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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Lebanon Was Already in Turmoil. Then Came the Blast.

Joseph Kassab

The massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Monday evening has left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and more than 300,000 displaced from their homes.

Millions around the world watched in horror as the detonation of 2,750 tons of confiscated ammonium nitrate laid waste to the Mediterranean port and surrounding neighborhoods. The equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake was felt deep into the coastal mountains of Lebanon and as far away as Cyprus.

The images of destruction reminded many of the small Middle Eastern nation’s 15-year civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

Christianity Today spoke with Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. Based in Beirut but born in Aleppo, Syria, Kassab reflected on the damage suffered in Christian neighborhoods, early efforts to assist the suffering, and hope for what this tragedy might produce in the Lebanese church.

These are very difficult days in Lebanon. What happened, and how bad is it?

It is very bad. I’ve been in Lebanon since 1984, experiencing the civil war. This is the first time that one single explosion caused such damage. People were terrified.

Until now, there is no agreement on the explanation, with many speaking according to their political point of view. Some say it was an electrical problem. Some say it was arson. Others assure that they heard jet fighters. We have to wait, hoping that the coming days will provide an answer.

This explosion destroyed so much of Beirut, across sectarian lines. What is the impact on the Christian community? The areas nearest the port in East Beirut are primarily Christian neighborhoods, and generally…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on August 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christian Century Middle East Published Articles

16 Beirut Ministries Respond to Lebanon Explosion

(Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)

One hour later at work, and Sarah Chetti might have been one of thousands in a Beirut hospital.

Director of the INSAAF migrant worker ministry in Lebanon, Chetti’s colleagues described shards of broken glass flying through the air, and the metal frames of doors ripped from their hinges.

It was a similar experience for the one staff member inside the Youth for Christ youth center not far from the blast. To avoid the “colossal damage,” he ducked to the floor. Re-welding was necessary just to lock up the next day.

Peter Ford was fortunate. Working quietly in his faculty office at the Near East School of Theology near downtown Beirut, the first small reverberations stirred his curiosity to investigate the problem.

Moments later, the huge blast blew in his window and spewed the glass across his desk.

Miraculously, the dozen evangelical churches and ministries in Lebanon contacted by CT reported no deaths and few serious injuries caused by the massive explosion. The official national tally is now over 100 dead, with over 5,000 injured.

If they had, there would be nowhere for the bodies to go.

Habib Badr of the historic National Evangelical Church was forced to conduct the burial of two elderly members (whose deaths were unrelated to the explosion) as Beirut’s hospitals and morgues were all full.

Two Filipinos, however, were killed in the blast. And amid the ongoing economic suffering of Lebanon, several migrant domestic workers have been abandoned by families no longer able to pay for their services.

“They are distraught, worried, and scared,” said Chetti. “Problems are piling up one after the other. I’m reaching out to each one individually and praying for them, assuring them things will be okay.”

But migrants are not the only foreigners who are suffering.

“Many of our youth are Syrian refugees, so this is churning up all that stuff for them,” said Scot Keranen, director of operations for Youth for Christ. “We’re just checking in on them, and that is really tough right now.” Lebanese trauma goes further back in history. But this explosion was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christian Century Middle East Published Articles

Hagia Sophia’s Muslim Prayers Evoke Ottoman Treatment of Armenians

Via Turkish Presidency

Declared a mosque in principle, Hagia Sophia is now a mosque in practice.

Following his decree earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s joined a coronavirus-limited 500 worshipers to perform Friday prayers in the sixth-century Byzantine basilica, underneath the covered frescoes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Hundreds more gathered outside.

International condemnation resounded after the Turkish Council of State ruled to revert the UNESCO World Heritage Site back to its Islamic status. Conquered in 1453 by Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, the massive church was turned into a museum by the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kamal Ataturk, in 1934.

Underreported in much of the criticism was a wider complaint.

“The action of the Turkish government evokes heavy memories on the desecration and destruction of holy sites of the Armenian people and other Christian nations by the Ottoman government for centuries,” said Garegin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

There are an estimated 11 million Armenians worldwide, including 3 million in their modern nation-state.

Representing the diaspora from the Holy See of Cilicia, in Lebanon, Catholicos Aram I went into more detail.

“Soon after the Armenian Genocide, Turkey confiscated thousands of Armenian churches and transformed them into bars, coffee shops, and public parks,” he said, “ignoring the reactions and appeals of the international community.”

As Erdoğan is doing again now—and not just to the Hagia Sophia.

Turkey has assured the frescoes will be uncovered for all visitors (3.7 million last year) outside of prayer times—and now without a museum entry fee. More than 400 other churches continue to serve the 1 percent of Turks that are Christians.

But Erdoğan’s remarks in Turkish revealed a wider agenda. “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the sound of Muslims’ footsteps…”

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on July 24, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Egyptian Christians Face the Future Under New Islamist Law

Face the Future

From my new article on Christianity Today, published December 28, 2012:

Egyptian Christians spent this year’s Advent season awaiting more than the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Christmas Day dawned with Copts still processing the rushed passage of a new Islamist-backed constitution and its implications.

Days before voting began on the hastily completed charter—which, despite only 33 percent turnout and accusations of fraud, passed December 25 with 64 percent of the vote—more than 10,000 Christians gathered at an interdenominational prayer vigil in Cairo’s famous “Cave Church.”

Please click here and here for more information about this prayer gathering. But the article continues:

“Morsi has not kept his promises to be a president for all Egyptians when he had a chance to do so, and he is losing credibility,” said Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt. “When the leader is not working for consensus, it makes it very hard for anyone else to do so.”

Yet Atallah still advises Christians to remain politically active while grounding their expectations in the necessary dual perspective of Christianity.

“We must be good citizens,” he said. “This panic is not justified in our faith, even if it may be justified in terms of politics.

And here is a section on liberal ‘hope’ for political reversal in the midst of anticipated economic difficulty:

But as liberals have consistently failed to win at the polls, some place a morose hope in Egypt’s expected financial difficulties to aid their parliamentary campaign.

“There is an economic disaster coming,” said Michael Nabil, an Egyptian accountant. Since the revolution, Egypt has lost more than half of its foreign currency reserve fighting inflation and devaluation. “This will affect the situation negatively for the Muslim Brotherhood and give the opposition more credibility,” he said.

I had hoped to write this week’s Friday Prayers for Egypt about the economy, but was unable to. Perhaps after the climax of the constitution nothing this week seemed so urgent for prayer. That is not true, of course, but like many in Egypt, I feel somewhat drained, and this week was a week of recovery. Western Christmas celebrations helped.

The main issue for the prayers would have been the feared coming economic collapse. It may well happen, but is also tinged with manipulative rumors that seem almost designed to produce a panic.

Finally, a quote on what seems a very proper perspective for Egyptian Christians:

“There is no connection to political stability and the success of the gospel,” said Atallah. “In fact, the opposite might be true: People depend more on God in difficult times.”Maybe God will use the Muslim Brotherhood to do his will in Egypt, even if we don’t want them to be in charge,” he said.

Please click here to read the entire article on Christianity Today.

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Salafis, Muslim Youth Protest anti-Muhammad Film at US Embassy

To mark September 11, Muslims in Egypt stormed the US Embassy.

Actually, it is not that simple. Certain Copts resident in America produced an amateur film purporting to expose the frails and falsities of Muhammad, and advertised its release for September 11. Word carried back to Egypt, of course, prompting protest from religious institutions, Muslim and Christian alike. Salafi Muslims in particular called for a protest at the US Embassy, and they were joined by hardcore soccer fans in denouncing the film as well as the US government for allowing it to be made. The US Embassy, for its part, issued an official condemnation, calling the effort an abuse of freedom of expression.

Several thousand Egyptians gathered at the entrance of the embassy, falling into roughly two categories. While it was clear all participated, bearded Salafi Muslims largely stood peacefully, while the soccer youth led vociferous, and playful, chants. It was the latter which scaled the walls of the embassy, pulled down the US flag, and burned it.

Later, they also draped a black Islamic flag over the signage of the embassy, above its entrance. These flags were in abundance and resemble the standard used by al-Qaeda. It is al-Qaeda, however, which appropriated the black flag from earlier in Islamic history, which was used in Muhammad’s campaigns. It bears the Islamic creed: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his apostle. Its use at this rally does not imply the presence of al-Qaeda.

I did not witness the US flag being desecrated, but Egyptian security was present in abundance and permitted the action. I was told that the Islamic contingent of the protest calmed the youth and did not permit a more serious storming of embassy grounds, if this was even intended. Security seemed to rely on these Islamists to make certain things did not get out of hand.

The atmosphere was charged, but calm and peaceful. Even so, offensive chants were issued and questionable signs displayed. Foreign Copts were called ‘pigs’, and the Jews were warned about the soon return of Muhammad’s army. One sign declared, ‘We are all bin Laden, you (Coptic) dogs of the diaspora,’ another celebrated the heroes of September 11, asking God’s mercy upon them. Please click here for a brief video of the protest, and pictures follow below.

I would not say this demonstration was representative of Egyptian society; several thousand people are a small scale protest. Yet dangerous ideas are afloat and society is yet in an unstable transition. I felt somewhat uncomfortable in their midst and kept a low profile, yet spoke with some and suffered no ill reception. Afterwards I spoke at length with some Islamists there I know well, and hope to convey their thoughts in a separate post, perhaps tomorrow.

Such is Egypt these days, for better or for worse. May God bless them.

