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Egypt training opinion leaders as soldiers to fight 'fake' data

The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments is holding courses to teach imams, preachers and other influential leaders how to recognize and confront foreign misinformation — but some argue the plan is actually aimed at imposing the regime's view on citizens.

CAIRO — Egypt is now targeting clergymen and imams as part of its continued efforts to combat information warfare. On Feb. 4, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments started training sessions for imams and preachers on combating foreign conspiracies and confronting information warfare. Egyptian judges and other judicial officials were ordered to enroll in training sessions on strategic and national security in early November.

In turn, the media is mobilizing citizens by reporting alleged conspiracy theories and information warfare.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made numerous speeches on security and warned more than once of Western countries conspiring against Egypt. He also talks of some internal enemies that he describes as “forces of evil.” Many political observers believe Sisi uses this expression to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sheikh Hani al-Masri, one of the imams affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Endowments, attended the training session held by Al-Nour Mosque's ministry in western Cairo. He said this type of training raises awareness about the dangers of misusing information. “Future wars are information wars,” Masri told Al-Monitor.

He said the training was held five hours a day for seven days. Trainees were also able to present their ideas and projects for countering cyberwarfare and developing potential ways to reduce data leaks. The training also focused on the need to confront cyberwars with knowledge and education.

“The training highlighted the role of imams and mosque preachers in raising the citizens' awareness about the seriousness of talking with strangers about political matters, especially foreigners. It urged imams to use their Friday sermons to promote the role of the armed forces and police in confronting [disinformation] from the West about Egypt and in countering conspiracy attempts aimed at dismantling the state.”

The training will be held regularly to include the largest number of imams, who will be selected by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Lectures are being given by professors and experts in national security and information warfare, most notably Maj. Gen. Jamal Hawash and Maj. Gen. Muhammad Hosni Azab from the Nasser Higher Military Academy.

A well-informed source at the Ministry of Religious Endowments stressed the importance of these courses, as they aim to detect potential plots against Egypt. “Conspiracies can be clearly detected,” the source said. “Some conspiracies aim to dismantle and destroy the state, while others are related to religion in general and Islam in particular.”

In a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, the source said training exercises are being held for most state political leaders and other people in influential and sensitive positions. Imams and preachers influence a large segment of society. "They can raise society’s awareness and influence public opinion in support of the state and its objectives to defeat conspiracies woven by Western countries against our country,” he said.

The source added, “Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments called on the state to impose this training on their staff, especially members in leadership positions. To this end, after a year of coordination efforts, these two institutions signed on Jan. 1 a cooperation protocol with the Nasser Higher Military Academy and Cairo University.”

The ways to combat information warfare, according to the source, include communication skills. A public speaker, such as an imam or a preacher, must be well-trained to deal with the media and must know exactly what to say and when to speak. “This would curb the spread of false information or rumors that may harm the image of the institution and the state as a whole,” he noted.

“Several imams and preachers were arrested and are being investigated on charges of spreading false information that harm the religious establishment in Egypt. Sheikh Salem Abdul Jalil and Sheikh Abdullah Rushdy were investigated and banned from giving sermons. The two had made statements inciting sectarian strife,” the source continued. “This comes as part of the efforts … to keep preachers from being hired by or falling prey to ignorant people who lack the legal knowledge to issue edicts in matters of religion.”

However, Ahmad Saad, a scholar of religious thought, believes the training courses are an attempt to dominate religious thought by imposing the ideas of the regime on the clergy, who then pass them on to the citizens.

Saad told Al-Monitor that this is carried out directly and indirectly. He said media outlets work to impose a specific vision on the public and entrench ideas in the minds of opinion leaders such as imams and preachers. “This is especially true in Upper Egypt and the poorest and most deprived areas, where citizens, burdened by daily life responsibilities, find salvation in religion,” he said.

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