Muslim Mickey Mouse Tweet by Christian Billionaire Sparks Controversy

Telecom mogul and Egypt’s richest man, Naguib Sawiris, has found himself in political hot water over a controversial image he recently shared on Twitter. Sawiris tweeted an image of Disney’s Mickey Mouse sporting a thick black beard next to an image of Minnie wearing a niqab, or full face veil.

The image was removed almost instantly followed by a tweet: “I apologize for those who don’t take this as a joke; I just thought it was a funny picture; no disrespect meant. I am sorry” to his 65,000 followers. Sawiris is one of Egypt’s most prominent Coptic Christians and the founder of the new, liberal Free Egyptians Party (FEP).

In recent weeks, the altered Mickey and Minnie image had been widely circulated. An email with the title “This is the future of Egypt” had been bouncing around Cairo’s inboxes prior to its use by Sawiris. Kim Fox, a journalism professor at the American University of Cairo, believes that the uproar should be viewed in the context of ongoing sectarian tensions in Egypt: “This time what was different was who sent the tweet. It was the messenger, not the message, that was important.”

This isn’t the first time Sawiris has created controversy amongst Egypt’s largely Muslim population. In 2007, he made a controversial statement involving Muslim women’s clothing. “I am not against the headscarf because then I would be against personal freedoms,” he told a room of journalists. “But when I walk in the street now I feel like I am in Iran… I feel like a stranger.”

The current snafu could not come at a more tense moment in Copt-Muslim relations. Egypt has witnessed increased tensions between Copts and Muslims over the past year, including last month’s clashes around churches in Cairo and last weekend’s violence in Upper Egypt. Two Muslims have been arrested for allegedly robbing and setting fire to eight Coptic homes, while two Copts were arrested for allegedly shooting Muslims. Many of the stolen articles were later re-acquired due to the intervention of other Muslims in the area.

Of Mice and Salafis

Coupled with his vast fortune, Sawiris’ Coptic faith has long made him a controversial figure in Egypt. As founder of the secular FEP, he has become a key target of Salafi groups whose leaders compete to see who will take the most hardline response to the tweet. In a recent television appearance, Salafi leader Mazen el-Sersawi challenged Sawiris to put up an image of Mickey Mouse as a Christian monk or nun if his tweet were simply meant as a joke. Assem Abdel Maged, leader of the Salafi group Gama’a al-Islamiyya (which fought an armed insurgency against Mubarak in the 1990s) told the newspaper Al-Dostour that he had organized a Facebook boycott of all products associated with Sawiris.

Not to be outdone, Mamdouh Ismail has apparently filed a lawsuit against the billionaire. Ismail is the chairman of the new Nahda (Renaissance) Party, though this Salafi group has yet to be accredited by the Egyptian government. By taking on Egypt’s most prominent Copt, Ismail might be seeking to distance his proposed party from Al-Nur Party which was approved by the government just this month. The Alexandria-based Al-Nur Party has followed the lead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party by including several Copts within its ranks. In general, Salafi groups take a more conservative line on sectarian, social, and religious issues than the Muslim Brotherhood.

Writer and economist Mohamed El Dahshan, typically a strong critic of Naguib Sawiris, wrote a post on his blog defending Sawiris’ tweet. El Dahshan believes this would be a non-issue were Sawiris a Muslim: “Politically, certain Salafi groups are after his scalp,” he told RD. In a post entitled “Of Mice and Salafis” El Dashan wrote: “Bottom line is, the Salafis of the Mamdouh Ismail variety are trying to score electoral points by showing themselves as the defenders of Islam.”

El Dahshan further criticized the Salafi reaction with a story from the early Islamic period:

A non-believer would put trash on Prophet Muhammad’s doorstep every morning; the Prophet would just push it aside and go on his way. One morning, there was no trash to be found; after inquiry, the Prophet was informed that the man was gravely ill. So he went to visit him and wish[ed] him a speedy recovery. This is how the Salaf—the early Muslims—would behave when they were insulted. Those early Muslims would be ashamed of today’s ‘Salafis’ who claim to be following in the early Muslims’ footsteps. 

A member of the Egyptian telecom industry who spoke on condition of anonymity was also critical of the uproar surrounding the tweet:

There is a huge double standard here. A few years ago many of these same people were promoting the Fulla doll. They wanted a Muslim version of Barbie and now they don’t want a Muslim version of Minnie and Mickey Mouse? These Salafi groups want all women to wear the veil. So why don’t they start with Minnie Mouse?

Mickey Mouse Operations

The Sawiris controversy has been far overshadowed in the Egyptian media by violent clashes in Tahrir Square over the past two days.

Just today, Sawiris challenged the depth of the outrage over the image, retweeting a message from mnabih123: “Just wondering why most Sawiris Disney attacks coming from Twitter accounts with zero followers and only one message?”

Despite reports to the contrary, it is far from clear that the slight drop in share prices of the Sawaris-owned Mobinil and Orascom were in anyway linked to the controversy. The slight drop are just as likely due to the violent clashes on Tahrir Square and to the index’s June sluggishness. Of the 183 companies listed on the Egyptian Exchange, only 6 stocks gained on Wednesday.

All tweets considered, Naguib Sawiris would rather focus on other political issues and the race to form coalitions in run-up to the fall elections. His FEP is courting other liberal parties, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is crafting a political alliance with Wafd (Egypt’s traditional liberal party) and several established leftist parties. Neither proposed coalition would include Salafi groups.