side's contingent as they entered Borg El-Arab Stadium to take on Ahly in February's Cairo Derby.

Commenting on the brief, inexplicable scene caught on camera, football pundit Taha Ismail said on ONTV that "there are thoughts that this water would neutralise magic."

"They may think that when they [the players] step onto this ground, something will happen to them, so they splash water before they pass."

With Ismail's explanation, many immediately linked the incident to Zamalek president Mortada Mansour, who did not explicitly confirm the act as an anti-magic measure, but had on several occasions referred to how spells and sorcery can be factors affecting football results.

Such statements have occasionally been uttered in the Egyptian football world, yet the water splashing scene was Egypt's first televised football incident where superstitious beliefs were not just expressed verbally, but actually translated into action.

"I can only blame the media for focusing on incidents like that of the match," said political sociologist Saeed Sadek, who believes that the media has been playing a major role recently in cementing superstitious notions in Egypt.

"We cannot confirm if there is a notable rise in superstition in Egypt, but what is beyond doubt is that these subcultures are nurtured by a robust media focus."


It has been fairly common over the past two years for Egypt's mainstream media to discuss possession, spells and sorcery, even displaying acts and events supposedly related to such superstitions.

Sadek stressed that such material is "mind numbing and distracting viewers from topics that really matter."

However, he said that this is what most appeals to the average viewer.

"It is estimated that 60 percent of the youth in Egypt are juggling two jobs. Most people return home at night wanting to watch something entertaining," Sadek opined.

"They normally would not have a mind for serious topics by the end of a long day."

"Sex and superstition are the most commercial material, and that makes things like [a show presented by] Reham Saeed watchable and appealing."

TV presenter Reham Saeed shot an episode in 2014 about a possessed family who allegedly beat each other regularly.

Even though the episode created a fuss, different media outlets have increasingly ridden the possession and exorcism wave, a trend that is still popular nowadays.

In one case last January, TV host Amr El-Leithy hosted Ezzat Ibrahim, a self-proclaimed sheikh who claimed to boast extraordinary abilities that enable him to detect and deactivate magic spells and other effects related to jinn possession and the supernatural influence of envy.

Using incense, Ibrahim "diagnosed" one of the programme staffers in a live session, saying she was neither possessed nor cursed, but was envied.

Such sensational material is more appealing these days in Egypt because most people are fed up with politics following the country's state of flux over the past years, according Hassan Mekkawy, former dean of Cairo University's Mass Communication Faculty.

"Thus, talk shows are trying to win back viewers with topics such as adultery, homosexuality, jinn and magic," Mekkawy said.

He added that until there is a law that regulates the media, there will be no control whatsoever over the calibre of content produced by different outlets.

"Without a solid system to regulate working in the media, anyone who is not qualified to work in the field, such as ex-footballers in sports programmes, would still find a job as a reporter or a TV host," explained Mekkawy.

"They would still present whatever material they want while the state does absolutely nothing about it."

The state and the "haunted village"

The "passiveness" of the state regarding the spread of superstition is obvious, says Sadek, pointing to the way officials dealt with a village where buildings were mysteriously catching fire.

Manasafor	 - Inner
Walls and a ceiling turned coal black as a result of one of the mysterious fires that recently hit Manasafor Village, which was said to be haunted. (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Manasafor Village, located in the Nile Delta's Sharqiya governorate, saw an outbreak of fires that mostly hit residential buildings and lasted for weeks until early January.

Speaking to different media outlets, petrified locals insisted it was jinn that had ignited the flames.

"Did we have a proper investigation into this? No we did not. The state did not provide a scientific clarification for that phenomenon," Sadek said.

Promising to put an end to it, Alaa Hassanein, an ex-MP who has long claimed to have the ability to keep the underworld creatures at bay, confirmed that the village was "haunted."

Although official clerics accused him of being a fraud, Hassanein was reportedly escorted to the village by current MP Mostafa Bakry and other parliamentarians from Sharqiya, responding to the beleaguered village's residents who pleaded with him and the state to intervene. 

The alleged jinn flames stopped following the visit, with police and fire-fighters providing no explanations.

"There must be a scientific explanation for these occurrences, a chemical reaction or something, but there is no will or means to find out. We did not see a contemporary approach in dealing with these fires to prove citizens' superstitious beliefs wrong," Sadek said.

Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, had actually acted in accordance with the popular belief that reciting verses from the Quran acts as protection against harm from jinn, according to Manasafor residents.

"They sent clerics to the village to recite Quran, which means they believed it was jinn," said Mohamed Osman, one of the locals. "What else would it be?"

"But we were surprised when we saw on TV that Al-Azhar's official stance was to deny these were jinn flames," he added, referring to the official position of the institution, which was also adopted by clerics from the Ministry of Endowments.

Regardless of official statements, the state is "radical" at its core, Sadek thinks.

"For instance, those who talked publicly about 'breastfeeding adults' were left untouched, while someone like Islamic researcher Islam Beheiry was thrown in jail for expressing views that are different than what is commonly accepted," Sadek said.

Egypt's ex-grand mufti Ali Gomaa provided in 2015 an interpretation of a saying in the Hadith, the teachings of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, stipulating that a man needs to drink a woman's breast milk in order to non-sinfully be around her, a rule that does not apply to a few women such as a man's mother and sister.

"The state does not seek to increase awareness or curb faulty or out-of-place notions, but rather acts pursuant to its own preference."

Dominant subcultures

Sadek says that normally in the Arab world, unlike in the West where science and rationality primarily rule, religious beliefs and superstitions are endemic.

"There are always small pockets of people who would usually go against mainstream superstitions and treat such beliefs with ridicule, but that does not mean there isn't a great segment of Egyptian society that is superstitious or has twisted religious beliefs."

Events related to superstitions usually stir up a considerable amount of ridicule in Egypt, especially on social media.

The last widely-derided incident involved Minya governor Tarek Nasr, when a hen farm manager in the Upper Egyptian governorate gave him an egg that the latter claimed had the Islamic name of God, Allah, emblazoned on it in Arabic.

Nasr, who appeared in photos with the egg, was quoted by local press last week as saying it is "a representation of the mighty God."

A photo circulated on social media of an egg that people believed the Islamic name of God, Allah, was emblazoned on it in Arabic.

As a general rule, economic and political conditions contribute to the spread of superstition and making it dominant, modern history professor Wageeh Abdel-Sadek believes.

"When there is stagnation, unemployment, economic crunches and ignorance, people become more desperate and more likely to adopt such beliefs, unlike in countries that see prosperity and development," Abdel-Sadek said.

"This is not only in Egypt or the Middle East, it is the normal result you get from bad conditions anywhere, including Europe, which saw the sale of indulgences in the middle ages."

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