Black flag draped over US Embassy sign

Youth Leading Chants

Translation of graffiti: Muhammad is God’s Apostle

Protest banner

Some signs were in English for foreign understanding

Calling for Egyptian nationality to be revoked from foreign Copts

Some Copts were present in solidarity with offended Muslims

Translation: We are All bin Laden; continues underneath, You (Coptic) Dogs of the Diaspora

Translation: God have Mercy on the Heroes of September 11

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Middle East

Erdogan in Egypt: Teenage Turkey Tests Her Limits

Erdogan with his image of prominence, popularity

I had the opportunity to witness the keynote address of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 13. Beginning a tour of Arab Spring nations, he met with military, political, and business leaders in Cairo, and then spoke generally to the nation from the historic Opera House, in a session hosted by Cairo University. The following are a few highlights from his speech, concluding with some personal observations:

  • For a lecture scheduled to begin at 4pm, Erdogan began speaking at 6:45pm. Attendees had been asked to arrive no later than 3pm for security.
  • The audience chanted continually during the speech, lauding Erdogan for his regional politics.
  • Erdogan praised Egypt and her revolution, as well as historic Egyptian-Turkish ‘sisterhood’.
  • A devout Muslim, Erdogan laced his speech with Quranic references, though in a different setting he praised the virtues of a ‘secular’ state which values religion.
  • He believed the spirit of liberation in the Arab world was spreading to America and Europe to sensitize the whole world against injustice.
  • Turkey and the Arab world will dismiss orientalist myths that the region cannot support democracy or strong economies.
  • In a nod to protestor concerns and as a prod to military leadership, Erdogan stated the coming elections should be held according to a set schedule.
  • Erdogan highlighted the dramatic increase in trade between Turkey and Egypt, and pledged it would only increase further in the future.
  • He declared that Egypt is Turkey’s key to Africa, just as Turkey is Egypt’s key to Europe.
  • Erdogan spoke of his efforts to get Syrian President Assad to reform, but stated he can no longer trust him in his pledges.
  • Alarmingly and surprisingly, Erdogan predicted that Syria will now face sectarian problems, which are played upon by foreign forces.
  • He stated that the illegitimate policies of Israel are the biggest obstacle to peace in the region, especially in her disregard for international law.
  • Erdogan prompted the greatest applause when he reiterated Turkey’s diplomatic efforts against Israel will continue until an apology is received for Turkish deaths aboard last year’s flotilla.
  • He also condemned as illegitimate the deaths of Egyptian officers in an Israeli raid across the Sinai border; he also offered his condolences to their families.
  • He expressed hope the Israeli people would realize their settlements are illegitimate, and that they are leading the nation into difficulties.
  • Erdogan pledged to hold Israeli leaders accountable while expressing he bore no ill will against the Israeli citizen, who like all must be respected on account of their creator.
  • He promised to always stand side by side with Palestine, hoping for an independent state in the framework of the United Nations.
  • Erdogan counseled the United States to reconsider its stance toward Palestinian statehood, to better accord with traditional concerns of justice in American foreign policy.
  • He believed Fatah and Hamas needed to keep from being divided and to love each other.
  • Erdogan predicted the Egyptian economy would rebound after elections, and promised that Turkey would stand by Egypt’s side forever.
  • Erdogan closed by announcing he cannot forget, and will never forget, what was accomplished in Tahrir Square.

Erdogan addressing the crowd

I have few strong opinions on Turkey. The nation has done well to craft for itself a strong economy and independent foreign policy. All is not perfect, of course: Turkey has major problems with her Kurdish minority, and human rights organizations complain about a lack of journalistic freedom and other issues. The Armenian massacre and the division of Cyprus are long unresolved issues still staining Turkish public image. Yet there is little denying the accomplishments of her democracy as well as her emergence from supervisory military rule.

I wonder, however, if Turkey in recent weeks has become like a teenager in an adult body seeking to assert his newfound power. Sometimes bravado is found right, as in Turkey’s early calls for Mubarak to heed the will of protestors. Sometimes bravado is found empty, as in Turkish impotence to stand up to Syria. Sometimes bravado takes on unwise enemies, as in Turkey’s threat to freeze EU relations if the presidency – assigned by rotation – is awarded to Cyprus. And sometimes bravado can be for its own sake, as in Turkey’s increased tension with Israel.

To be sure, Turkey’s diplomatic row with Israel is a matter of principle. Turkey opposes the Gaza blockade and the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, no matter how much provocation may have been directed at the soldiers. Yet the feeling is that Turkey’s response to Israel is measured and calculated. Is Turkey using her Israel policy to enhance her regional power?

Certainly Turkey is placing Israel in a no win situation. An apology conveys guilt, and admission of guilt can precede liability. Israel’s soldiers, though the initiators of overt hostility (as opposed to the symbolic hostility of breaking the blockade), were severely attacked. No nation will sell out its military to appease a demanding neighbor, unless her soldiers were clearly at fault (which remains disputed, of course).

Yet Turkey’s announcement of downgrading diplomatic relations came immediately on the heels of Egyptian outrage at her military leadership for failing to take a hard line with Israel following the death of her officers in a cross-border Israeli military raid. Turkey had already been lauded by many liberals and Islamists alike as a possible model for democratic transition. Shortly thereafter the Arab Spring diplomatic tour begins.

Beyond rhetoric, the main substantial element of this tour is the promotion of business. This seems shrewd. While the West and the IMF offer loans and the Gulf States offer cash influx, Turkey seeks job creation. It remains to be seen how much capital remains in Turkish hands, but this is the appropriate action of a growing economy, and may well serve to buttress Egypt’s economic needs as well. Is there more behind the courtship, however?

Though Egyptian populism celebrated Erdogan’s arrival, political leaders – both liberal and Islamist – were more cautious. Despite claims to historic ‘sisterhood’, Arab-Turk relations have not always been rosy. Is Turkey carpet-bagging on Arab Spring gains?

It remains to be seen if the Turkish teenager is ready for adulthood. Turkey has been an ally to the West, while maintaining relationships with Syrian and Iran. She has been an Islamic model, while maintaining relationships with Israel. Turkey’s efforts to craft a ‘Zero Problems’ foreign policy are coming apart at the seams, but this could simply be the teenager outgrowing his clothes (after significant muscle flexing).

Can Turkey stand as an independent actor on the world’s stage? Can she continue to risk offenses against entrenched Western positions? Is Turkey too big for her britches, or has she reached geopolitical maturity? Perhaps like a teenager, the only way to know is to test her limits.

 

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Storming the Israeli Embassy in Cairo: The Greater Context

Breaking down the barrier outside the embassy

Seven months since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, the nation is still in the process of democratic transition, and the focus of the world has greatly receded. Yesterday, September 9, could threaten to draw back the world’s eye, and possibly serve to confirm many misgivings held about the readiness of Egypt for democracy. It would be a mistake to judge so simply; hopefully this context will fill in the gaps over recent events.

On a superficial level the actions of Egyptian protestors to storm the Israeli Embassy has parallels to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. One narrative current is that just as the Iranian protests began as a liberal movement only to be overwhelmed by extremist religious forces, the Egyptian revolution may bear a similar fate. While this is still an open possibility, feared by many both within Egypt and abroad, yesterday’s events do not reinforce this narrative.

The Israeli Embassy is located at the top of an Egyptian highrise apartment surrounding by like buildings in the Cairo neighborhood of Giza, along a major thoroughfare. Protests at the embassy have been frequent since the departure of Mubarak, but have always remained peaceful, though vitriolic. On an earlier occasion several months ago protests were dismissed forcefully by security personnel.

The most recent surge in anger against Israel, however, began three weeks ago following the death of five Egyptian border guards in Sinai, at the hands of the Israeli military. That day Israel suffered a horrible terrorist attack, believed conducted by militants from Gaza who crossed into Israel through the demilitarized Sinai border. In pursuit of these criminals Israel crossed the Egyptian border in violation of the Camp David Accords, and killed the Egyptian officers accidentally in the process. Israel issued a statement of ‘great regret’ at their deaths, but stopped short of issuing an official apology. They have also resisted Egyptian calls to conduct a joint investigation.

For several days afterwards protestors gathered at the Embassy, chanting for the expulsion of the ambassador. One protestor even scaled the building to its roof and replaced the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one. This breach of diplomatic protocol was celebrated widely, with ‘Flagman’ (punning off Spiderman) receiving the gift of an apartment from the Giza governor. It was clear that on this occasion the people were allowed to vent their anger. On the diplomatic front, however, the government issued equivocal statements, drawing the frustration of the people. After a few days the protests subsided, and security forces cleared the area of the few remaining protestors.

A few days later the Egyptian government contracted to build a wall in front of the Israeli Embassy, stating it was meant to protect residents of the area from any future demonstrations. ‘Egypt above all’ was written prominently across its face, but it is difficult to imagine the wall being received as anything other than a provocation – resembling the security fence/apartheid wall in Israel/the West Bank, depending on perspective. Yet a scheduled protest at the wall a few days ago fell flat, drawing only tens of demonstrators.

In the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting in which protests largely subsided, a call was issued for a major demonstration on September 9, labeled ‘The Friday of Correcting the Path’. Its main demand was to put an end to the military trial of civilians, but also included a call for a clear timetable to transfer power to civilian rule, judicial independence, and further purging state institutions of former regime figures. Though Islamist political forces had earlier spoken out forcefully against the military trial of civilians, their largest representatives boycotted this protest, opting instead to not put additional pressure on the ruling military council. The day of the protest between 10-35,000 demonstrators descended on Tahrir Square. These were mostly liberal groups and youthful revolutionaries, whose numbers, though impressive, did not measure up to the numerical strength of earlier protests. Instead of concentrating solely at Tahrir Square, however, bands dispersed for separate protests at the Interior Ministry, the People’s Assembly, the Radio and Television Building – and the Israeli Embassy.

Ever since forcibly dismissing a sit-in protest at Tahrir Square on August 1, which had lasted three weeks and prevented all traffic from accessing this major hub, the security forces had occupied the central garden area of Tahrir and prevented all protests from accessing the area. The government relented, however, to allow the September 9 protest, but warned they would be responsible for their own security, and the police withdrew from the area, as well as from other major government institutions. At the Interior Ministry, for example, protestors were able to draw graffiti on the walls and remove the official insignia, while security restrained itself behind the walls.

In addition to the liberal and youth demonstrators, however, there was a surprise participant in the protests – soccer hooligans. The three largest teams in the Egyptian division each have their own groups of rowdy followers, who often clash with each other as well as the police. These groups had contributed greatly to the Egyptian revolution, providing discipline and organization – along with the Muslim Brotherhood – when their demonstrations came under attack. Since then, however, they have returned to soccer.

A few days before September 9 there was a relatively minor soccer match involving one of these squads, at the end of which the hooligans began chanting slogans against the police and the now incarcerated former minister of the interior. It is not clear if the provocation was also physical, but the police thereafter rushed into the crowd and began beating the hooligans. Nearly a hundred people on both sides suffered injuries, and the hooligans vowed revenge after several of their group were arrested.

This event rallied the three different groups of hooligans together, who descended united to Tahrir Square. This swelled the numbers and vibrancy of the protest, but also de-dignified it, as they spent the day chanting curses against the police. Yet for the most part, however, they and the other protestors exercised restraint, with one group even issuing a public declaration it withdrew from the protest at the end of the day, to shield itself should violence occur later from unknown ‘thugs’. This hooligan group had split off from the main demonstration in Tahrir to protest directly at the Ministry of Interior.

