CAIRO – Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood staged an anti-Israel rally in Cairo on Friday, the first such protest by the main backers of President Mohammed Morsi since they rose to prominence in the wake of the country's 2011 uprising.
Emerging from weekly services at Al-Azhar mosque — the centuries-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning — demonstrators chanted "the people want the destruction of Israel" in protest of recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria and the detention of a Palestinian Muslim cleric.
At one point, leading Brotherhood member Mohammed el-Beltagy took the microphone and shouted: "we will repeat it over and over, Israel is our enemy." Others echoed the call, and one organizer whipped up the crowd in a chant urging the army to launch a war against Israel to "liberate Palestine ... from the sons of monkeys and pigs."
Since the revolt that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood — known for its anti-Israeli and anti-Western rhetoric — has largely avoided showing enmity to the West or its former foe on its eastern border.
Morsi himself has repeatedly stressed commitment to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, and won U.S. praise by brokering a cease-fire between Palestinian Hamas militants and the Jewish state just months after he assumed his post.
But both the Islamist president and his group have had a hard time melding their longtime anti-Jewish stance with new responsibilities since coming to power.
Earlier this year, Brotherhood heavyweight Essam el-Erian created a stir after calling on Egyptian Jews who fled the country to return, in what many saw as a sort of outreach to Israel. Shortly after the remarks however, an Egyptian TV program revealed older comments by Morsi, in which he described Jews as "bloodsuckers" and "pigs."
The revelations raised alarm among senior U.S. officials and reminded Washington of the Brotherhood's anti-American and anti-Israeli roots — a stance some fear the group could easily slide back into should it find it useful or necessary.
Morsi later distanced himself from the comments, saying he was quoted out of context and that he respects all religions. Such remarks are not uncommon in Egypt, where anti-Israeli, not anti-Jewish, sentiment is profound across the political spectrum.
The Friday protest centered on Israeli airstrikes in Syria that targeted alleged shipments of advanced Iranian missiles thought to be bound for Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Brotherhood official Yasser Mehres said.
The demonstrators were also protesting the Israeli detention of the mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, Mehres added in comments in the official newspaper of the Brotherhood's political party, Freedom and Justice. Hussein was held for several hours on Wednesday for questioning over disturbances at a holy site but released without charge.
The rally comes a day after Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Muslim cleric and Brotherhood ally, crossed to the Palestinian Gaza Strip to join a rally held by Hamas. At the rally, al-Qaradawi voiced support for militants who fire rockets at Israel and said the country has no right to exist.