A second group, however, went to the Israeli Embassy. They and many others carried hammers, seeking to destroy the recently erected wall. Numbers swelled as Egyptians, frustrated by the response of the government to the border killings, compared the sharp rise in condemnation issued to Israel by Turkey, in response to the death of its citizens on board last year’s Freedom Flotilla. It took several hours to demolish the wall, as protestors cheered and encouraged joyously. Some even repeated the action of Flagman, and lowered the Israeli flag once again.

Around this time a group of unknown protestors, numbering about 100, rushed into the building housing the embassy and ascended the floors, breaking into at least part of the upper complex. They then proceeded to hurl documents to the crowd below, seemingly seeking a Wikileaks-type moment. About an hour later, security arrived en masse and bombarded the area with tear gas. Street fighting erupted thereafter throughout the night, injuring around 1000 and killing three.

Israel’s response was swift. The recently returned ambassador – not at the embassy – evacuated Cairo with his family and staff. Israel issued a statement asking for the United States to help secure the embassy – clearly a slap in the face to the Egyptian government. It denied that protestors had entered the embassy and had only apprehended pamphlets. Israeli sources also state the Egyptian government conducted an emergency raid to free six people inside the embassy. I have not seen confirmation of this from the Egyptian side, but neighboring residents interviewed stated the embassy was empty, and had been for the last three weeks. A friend connected with the US Embassy in Cairo stated, however, that it was fully conceivable personnel could be in the embassy at such an odd time over the weekend.

In the days to come more facts will emerge. For now it is hoped this greater context will demonstrate the dissimilarity to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979. First and foremost, this was the action of either liberal activists, soccer hooligans, or, as many revolutionaries have accused in like incidents over the past several months, ‘thugs’ working on behalf of the former regime to stir up trouble and ruin the reputation of the Egyptian revolution. It was not done by Islamic extremists, who were wholly absent from the day’s protest. Most Egyptians find the politics of the Israeli government reprehensible in their treatment of the Palestinian issue. Large numbers oppose the peace treaty, and not a few would apply their approbation on the Jews as a whole. The storming of the embassy, however, had more to do with the work of a small minority, and the aftermath was a battle with security, reminding many of its severity under the Mubarak regime.

At the same time, it should be recognized that many Egyptians hold no ill will toward Jews, and have no desire to enter into war with Israel. Almost none would defend the policies of Israel, and most would have the treaty adjusted. The masses were enthused following the revolution that Egyptian foreign policy might more closely follow the popular will. Yet harboring conviction that ‘peace with Israel’ was largely imposed on Egypt from abroad through the grip of Mubarak, six months since his departure Egyptians find they still have no voice on this issue. It is not that Egyptians wish a rush to war; they desire instead a reflection of sovereignty.

Yet some do call for a semblance of war in terms of a peaceful march on Jerusalem, ready to die as martyrs by the millions. While this tends toward being an extreme Islamic position, ratcheting up rhetoric against Israel is an easy populist political play. The storming of the embassy was a shameful act. While most Egyptians condemned the action, many were eager to compare its lack of real damage with the blockade of Gaza, expanding settlements, and other breaches of international law issuing real suffering on Palestinians, for which there is less world outrage.

By all accounts Egyptians should act from respect for diplomatic laws and agreements. There is far too much dismissive anti-Israeli sentiment on the street, reflective of abject rejection of this enemy. September 9, however, was not the first step toward the anti-Western takeover of the revolution. It was either a reaction driven by frustration of impotence on the Israeli issue, or a counterrevolutionary measure to contrast with the ‘stability’ of the previous regime. More than likely both factors are in play, besides others.

It is a worrisome sign, by all accounts. If the Israeli Embassy can be violated, then what about other embassies, institutions, or places of worship? Many people note that the term ‘revolution’ is a misnomer for the experience of Egypt. Revolutions are violent, conducted by people with insatiable ambition, frustration, or hunger. Such ambition may exist among Islamists, but their conduct has been generally wise and prudent. Such frustration exists among liberals and the youth, and their frustration has amplified in the transitional period. Such hunger exists among much of the lower and working classes.

Too much should not be made of these possibilities. Storming the Israeli Embassy, though incredibly foolish and illegal, was not particularly violent. Egyptians are not a violent people by nature, as has been confirmed a hundred times over during the last half year. The outcome of the ‘revolution’ is still an open matter, and progress is needed toward the promised democracy. What is needed now on the part of the West is not a knee-jerk reaction to events, but continued support for a democratic transition. This may well produce anti-Western or anti-Israeli policies. Yet it will also produce sovereignty; that its government might be of, by, and for the people. This is what the Egyptian people desire. They do not desire Iran.

For a sample prayer about these matters, click here. Please note it was written before the embassy was actually stormed.

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Early Warning and Early Response Training in Cairo and Alexandria

Imam Mohamed Ashafa describing Alternative Dispute Resolution

Disagreements abound in every society. Properly handled, they result in consensus, healthy competition, and increased understanding between diverse groups. Improperly handled, they result in tension, conflict, and civil discord. If religious overtones come to characterize the disagreements, the effect can be even more troublesome. This negative description came to characterize relations in Nigeria, in which Muslims and Christians descended into rioting and violence in response to claimed affronts, both material and religious. Yet within this environment two leaders, Imam Mohamed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, were able to overcome their own differences, forgive each other, and work together for peace.

While the Nigerian reality does not resemble the situation in Egypt, Ashafa and Wuye have developed techniques useful in addressing disagreements in any society. Beyond the power of their personal testimony – Wuye had his right hand chopped off in militia fighting, while Ashafa’s spiritual teacher was murdered by such militias – they are able to enter diverse locations, share the tools of their peacemaking efforts, and leave practical application to the nation’s citizens. Disagreements exist in Egypt, as they exist everywhere. It is the hope of Ashafa and Wuye that Early Warning and Early Response (EWER) Training will prevent disagreements in Egypt from deteriorating into outright conflict.

It is in this spirit that the Center for Arab West Understanding, an Egyptian NGO, invited Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye to conduct two workshops in Egypt, in collaboration with Initiatives of Change in the UK and its Egyptian sister organization, the Moral Rearmament Association. The first workshop was in Alexandria, June 13-14, hosted by the Alexandria Intercultural Dialogue Committee. The second workshop was in Cairo, June 15-16, hosted by the Center for Arab-West Understanding and the Goethe Institute. Over sixty people received training at these locations.

Introduction

Ashafa and Wuye repeated the same training course in both Alexandria and Cairo. They began with a description of alternative dispute resolution stages, seeking to emphasize the need for Early Warning and Early Response in effort to head off the more damaging stages as conflict escalates. They then proceeded to describe Conflict Mapping Tools, which are useful in breaking down a disagreement into manageable parts which divest it of the emotional fervor so often preventing understanding and agreement. Along these lines, they helped each person gauge his or her readiness to participate in the process through self-evaluation along different Levels of Identity and the Ladder of Tolerance.

Ashafa and Wuye then moved directly into the concept of Early Warning and Early Response, describing it as a systematic collection and categorization of social indicators, in order to anticipate and prevent escalation of problems. They spoke of the Cyclone of Conflict, describing why it is best to intervene early. They also encouraged efforts to engender EWER, to include all segments of society. They led participants in outlining the structures of EWER unique to Egypt, and concluded by getting participants to self-organize into an EWER Committee. Each of their training techniques will be described below.

Following the summary of their presentation will be examples of interaction the participants had with the ideas of EWER as presented by Ashafa and Wuye. In both questions and breakout groups Egyptian applications were sought by those in attendance. Finally, to close the report, testimonials from the participants will be listed, highlighting the chief gains and areas for improvement for any coming workshops.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

The importance of an Early Warning and Early Response system is clear when one considers the natural progression of conflict. Initially, all disagreements are dealt with in the communication stage, in which matters are discussed rationally and on friendly terms. Only slightly more complicating is the collaboration stage, in which parties admit the presence of an issue to solve together, and then seek win-win scenarios all can agree to willingly.

If this effort breaks down, parties enter the negotiation stage. At this level things are still friendly, but now each side must consider what must be given up in order to reach an agreement. Win-win is still a possibility, but in all likelihood it involves some loss.

Should the losses become unbearable, the next stage involves mediation. The disputants call on the assistance of a mutually acceptable third party to help them work through the issue. If necessary, this can develop into a hybrid mediation/arbitration stage, in which the parties agree to be bound by his or her decision. While this may solve the issue, should the ruling fail to satisfy one or both parties, they enter into strict arbitration in a court of law. Should that ruling fail to suffice, litigation/adjudication takes over as both sides hire lawyers to represent their interests. By now they are a long way from friendly communication and collaboration.

Unfortunately, there are stages of devolution still possible. If the court ruling fails to bring agreement, parties may seek their interest through violence or, even worse, war [this last stage does not apply to Egypt as Egypt has never entered that stage] Violence often results in neighboring parties leveling sanction against the disputants, in order to end the conflict, but which also humiliates and possibly impoverishes the two sides.

At this level, with all possible resolution strategies exhausted, the only option is for the two parties to be forced back all the way to the beginning: They must communicate. This fact reveals the near futility of ratcheting up the pressure to secure one’s interest; while solution can be found at any level, at each step more and more control is lost over the proceedings. Furthermore, more and more damage is done to the relationship between the two parties.

With this schema in mind, parties to a disagreement will realize the great importance of solving their issues in the early stages of communication and collaboration. Having now received Early Warning and Early Response training, those walking alongside them can help them to see this likely progression. By itself, it may encourage all parties to peace.

Tools for Mapping Conflict

Once the necessity of alternative dispute resolution is understood, tools are needed to move the disagreement from the level of emotion to the level of analysis. What is the issue, and what is at stake? Ashafa and Wuye led participants through four analysis methods: the Onion, the ABC Triangle, the Carpet, and the Circles.

The Onion

In order to get to the center of an onion, layer after layer must be pulled back, and the operation can be somewhat unpleasant and tear-inducing. Similarly, most problems are not immediately apparent at first glance, and there can be resistance to digging deeper.

The first level of the issue is a person’s position. This seems straightforward, but it masks the real issues. This layer must be peeled back, so that a person’s interest is revealed. Why does the individual or party state their position so? What interest are they pursuing? Even this level is not sufficient for conflict resolution, however; the essential need must be discovered. If an issue can be reduced to one’s interpretation of legitimate need, communication now proceeds on the basis of reality, not propaganda. When the need of each one is similarly identified and discussed, solutions become possible.

The ABC Triangle

The three parts of the triangle are labeled attitude, behavior, and context. The usual first look into a disagreement finds attitudes entrenched and behaviors counterproductive. Efforts to change either of these – though of worthy intention – will not succeed long term. Instead, context is at the head of this interconnected triangle. If change can be brought to the context of the issue, then the behavior of the disputants will change as well. Similarly, once behavior begins to change, hostile attitudes will also begin to give way. The key point for EWER is a matter of perspective. Resist the temptation to judge a situation by the attitudes and behavior of those involved. Analyze the context of the issue, and the others will more readily fall into place.

The Carpet

The picture of a carpet illustrates how various parties of a dispute interact. In the center of the carpet is the issue at hand, and the two disputants sit opposite each other, close to the issue. Conflict, however, is usually not isolated between two parties; others come alongside to support or oppose, with some relation to the issue in the center, though a bit farther removed from it. What drives this interaction?

Along the thread line that connects each party to the issue should be noted the interests, fears, and needs of each participant. Such analysis again serves to de-emotionalize a disagreement, but also is useful to judge the involvement of parties in alignment with the main disputants. As such mapping provides clarity to the reality underneath appearances, finding solutions becomes less difficult.

The Circles

Drawing circles is a method to connect and illustrate the various relationships amidst a disagreement. The manner of drawing signals the nature of relationship. Each circle represents a person or party, and a line between them designates a relationship exists.

The larger the circle size, the more power is held by the party encircled. An arrow between two circles illustrates the direction this power is exercised. Meanwhile, a zig-zag line signals conflict exists between the two parties, whereas a double line represents an alliance. If the line between is dotted, this shows a weak relationship, and for all lines, if an issue exists between the two parties, it is written in a box connecting the two circles.

A circle drawn with dotted lines indicates the presence of a ‘shadow’. A shadow party is not actually there in the field of the dispute, but influences surrounding relationships all the same. These can have great effect on the outcome, but can easily fail to be identified if the analysis is not objective.

Drawing circles, in addition to the other tools mentioned above, allow for all parties to achieve a description of the disagreement in terms as objective as possible. As they communicate their findings with each other, discoveries are sure to occur revealing differences of perspective. Yet within the effort to depict reality, a basis is created for finding the essential solutions that meet the needs of all involved.

Essential Self-Analysis

These tools are useless, however, in the hands of an unprepared craftsman. Yes, they can be utilized in order to help conflicting sides come to terms. But what about the bias of the to-be peacemaker employing EWER? He or she must first self-reckon on two levels. First, what is his or her understanding of self-identity, from which help is offered to others in navigating theirs? Second, what level of tolerance or intolerance does he or she harbor? Many times disagreements escalate due to conflicts in identity; without self-analysis the peacemaker may trip up.

The Levels of Identity

Ashafa and Wuye explained that the human identity is a fluid amalgamation of several relationships. Everyone negotiates these differently, and manages them according to circumstances and context. Yet if one gets stuck or overemphasizes a particular aspect of identity, it can cause conflict with the self or with others. While the order to be described should not be held as hard and fast, generally speaking, as one moves up the levels, he or she becomes better equipped to negotiate all of them.

The most basic and essential level of identity is family. One’s identity then expands to include tribe/language groupings, in which the individual moves about comfortably. Then comes the larger community group of a particular area, taking greater geographical scope in nation. In these labels it is clear to see how one conducts relationships of peace in wider and wider comfort zones, the more one’s overall identity expands.

The next levels of identity are gender, race, and profession. These bonds help one to further traverse barriers in identity, as a woman might easily take refuge in another woman, no matter the national differences. Professional bonds can do similarly. Yet while race as an identity marker can also help one broaden relational ties, it and others below can be found to divide and separate, rather than unite.

For this, the last two levels represent higher planes: Humanity and spirituality. To the degree that individuals see each other as fellow humans, rather than through defining and limiting lower identities, they are able to build bonds of peace. Spiritual identity, grounded in the paths of the great religions, also help to overcome lesser identities, uniting the individual beyond the material human nature into the fabric of the cosmos. It is at these levels the EWER peacemaker does best to ground his or her identity, granting patience for those worked with as they negotiate their essential identity level.

The Ladder of Tolerance

The Ladder of Tolerance asks the individual to consider his relation vis-à-vis the other, however defined. The relationship can issue from the fear of the unknown, driving attitudes and behavior downward toward intolerance. At a basic level this issues forth rejection, but can increase in severity producing oppression, dehumanization, murder, and genocide.

It is not likely the participants at the conference suffer from placement on the intolerant side of the ladder, but depending on the other in question, a review of their positive tolerance level is beneficial. First and foremost, an open posture toward the other results in examination of differences. As one ascends the ladder he or she is able to welcome the place of the other in acceptance. Still higher develops the posture of learning from the other, with the differences in question.

More difficult to achieve, however, is the valuing of the other. At this level one’s self identity can be challenged, threatening the comfort zone of associations lower than that of humanity. The peak step in the ladder culminates in celebration of the other, especially of all commonalities discovered. It is here that solutions to disagreement are all the easier to achieve. Getting there, however, requires work and vigilance, both internal to self and external in society.

Early Warning and Early Response

As mentioned above, Early Warning and Early Response is a systematic collection and categorization of social indicators, in order to anticipate and prevent escalation of problems. Escalation can be visually depicted through a cyclone, as early effects do not appear severe, but widens in scope and severity until all are aware of the problem. The most essential work, therefore, is to be done at the pre-conflict stage when the cyclone has not yet developed. This work can be thankless, as few people at this stage are even aware of a problem. Yet it is vital; once the cyclonic conflict is underway, many people look to help but the damage has already been done.

Ashafa and Wuye also encouraged participants to involve all segments of society into the effort to head off conflict before it explodes. Specifically, this means deliberately enrolling women in the effort. Women often suffer the most in times of conflict, and have great influence on their families, especially the young, to curb emotional, destructive tendencies. But it also means creative thinking to involve other groups as well; Wuye, having lost his hand, emphasized the role of the handicapped in keeping conflict at bay.

The Structures of EWER

Ashafa and Wuye led the participants through sessions in which they discussed their local context, trying to put their fingers on indicators that could potentially lead to conflict. The brainstorming was useful to get people thinking, but it led into a basic question: From where do you obtain your information, and to whom do you pass it on? Ashafa and Wuye emphasized the success of Early Warning and Early Response depends upon contact with sources of information, as well as contact with sources of authority. EWER is an effort to connect the two – to be a social middleman in the management of conflict.

Early Warning

The following is very basic, but unless one thinks deliberately to connect with sources of information, he or she will likely overlook vital indicators. Where does one hear about possible troubles to come? Here is the assembled list of participants: Media, the street, church and mosque, social clubs, NGOs, schools, previous research, taxi drivers, family meetings, cafés, cybercafés, public transportation, work, market, on the beach, restaurants, hospitals, conferences, jokes, the street, foreign media, posters/flyers/pamphlets, family meetings, friends, markets, SMS messages, advertising, cultural centers, and professional syndicates.

While it may be difficult for any one person to monitor all these outlets of information, this demonstrates that EWER must be a group effort. More will be described about this below, but Ashafa and Wuye emphasized that those concerned to be on the watch for early warnings of conflict must have sources in all these areas. Together, it is not difficult, for these are all normal facets of everyday life. The key is simply being connected.

As an important aside, Ashafa and Wuye also took the time to address the difference between EWER and intelligence gathering. They emphasized that intelligence is the realm of spies who work in secret, on the behest of the state and its security. EWER, however, is done openly by volunteers who work in conjunction with the state for the security of society. While there are lines not to be crossed, assurances were given this work is not illegal, especially if reported properly, as described next.

Early Response

Similarly, a list of viable outlets to inform amidst signs of conflict is also basic. While the ordinary citizen has little power or authority to curb negative indicators, he or she is connected to several community organs which do possess influence and strength. Participants listed the following possibilities: Community leaders, government, NGOs, journalists, religious leaders, God, colleagues, courts/lawyers, teachers, lobbying groups, policy makers, political leaders, specialist institutes, media, activists, businessmen, social media groups, syndicate bodies, famous people, tribal/family heads, and parents.

Again, few people can maintain active contact with such a diverse group. What is essential is that those concerned with EWER group together, comparing sources on who knows which authority. In combination, all of these groups can be covered, and must be renewed in contact at least once a month.

Thus, when trouble emerges, rumors are heard, or palpitations are sensed on the street, EWER volunteers will seek intervention through the appropriate channel. Choosing the correct channel is important, so that the one informed actually has influence to rectify a situation. If the problem is urgent then obviously all concerned citizens will contact police to pacify the situation. It is the not-quite-right scenario, however, which activates EWER in its formal sense, described next.

Central and Subcommittees

Those committed to EWER must move beyond the plane of individual awareness. Though the tools provided produce a conscientious citizen, he or she can do little alone. Instead, Ashafa and Wuye sought to give participants a group identity, asking them to divide into subcommittees from which they can monitor developments in their community.

Three subcommittees were suggested: Youth, women, and political/religious. Participants signed up based on their interest and preference, but with an eye toward their area of influence. What circles do you already inhabit, and what contacts do you already have?

Once these subcommittees become active, they should choose among their members to designate a few for participation also in the central committee. The central committee can be of variable makeup – five, seven, eleven members, etc. – but is tasked with the decision making authority for the EWER team. It is the central committee which should convey any early warning to authorities, assisting them in taking the necessary early response.

Each subcommittee is tasked with finding the spark which can ignite a fire in its community, and to put it out before damage is done. These should be people already involved on the ground, who know how to feel the ebb and flow on the street. They should be connected to local community and religious leaders, so as to be able to act quickly in times of budding tension.

Conversely, the central committee should be composed of individuals with credibility, leadership, responsibility, and experience. They should have developed contacts with higher level authority figures, to help bridge the gap that often exists between administration and the street. Information, strategy, and creative solutions should flow frequently between the subcommittees and the central committee, but decisive and official communication must be delivered by the central committee leaders.

By the conclusion of the two workshops participants were excited about their potential roles in the EWER effort. Leadership and continuity, however, were left for later development. CAWU will first submit the report of the workshop to the ruling Supreme Military Council, and will coordinate any future planning under the auspices of the proper authorities. A foundation, however, has been laid among the now-trained participants; it is for them, as concerned Egyptian citizens, to continue and enroll others in the process.

Attendees listening attentively

Egyptian Interactions

Throughout the workshops Ashafa and Wuye encouraged participants to ask questions and respond creatively to the material based on their Egyptian context. Early on they were asked about the concept of Early Warning and Early Response, and what this meant to them. Several aspects were given, both in terms of tremors that could be sensed early on, as well as structural issues requiring efforts at reform.

In terms of early warning signs, participants mentioned the presence of extremists in an area, rumors, and manipulative teaching coming from places of worship. Broader issues included poverty, unemployment, discrimination, draconian laws, lack of security, lack of transparency, and a lack of social justice. Given the latter, the early warning signs become more critical, and necessitate action.

Participants also interacted with Ashafa and Wuye over two well known Egyptian religious issues: mixed marriages and conversion. Concerning mixed marriages, they counseled simply to obey the dictates of religion, which cannot be changed, and which encourage husband and wife to be of the same faith. They did give an example from Nigeria, however, which illustrates how they worked through a tense situation.

A Christian woman married a Muslim man and converted to his religion, and they lived in peace with neighbors all their life. At the woman’s death, however, a dispute arose whether to bury her in the Muslim burial plot, as per her religion, or the Christian burial plot back in her original village, as per her tribal affiliation. The woman’s tribal family demanded the body, and Muslims of the area were also prepared to fight for it.

The issue was heated especially in that Muslim rites call for a burial within twenty-four hours, but negotiation could not resolve the issue that quickly. Ashafa and Wuye invoked the Muslim law of necessity, postponing burial until harmony could be achieved, given that the body will rest until the Day of Resurrection. In the end, after two days, an agreement was crafted to allow the tribal family its burial customs, but to also allow respect to the woman’s chosen faith, and have Muslims perform Islamic burial rites there. This decision was accepted by all, and a potential crisis was averted.

In terms of conversion, participants mentioned that especially sensitive in Egypt is the movement of a Christian into Islam. Applying the principles learned in the workshop, the Alexandria delegation decided they should divide the city into different regions, and seek wise Muslims and Christians in each who are non-political and accepted by the majority. For the neighborhood in question, then, whenever a rumor surfaces about a conversion, they wise leaders must be informed, and investigate together. Regardless of the details, they then must speak publically into the rumor, to disarm it, and promote peaceful solutions acceptable to the community.

Ashafa and Wuye allowed time during the workshop for the participants to divide into groups and discuss issues and possible EWER solutions. They were asked to especially consider Egypt as they knew it in their local environments.

One group considered the presence of a religious extremist in an area, disseminating hateful teachings. The solution was to be able to inform mainstream religious leaders about this quickly, so they could formally denounce and religiously counter such thought. Then, the media should be employed so that these moderate voices receive primacy in contradistinction to the extremist preacher, who gets discredited.

Another group considered a situation in which a threat is issued against a place of worship. Should even a rumor about this be heard, residents should quickly be assembled to create a popular committee to protect it, while security forces are contacted to also be on alert.

A third group referenced the recent trend in which some Christians have placed the sign of a fish – an ancient Christian symbol – on their cars as an expression of religious identity. They then related that some Muslims have responded by placing a shark sticker on their vehicles. While no violence has been committed, it is a worrisome sign of increased division.

This group recommended that NGOs be utilized to advance peace education, hoping to counter the drifting apart of communities. They also promoted the government use of reconciliation committees headed by recognized religious leaders, following incidents of tension. This latter solution, however, was not accepted by all, as some believe this practice only contributes to the sectarian issues of Egypt, by setting aside the rule of law necessary to punish infractions.

Another topic of discussion concerned how to work with extremist elements of society. Ashafa and Wuye spoke of two possibilities. In the first, the extremist leader is motivated by greed and/or power. In this situation there is not much that can be done with the leader himself, but instead they go to his followers, and educate them about how they are being used. They have also made local monitoring groups, so as evidence is gained about his ill motivation, it can be exposed to the people.

In the case of an extremist in sincere ideology, however, they do not move away from him. Instead, they stay in dialogue, admitting that intra-religious peace is often harder to craft than inter-religious peace. Ashafa and Wuye have been criticized as traitors by their respective religious communities, or else as compromisers who benefit from funding from the West. The majority, though silent, believes they are doing the right thing.

Another participant noted Wuye’s artificial right hand, suffered in clashes with Muslims, and wanted to know what Wuye would do if he met that individual. Wuye stated he had no idea who cut off his hand, given that the clashes were mob violence, but that if he were to meet him, he would forgive him. He stated that earlier he had hate, but that God changed him, and now he would seek to love that individual – excessive love is the means to disarm an enemy.

Along similar lines Ashafa sought to answer the best way to deal with your enemy. He stated that he no longer had enemies in this world, only friends he has yet to meet. To adopt this attitude you must break the barriers of fear and insecurity, but the best way to defeat an enemy is to turn him into a friend.

A particularly astute participant, in a different context, gave practical application to these ideas. He recommended that following any sectarian conflict, efforts should be made cross-religiously to visit the victims of violence. Others spoke positively of the Family House initiative, which aims to bring together the heads of Egypt’s various religious communities. Some, however, emphasized while love and dialogue are good, it is the rule of law and better education which must be cornerstone for diffusing interreligious tensions.

Conclusion

Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have been successful in implementing such techniques in communities throughout Nigeria and other countries, and in some areas have curbed violence almost entirely. As they and the participants of the two workshops emphasized, Nigeria is not Egypt. Yet it should be clear from the description of the training that these are location-neutral tools which can be applied regardless of context.

Egypt has witnessed community tension since the revolution; given the breakdown of security provision it is not surprising some disagreements have sparked wider conflict. This situation helps explain the great usefulness behind EWER as a community based strategy. Egyptians have already grouped themselves into popular neighborhood communities during the revolution to protect their homes and properties. If marshaled and trained, this same spirit can provide increasing levels of cushion to keep both ordinary disagreements and targeted bigotry from escalating and dividing the citizenry. It can be a safety valve to keep authorities aware of the situation on the ground, but yet find solutions before they must become actively involved.

EWER is a tool to keep the community peace. If effective, its necessity will never be noticed. If absent, its necessity may become painfully obvious. EWER is only one tool among many, yet it is hoped the principles therein may become successfully translated to address perfectly the needs of Egypt. Nigeria is like Egypt, and like nations everywhere, in that they are filled with ordinary people, with ordinary disagreements. Though circumstances differ, the solution is common: Community cooperation keeps disagreements from becoming divisions. Early Warning and Early Response encourages this reality.

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Africa Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles Reconciliation

On Nigeria and Egypt: An Interview with the Imam and the Pastor

The Imam and the Pastor

The Imam and the Pastor, Mohamed Ashafa and James Wuye, are a Nigerian Muslim and Christian who have worked tirelessly for the sake of peace and reconciliation between their countrymen. Formerly bitter enemies in armed conflict, in which Wuye lost his hand and Ashafa’s spiritual mentor was murdered, they have now forgiven each other.  Furthermore, they use both their personal example and their Early Warning and Early Response monitoring system to limit the escalation of violence, as is sadly common in Nigeria.

Though their focus is at home, the Imam and the Pastor have traveled the world, helping to solve conflict and spread their message abroad. It was in this effort they were invited to Egypt by the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU), presenting two workshops in Alexandria and Cairo.

During the Alexandria workshop they were interviewed by Salwa Uthman of Alexandria Magazine, at which CAWU was also present. The following records an important glimpse into Nigerian society, the origins of conflict, and their view on the state of Egypt, post-revolution.

Alexandria Magazine: Please give us an overview of Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria.

Wuye: During the 1980s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict greatly affected Nigeria, especially in the schools. This trend was amplified by religious leaders who would misrepresent their holy books, which then encouraged people to descend into conflict.

Recently, politicians have appropriated religion into their campaigns, asking people to elect them on the basis of their religious affiliation. Relations have been damaged, to the extent that over 100,000 people have lost their lives in this misunderstanding of religion. Most of these deaths have been among the poor.

AM: How did you get to know each other? Is it unusual for a Muslim and a Christian to cooperate in this way?

Wuye: It may be we are the only people in the world who used to fight each other but now are friends and work together for peace.

In 1995 we were both invited by the governor of our region to participate in a children’s immunization project sponsored by UNICEF. While there, a journalist who knew of our stories away from violence brought us together, made us to grasp hands, and encouraged us to work together for peace. At this point we began talking to each other.

AM: What is your view of sectarian conflict in Egypt?

Ashafa: To speak of Nigeria first: Our founding fathers were Muslims and Christians who worked together to build the nation, but a hurt developed between the colonialist British and the Muslims in the north. There, an Islamic system had been in place for centuries, but the colonialists replaced this with an English system.

Muslims then split into three groups. Some rejected the British queen altogether and moved to Sudan. Others separated themselves from the system and isolated from government contact. The third group decided to join the government and seek to use it to reestablish the glories of Islam.

Unfortunately, the colonial government employed this third group to exploit the non-Muslim populations in the south, using them as tax collectors. These animist peoples eventually became Christians and developed animosity toward the Muslims.

These pains have remained since Nigerian independence, and all problems can quickly take on religious dimensions. It is not unusual for a small conflict to develop into a big issue.

This colonial heritage is shared between Nigeria and Egypt. In Egypt, Muslims and Christians have lived together for centuries, but recently the relationship has been getting sour, as we saw in Imbaba.

Your problems are minor compared to ours, but we have seen our problems explode, and we don’t want to see your problems degenerate as ours have done. Overall, we are very proud of Egypt. Behind us, you are the 2nd most populous country in Africa.

AM: How do you describe your work, and why did you set it up?

Wuye: Our work is non-governmental, non-political, and focused on civil society. We set it up for three reasons: First, to prevent conflict from happening. Second, to mediate between those in conflict. Third, to build bridges and encourage forgiveness.

We do work with the government at the grassroots level if requested to help solve community problems. But we do not work for the government.

AM: Do you have support from the government?

Wuye: Moral support, yes. Financial support, no.

Ashafa: In terms of the community, people are divided. Some think that we betray each other’s particular religious group. Others believe we are compromisers, and benefit from the support of the West. Most people, though, the silent majority, believe we are doing the right thing.

AM: What is your organizational structure?

Wuye: We are composed only of Nigerians, aiming to be equal in number between Muslims and Christians. In our headquarters we are fourteen people, seven and seven. We have at least one Muslim and one Christian volunteer in 36 of the Nigerian states.

Ashafa: We also have worked in Sudan, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burundi, South Africa, Bosnia, and Iraq. We have also presented our story in many other nations.

AM: What is the concept of religion in Nigeria?

Ashafa: According to the BBC World study in February 2003, Nigeria is the most religious nation in the world. And according to the Bettleman Foundation study in 2007, it has an 82% rating on religious sensitivity. Among the traditional Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria are emerging Salafi and evangelical trends.

It is not possible to say that religion in Nigeria is moderate, since our great religious sensitivity can lead easily to explosions of violence, especially in the north. But, it is not proper to call it extremist either, though we do have radical movements that name themselves after Gaza, Kandahar, and the like.

AM: What word do you have for Muslims and Christians in Egypt?

Wuye: We know you are for peace. We watched during your revolution as Muslims and Christians protected each other during times of prayer. Continue this relation. God bless Egypt.

Ashafa: Egypt is the hope of the Arab world. You are going through a democratic process – make sure it is non-violent. We are proud of Egypt, and hope you can consolidate your gains in the September elections.

 

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A Muslim Clears a Path through Prayers

Friday Prayers in a neighborhood of Cairo (not from this story)

Friday in Egypt is the day for Muslim prayers, which throughout Islamic history have been a communal event. Around midday the faithful flock to the neighborhood mosque, listen to a sermon, and perform their prayers.

Over the last few decades in Egypt this communal event has spilled out into the street, as Muslims unfurl their prayer rugs and close off the area to traffic for about an hour. In one explanation, this is due to the increasing number of Muslim participants. In another, this is due to the desire of many to assert their religious identity on the fabric of society. In a third, it is the preferred practice to pray in the open air, according to Sunni traditions. But it is a well established pattern and causes little social disruption.

That is, unless in you are driving during the hour when the time of prayer is approaching.

Sherry Ramzy lives in the Cairo isle of Manial enveloped within the Nile River. Out and about on Friday she was passing by the local mosque, as the street was beginning to fill with worshippers.

Hesitant to brave the crowd but already committed in her path, Sherry followed the lead of the taxi driver in front of her, who moved through carefully, but successfully.

As she trailed him, however, the taxi driver stopped to get out and pray, and a donkey cart with vegetables for sale crossed the road and set up shop, blocking the remaining small opening through the mass of people. Before too long, Sherry was surrounded. Meanwhile, the lady with the donkey cart began shouting, “She saw the prayers were beginning, she should have stopped!”

A sense of panic began to settle in. Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt are generally calm, but as the religious identity of both communities has increased, tensions have sometimes developed. Sherry is one who believes prevailing Christian and Muslim attitudes toward each other is too negative. Nevertheless, as a Christian out of place, possibly disturbing a holy Muslim moment, she began to fear. At the very least she faced sitting locked in her car for the next hour. At the worst, she could become a spark that aroused Muslim anger. Helplessness has a way of letting the imagination run wild.

Helplessness also increases the joy of rescue. Before too long the taxi driver took notice of her plight, and asked the owner of the donkey cart to move. This opened a path just wide enough for Sherry to drive through, enabling her to continue on her way. She took notice that her salvation came from one with a long beard and white robe, and wondered if he was not only a Muslim, but a Salafi.

Salafi Muslims follow a conservative interpretation of Islam, calling for the imitation of the life and practice of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, generally rejecting modernity as inimical to Islam. They have become feared as a social force which could sideline democracy through democratic means. They have also aroused the worry of Christians, as a number of pejorative comments and physical attacks have issued from their community.

Sherry, however, wishes to see that such generalizations are not applied to the whole community. She wrote a description of her experience and posted it on her Facebook page. She desires to see good relationships formed between the Christians and Salafis of Egypt. These may have opposite goals for society, but one must not reject the other out of hand.

Sherry had an open mind and heart to Muslims before her incident, but note the power of kindness while in need. The Muslim in question did nothing more than ask a donkey cart be moved a few feet. But to do so, he needed also to inconvenience those preparing for prayer around it. It was a small matter, but required a fair number of people to adjust in favor of a displaced Christian.

The repercussions of this kindness, however, multiply. Sherry has over two hundred friends on her Facebook page; add to this those who read this article. The taxi driver could easily have ignored her; instead, a positive testimony reaches hundreds of people.

This testimony does not invalidate the true accounts of Salafi provocation, heard by thousands. Unfortunately, bad news travels far faster than good. Yet it seeks to show the humanity, goodness, and, as Sherry emphasizes, the Arabness of individuals within the movement. It may well be this testimony represents the majority.

May we be mindful of the unknown consequences – both positive and negative – that our seemingly minor actions set in motion. Furthermore, may we purpose to exhibit such kindness, especially to those considered as against us. Egypt needs repair; it needs relationships built and reestablished. Such actions have the ability to warm hearts and change opinions.

As Sherry received, may we all so give. The world is no less needy.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

In Memoriam: Dr. Ahmed al-Sayih, Azhar Scholar

Fully deserving of his many titles, the glorious scholar and professor, Dr. Ahmad Abd al-Rahim al-Sayih passed away on July 7, 2011, fully engaged in life at the age of 74. Dr. al-Sayih died while filming an interview for the revolutionary-born al-Tahrir Television channel, speaking about his lifelong efforts in international popular diplomacy, to display a peaceful image of Islam and Egypt wherever he went. The world will miss him, his sharp mind, and his openness to people of all faiths.

Dr. al-Sayih was born in 1937 in Ezbet al-Sayih, a community roughly thirty kilometers from Nag Hamadi in the governorate of Qena, in Upper Egypt. Late in his life Nag Hamadi witnessed the horrific killing of six Christians and a Muslim police guard on Coptic Christmas Eve in 2010, an infamous incident which raised questions about Muslim-Christian relations. Dr. al-Sayih’s interaction with Christians, however, was completely different. He was a member of the noble Qulaiyat branch of the Arab tribe, and grew up with warm, friendly relations with the five or six Christian families of Ezbet al-Sayih. As he matured in his studies these Christians proudly recognized him as ‘our’ sheikh. Following the murders he helped organize an interfaith delegation from the Moral Rearmament Association to visit the families of those killed, explore the cultural environment of the crime, and discuss ways to overcome the national tragedy.

The journey Dr. al-Sayih pursued, however, did not begin as it ended, with real exposure to and open embrace of the Copts of Egypt. Though never an extremist, he pursued his studies with Muslim particularity, coming to master Islamic doctrine and philosophy after leaving his village and enrolling in the Azhar University. After several years he engaged in a professor exchange program, teaching five years in the Faculty of Sharia Law at the University of Qatar. Here his scholarly insight took the attention of the prestigious Umm al-Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but contractual regulations with the Azhar required him to first complete his doctorate while teaching at the Cairo-based institution. After obtaining his PhD in Islamic doctrine and philosophy in 1986 from the Azhar, serving as dean in the Faculty of Da’wa (the Islamic Missionary Call), he accepted the post in Mecca, where he taught for nine years.

After many years of exposure to religious thought in the Gulf, however, Dr. al-Sayih began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with its extremist Islamic trends, especially Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an austere interpretation of Islam, seeking imitation of the manner of life as lived by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Unfortunately, it often results in a reactionary attitude to modern life, as well as rejection of other viewpoints and commonality with other religions. With growing awareness of the danger Wahhabism proved to authentic Islam, Dr. al-Sayih dedicated his life to exposing its errors.

This zeal resulted in a scholarly output of over 150 books and hundreds of articles written for Arabic journals around the world. Some of these books were co-authored by such luminaries as Dr. Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary, Dr. Abdel Fatah Asaker, Dr. Rifaat Sidi Ahmed, Dr. Mohammed al-Halafawy and Sheikh Nasr Ramadan Abdel Hamid. His boldness in critiquing Wahhabism led also to the finding that much of what is attributed to Islam today is actually based on pious misunderstandings from poorly transmitted hadith, the stories recorded of Muhammad’s words and deeds. Never one to shy from controversy, Dr. al-Sayih was committed to discovering and teaching the truth as it revealed itself, finding in this the path to God.

Though he never committed himself to an actual spiritual guide or designated path, Dr. al-Sayih found sympathy with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Over the course of his life, he attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, promoting an open and tolerant picture of Islam. This was more than a simple intellectual position. Dr. al-Sayih visited Makarious Monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt, and prayed over the grave of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha. He esteemed the monks there to be the truest of Sufis, who represent the best of Islam.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Sayih’s openness towards Copts facilitated his frequent collaboration with Arab West Report. Together they found commonality in the belief that Islam is not to blame for the often true difficulties Copts face in Egypt, but rather the ill interpretation of Islam which exasperates social tensions, giving ordinary community problems a religious face. This phenomena is often made worse when these tensions are manipulated by politics or religion. Dr. al-Sayih’s contribution toward promoting Coptic understanding in Egypt resulted in his commendation by no less an organization than Copts United, an American based group highlighting Christian difficulties in Egypt. Following the death of the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Copts United nominated him for succession.

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih leaves behind a wife, three sons, and five daughters. He was buried in his village of Ezbet al-Sayih, and on July 12 received a commemorative farewell in Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City, near his home in Cairo. He was a man of both great mind and great heart, and will be missed by all who knew him. May Egypt produce similar scholars, who are able to follow in his footsteps.

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Kidnapped Girls and a Besieged Church: Conflicting Details

Coptic Protestors Block Road in Minya

Issues of sectarian tension in Upper Egypt create a double problem in establishing fact. First, many news agencies do not commit resources to the area, so journalism often relies on hearsay rather than first-hand reporting. Second, religious biases often serve to either cover over or amplify aspects of the story that play into an established narrative. This is true both among those involved and in the reporters themselves, as rumors are easily conflated into facts.

In the last week the governorate of Minya in Upper Egypt witnessed two examples of Muslim-Christian tension. Unfortunately, these incidents often go unreported in major media outlets, and within Egypt often receive scant coverage as well. This is seen in the brevity of two reports in al-Masry al Youm, English edition, which also serve to establish the basic facts.

In the first report, clashes are reported between Copts and the police, when the former attempted to block a road in protest of two local girls who were rumored to have been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

In the second report, the police this time disperse hundreds of Muslims surrounding a church in Beni Ahmad village in the governorate of Minya. They were protesting the reinstatement of a priest who had been previously removed by agreement of the church and authorities, allegedly for inciting sectarian tension.

With the dearth of first-hand, in-depth reporting, however, comes coverage that often relies on one-sided sources, promoting a cause with lack of objectivity. Whereas the lack of coverage can be interpreted as complicit silence against Coptic grievances, this latter reporting is wholesale adoption of their perspective. Indicative are these two articles from the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which tells these stories, and others as well.

These articles rely on statements taken from the area, and do a good job of increasing the level of detail.

In the first report, the two Coptic girls are identified as Christine Azat (age 16) and Nancy Magdi (age 14). These were reportedly abducted on June 12 while on their way to church. The article quotes Christine’s father, and describes how the Christians of the area have scrambled to assemble the 200,000 LE ($33,333 US) ransom demanded for their release. Once done, however, they were rebuffed saying the girls were already sold to another group, which was now demanding twelve million LE (two million USD) to hand them over. The article mentions the rumor that they ran away and willingly embraced Islam, but dismisses this as the Azhar rejects underage conversions.

In the second report, the village of Beni Ahmad West is located seven kilometers south of Minya. The conflict relates to an incident from March 23rd, 2011, in which Muslims surrounded St. George Church and threatened to destroy it when licensed renovation appeared to be expanding the building. Eyewitnesses are quoted saying the Muslims chanted they would kill the priest, Fr. George Thabit, for his role in events if he and his family did not leave the village. In a previous article AINA states there are 23,000 Muslims and 8,000 Christians resident in the village.

The report states that Fr. George did leave the village. Muslims, however, heard rumors he would be returning, and began to camp out at the church in small numbers. When he did come back, on June 24 there was another major demonstration against him. Five hours later he was escorted away in a police vehicle. The Muslims remained until security later dispersed them. The archbishopric is quoted as condemning this interference in ecclesiastic affairs, asking for the rule of law and maintenance of security.

The information above is fair enough, but it is couched in language that betrays bias. For example, the report about the two girls ends with the speculation that, “as females, their lot is to be raped, enslaved, and sold off to some rich, sexually-depraved man who believes it his divine right to own infidel sex-slaves.” The second report does not have such blatant speculation, but ends with communication of a non-identified threat from the Muslim ‘mob’, that unless they hear that, “the priest is banned from returning to the village, they will hold their Friday prayers tomorrow, June 24, inside St. George’s church.”

If indeed this is the story, it is important to relate it as such. Given the sensitive reality of sectarian tension, however, it is vital to either consult contrary sources or else convey the story with appropriate doubt. The English language Ahram Online web newspaper provides alternate coverage of the kidnapped girls.

This article places both girls’ ages at 14, and states they ran away from home months ago, with their families searching for them frantically. A policeman discovered them walking on the streets, conspicuous with their face veil but with the tattoo of a cross on their wrists. The article states the girls have produced a YouTube video stating their voluntary conversion to Islam, and that they were not kidnapped. It states they are being held in a safe house until an Azhar scholar can determine if the story of their conversion is true. Meanwhile, the families of the girls have asked that they be returned home.

It should be noted that Ahram Online is a government owned newspaper. Though it has appeared to have more freedom to criticize the government than its printed counterpart, al-Ahram, the story must still be understood in light of its ownership reality.

Arab West Report was able to contact Nermine Rida, a Coptic Orthodox journalist for Akhbar al-Minya. She stated the girls were involved in a teenage crush with two Muslims, Ali Gomaa Rashid and his relative Ezzat Gomaa Rashid. These along with another relative, Saudi Gomaa Rashid, were currently being held in custody, along with five Copts still detained for their role in the demonstrations. Rida stated that Copts transgressed the acceptable levels of peaceful demonstration by blocking the road, and that the police were justified in breaking up their protest.

Rida also stated that the Azhar rejected the girls’ conversion to Islam since the law does not allow for  the conversion of anyone under eighteen years of age. She did watch the YouTube video, however, and was convinced the girls were not kidnapped and made the video without compulsion. She understood that they were being held currently by authorities, but were soon due to return to their homes.

Rida was unable to confirm the ransom demand, except to say a call to raise 200,000 LE was issued by a Christian satellite channel, al-Tariq.

Concerning the incident in Beni Ahmad village, Rida confirmed the outlines of the story centering around Muslim demonstrations and Fr. George Thabit. There was a disagreement about the dimensions of the church and the role played by Fr. George, resulting in an agreement with Bishop Arsanius of Minya to send him away. During his absence from the village the church was repaired satisfactorily along the lines agreed upon by all village members.

After completion, the bishop returned Fr. George to the village, and Muslims were angered and resumed their demonstration. Yet Rida makes clear Muslims were not the only party in disagreement with his decision. Around thirty Copts joined the Muslims in demonstrating against the return of Fr. George, headed by one named Rifaat al-Qummus.

Arab West Report is unable to independently verify the account of Nermine Rida.

What should be made of these situations, then? Without traveling to the area and investigating directly, one should be cautious about claiming certainty about events. Even then, one would be likely to discover contradictory testimony.

Kidnappings regardless of religion have taken place in Egypt within the security vacuum since the revolution. Many Copts, however, believe their community is especially targeted by extremist Muslims. Yet it is also clear that at times Copts respond with accusations of kidnapping when facing the shame of a female relative running away from home, either due to a bad family situation or in a love affair with a Muslim.

One of the issues lies in the definition of kidnapping. Generally understood, kidnapping involves the use of physical force in an abduction. Some Copts, however, expand the meaning to include the luring away of adolescent women from their family, helping (or deceiving) her to escape from difficult domestic situations. Cornelis Hulsman of Arab West Report has written extensively on this issue.[1]

Camilia Shehata represents the most recent example of an imagined kidnapping, which captured the attention of the nation. Frustrated by her marital situation, she ran away and disappeared for four days. Local Copts immediately began demonstrating demanding her return from her assumed Muslim captors.

Muslims, meanwhile, circulated pictures in which she was wearing a hijab, and claimed Copts had kidnapped her – a willing convert to Islam – holding her in a church or monastery. Salafi Muslims held rallies in her defense, and some threatened to storm the monasteries in search of their ‘sister’. Immediately on the heels of this story followed the case of Abeer Talaat, which culminated in the horrors of Imbaba when Muslims tried to enter the church upon a rumor she was captive there, held apart from her Muslim husband.  The ensuing clash resulted in multiple deaths and the burning of a nearby church with no connection to the rumor.

One day before the Imbaba incident, Camilia Shehata appeared on al-Hayat Christian satellite channel and told the truth of her story. She sat with her husband and child, and confessed to running away from home, due to marital issues. She never converted to Islam, however, and she was sorry for the trouble caused.

In terms of church building issues, it is well known that Christians have had difficulty securing permits. During the Mubarak era, decision-making power was held by the security apparatus, which often decided upon granting or withholding permits due to the perceived reception of Muslims in the area. There is currently a new, draft, unified law for building houses of worship, to govern both churches and mosques on an administrative basis. The first draft has been rejected by the churches of Egypt, in part due to the perception the locus of decision will not move from security.

This issue is similar to a church building conflict in Ezbet Bushra from June 2009, in the governorate of Beni Suef. In this location Fr. Ishaq Kastour was involved in a controversy in which Copts built a factory which was actually purposed to become a church, which included a place for his personal residence. The process was done without approval, and Muslims vandalized the building at various stages. Fr. Ishaq was also removed from the village by the bishop (presumably at the urging of the security apparatus), returned, but was eventually permanently assigned elsewhere. A government sponsored Muslim-Christian reconciliation meeting led to the decision to grant Copts a church building, but on the outskirts of the village, as a hastily constructed mosque was given preference at the original location. As of the completion of an AWR report on the subject, authorization of the church had not yet been granted.

It also is not uncommon for parishioners to disagree about their church leadership. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a hierarchical organization which appoints priests to their diocese. While local sentiment can be and often is taken into consideration, it is not unheard of for a small but active contingent of a congregation to reject their given priest. According to Rida’s report, only thirty Copts participated in the protest against Fr. George. Was this a contingent of malcontents, or indicative of widespread frustration with his leadership? In any event, it would be improper to label the demonstration strictly as Muslim transgression in church affairs.

None of this explanation should be used to justify the parameters of the two stories, but will hopefully make actions more understandable. The girls may have been kidnapped or not, but if not, surely most demonstrators did not know the truth of the situation. It is the case in Egypt, and certainly since the revolution, that the best way to achieve results is to gather masses of people and pressure authorities to grant your demands. In the face of perceived official neglect of Coptic issues, including other cases of alleged kidnapped girls, the demonstration on the part of most was in imitation of other groups’ success.

Should this be necessary? No. Should underage girls have been immediately returned to their family? Yes. Should Copts have blocked roads and resisted dismissal? No. Have there been real cases of kidnapping Coptic adolescents? Perhaps.  Is there blame, when in occurrence, on those who quickly circulate false or unsubstantiated claims of kidnapping? Absolutely.

What is the reality of this case? It is not altogether clear.

Similarly, Muslims have used the power of demonstration to great success in pressuring government to yield to their will. This was seen most recently in the case of the appointed Coptic governor of Qena. Initial demonstrations against him were joined by Copts, in protest of the previous Coptic governor’s poor record and the newly appointed governor’s alleged role in killing protestors during the revolution. Yet the demonstrations against him quickly took on a religious dimension, as area Salafis, and some Muslim Brothers, rejected the idea of having a non-Muslim governor altogether. They blocked roads and threatened to cut off supply lines to popular tourist areas to the east on the Red Sea coast. The government was unable to dislodge them, and a solution was crafted in which the governor was ‘suspended’ for three months. When he left the area, the demonstrations subsided.

Were the Muslims of Beni Ahmad looking to similarly assert their will against a rejected priest? Perhaps. Was the conduct of this priest deserving of their rejection? It is not known. Is it the reality of Upper Egypt that decisions are taken communally rather than through the rule of law? Yes. Is this an acceptable way to govern a nation? No. Is it right for the priest to be removed in this way? No.

What is the reality of this case? It is not altogether clear.

What is clear is the poor, partisan, and inflammatory reporting of these incidents by the Assyrian International News Agency. Whereas AINA did an admirable job of presenting a perspective of these events, when much mainstream reporting is either in ignorance or dismissive of its importance, they failed to present other sides of the issue. Furthermore, amidst this negligence, they assumed the total credibility of the reported Coptic position, in doing so warping the perspective of their readership.

Sectarian issues do not plague Egypt, but they are a significant social problem. Underlying them is an unspoken frustration with the ‘other’, as competing storylines place explanation of these incidents into a greater narrative. Depending on perspective, they are either aberrations in a centuries-long culture of tolerance, or else a disturbing confirmation of pervasive discrimination.

Greater narratives, however, smooth over details. Each individual sectarian incident has its own details, many of which are disputed or unknown. Reporting of these events must take utmost care to prevent their automatic assumption into a narrative. At the same time, reporting must call a spade a spade, when this is clear.

Such clarity is difficult to achieve. With sectarian conflict, both metaphorically and literally, the devil is in the details.


[1] Cornelis Hulsman, “Forced Conversions or not?”, report presented to the New York Council of Churches, June 28, 1999 [RNSAW, 1999, week 26A, art. 37], http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/2126

Rodolph Yanney, “Conversions of Christians to Islam,” January 9, 2001 [RNSAW, 2001, week 01A, art. 4] http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/4251

Cornelis Hulsman, “Open letter to former US Congressman Pastor Ed McNeely for writing President Bush a letter with wrong claims about Christian girls being kidnapped by Muslims,” AWR, 2003, week 30, art. 34, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/11472

Cornelis Hulsman, Usāmah W. al-Ahwānī, Sawsan Jabrah and Nirmīn Fawzī, Was converted girl kidnapped? AWR, 2004, week 28, art. 21, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/16317

Usāmah Wadīc al-Ahwānī, Christian girl Ingy became a member of a Muslim Family, AWR, 2004, week 28, art. 22, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/6372

AWR editorial board, “Western misreporting on Ingy’s conversion to Islam,” AWR, 2004, week 28, art. 38, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/6361

Cornelis Hulsman, Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt; opinions from Egyptians in various positions, AWR, 2004, week 38, art. 28, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/7698 (with a comment of rev. Menes Abdel Nour about the alleged kidnap of Injī Edward Nājī)

Janique Blattmann, Christian Solidarity International claiming forced conversion of Coptic girls to Islam, AWR, 2005, week 53, art. 8, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/12409

Sara Aguzzoni, Media reports of Christians converting to Islam, Arab-West Papers no. 6, August 2008, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/27517

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Sympathy for Islamists

Translation: Against Torture

While Egypt is currently soul searching about its coming political identity, with Islamist governance among the many possible democratic choices, it is good to remember the suffering endured by these groups over the past several decades. The following excerpts are not meant to offer support for the Islamist cause, nor to deny that numbers of Islamists engaged in terrorist or violent revolutionary activity. Rather, it is an attempt to highlight the humanity of these individuals, especially in reference to the operations of state which dehumanized them.

The first selection concerns Kamal Habib, an active Egyptian jihadist from the 1970s. The excerpt comes from ‘Journey of the Jihadist’, by Fawaz Gerges. When asked, “Isn’t jihad by its very nature revolutionary rather than peaceful?” he replied:

We did not fire the first round in this battle. The rulers had closed all avenues for a peaceful transfer of power. We had no choice but to take up arms to raise Islam’s banner. The fight was imposed on us.

… Some of us arrived at different conclusions as to what could and should be done to resist aggression against our Islamic identity. The prison years also radicalized [the youth] and set them on another violent journey. The torture left deep physical and psychological scars on jihadists and fueled their thirst for vengeance.

Look at my hands – still spotted with the scars from cigarette burns nineteen years later. For days on end we were brutalized – our faces bloodied, our bodies broken with electrical shocks and other devices. The torturers aimed at breaking our souls and brainwashing us. They wanted to humiliate us and force us to betray the closest members of our cells. I spent sleepless nights listening to the screams of young men echoing from the torture chambers.

A degrading, dehumanizing experience. I cannot convey to you the rage felt by [the youth] who were tortured after Sadat’s assassination. Some left the prisons and the country determined to exact revenge on their tormentors and torturers. The authorities’ brutal methods nourished fanaticism and sowed the seeds for more violence and bloodshed.

Since the revolution, Kamal Habib is still prominent among his group, Islamic Jihad, which has abandoned violence and is seeking to form a political party. Among his recent statements has been a call to eliminate all foreign universities in Egypt, since they work against the development of Islamic thought.

The second selection is more recent, concerning the case of Adel Futuh Ali al-Gazzar, who was arrested following his return to Egypt after having been interred at Guantanamo Bay. The excerpt comes from al-Masry al-Youm, an Egyptian daily newspaper with an online English component.

Gazzar was picked up by US forces while working for the Red Crescent [the equivalent of the Red Cross in Islamic countries] in Afghanistan. He was transferred to a US prison facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and other forms of torture, according to Reprieve, a UK advocacy group for prisoners’ rights. During this time, Gazzar lost his leg, which had been injured in a US bombing raid, due to lack of medical treatment.

He was then sent to the United States’ Guantanamo prison for terrorism suspects where he was held incommunicado for nine years. The Guantanamo bay prison camp has been widely condemned by US and international human rights organizations.

In 2010 the US government cleared Gazzar of the charges against him and released him to Slovakia. He was not repatriated to Egypt out of fear that he would be tortured.

According to the article, Gazzar had been convicted by an Egyptian court in absentia in 2001, concerning involvement in a plot to overthrow Mubarak. He was arrested at the airport so that the government would be able to assess his current legal status.

There is a current sentiment which imagines groups like the Muslim Brotherhood enjoy favor in post-revolutionary Egypt because they are best placed to both appeal to the masses on the basis of religion and secure the stability of middle and upper class economic interests. It is true that many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are businessmen of means. It is also true that many in Egypt accuse them of playing with religion in order to make money.

Yet like the Islamists described above, they have also suffered. Even though their political opposition was not violent, many, if not most, have spent time in prison. As such, an understandable premise is that Islamists have not accepted the fact of their oppression simply to make money. This would suggest that the above sentiment is wrong. It would suggest they have their eyes on full transformation of society, which would include a reshaping of the political system, with themselves, and those of like mind, the principle shapers.

If this interpretation would turn pragmatic and callous, it might suggest that such severe repression was necessary to keep their vision from being implemented, and might be necessary still. If it would turn cynical it might suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood should not be trusted when they make promises of sharing power; this could be a temporary measure in preparation for their ultimate designs. If it were to turn hopeful, it might suggest that having suffered, they would be loathe to inflict others with the same fate, and may indeed craft a system of governance resonant with Egyptian religious realities.

I do not mean to state I have a feel for which of these suggestions is closest to reality. Rather, I hope these portions serve only to lend a level of appreciation for the Islamists of Egypt. By all appearances, though appearances can be deceiving, they have suffered for what they believe in. While the power of conviction may make them dangerous, it also makes them worthy of respect.

Other articles and analysis may suggest ways in which they have manipulated, compromised, and disassembled throughout the years. For these, respect may possibly be withdrawn. Yet no man undergoes torture for only his self-interest. Suffering under conviction makes possible a wide and idealistic following. While this following should not be overestimated, neither should it be dismissed. If they are opposed out of fear, fear will bend before their courage. If they are engaged from appreciation, love is able to trump courage. It will do so in humility, weighing the worth of their convictions. Some may wither, others may remain.

Little else, and certainly not brute power, can challenge such powerful example.

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The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party: First Conference and Key Questions

The speakers' platform. Dr. al-Erian is seated in the middle.

Dr. Essam al-Erian, vice-president for the Muslim Brotherhood established Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), officially commenced party activity in a conference in Shubra, Cairo. The location was specifically chosen, he stated, due to the fact it was an area long neglected and marginalized by the former regime. The FJP wishes to see Egypt become completely independent of all foreign powers, especially economically, so that all, especially the poor, may benefit.

Also in attendance were Dr. Mohamed al-Beltagi and Mr. Gamal Shehata of the Muslim Brotherhood, each of whom also gave speeches. They were joined by the Egyptian poet Mohamed Goudah and artist Wagih al-Arabi, as well as Dr. Duaa’ Maghazi, a Muslim sister. Dr. Rafik Habib, the Egyptian Christian researcher and vice-president of the FJP was listed among the presenters, but was not in attendance.

Dr. Mohamed al-Beltagi

Al-Erian railed against the long scope of foreign interference in the Egyptian economy, stretching back to the British occupation, the monastic period of King Farouk, the Free Officers led by President Jamal Abdel Nasser, and culminating in President Mubarak. Each allowed foreign powers to profit off the Egyptian people. Al-Erian insisted that any current loans accepted by the Egyptian state must be completely absent of conditions.

Al-Erian was also critical of the current security situation in Egypt. He made a parallel to the failures of officers in 1973, during which their ranks were purged to remove incapable or corrupt figures. He wondered why this has not yet been done among police following the revolution, when many have been involved in torture and used live ammunition against protestors.

Yet while he was critical of the police, al-Erian offered praise and thanks to the military. First and foremost this was for their role in protecting the people during the revolution, contrary to their orders to fire upon them. He also praised the army for its promise to surrender authority to a civilian, elected government, and awaited its fulfillment in time, with full confidence.

At the same time, al-Erian denied there was an agreement between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, stating the FJP would not hesitate to criticize the military if it diverged from its revolutionary mandate. So far, however, their mistakes have been minor.

Speaking to the fears of an Islamist dominated government, al-Erian stated the FJP was not looking for a parliamentary majority. In fact, the party aim is to capture between 30-35% of the seats. Recalling cooperation during the revolution, he stated that the Muslim Brotherhood, nor any other group, would have been able to overthrow Mubarak on its own. The common interests of all political parties are substantial, and they should work together to craft a national unity government. The political system needs strong and diverse parties, reiterating the FJP desires a civil state based on the law.

Dr. al-Erian

Al-Erian spoke briefly about foreign policy, urging the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, and NATO to cease operations in Libya. The Libyan people are capable to rid themselves of Gaddafi on their own, and NATO strikes only serve to demolish the country and its infrastructure.

Al-Erian closed by assuring the audience the FJP, due to the skills gained by the Muslim Brotherhood, was capable to undertake its political responsibilities and participate in rebuilding Egypt. The party welcomed all in this task, Muslims and Christians, men and women, workers and farmers, the young and the old. Furthermore, it was dedicated to serving the interests of this entire constituency.

There were approximately 800-1000 people in attendance, seated in a tent erected in a central square of Shubra under the evening sky. Most people appeared to be of lower middle class economic status.

While no space was given for questions and answers, in subsequent research we would like to probe further the relationships between the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi movement. Specifically:

  • What is the relationship between the FJP and the Brotherhood? According to reports it is to be independent in administration and finance, yet its leaders are all Brotherhood veterans, appointed by the group. How will the political party function in practice?
  • What is the role of the FJP headquarters in Manial, Cairo? By appearance this is a small office on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building. Yet inside was a caretaker, with his bed set up near the conference table, with a direct line to al-Erian. The Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, meanwhile, are an impressive stand alone multi-story building recently constructed on a major road in Muqattam, Cairo. Does this suggest a practical subjection of party to greater Brotherhood leadership?
  • To what degree does the FJP include Muslim Brotherhood youth? These are depicted in the media of having disagreements with the traditional Brotherhood leadership. Is this a reality?
  • What is the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas? Several years ago al-Erian was heavily involved in supplying Gaza with medical supplies through the doctors’ syndicate, utilizing Hamas connections.[1] Do official links between the movements exist? Is their coordination or funding involved? However sympathetic with the plight of Gaza, does the Muslim Brotherhood approve of Hamas’ tactics?
  •  What relationships exist between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council? Through personal conversations between Cornelis Hulsman and Osama Farid, a Muslim Brotherhood senior figure, the group maintains a direct line with senior military officers. What is the extent of their communication? Does it differ from that between the military council and other political or social groups?
  • What links exist between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups? Will there be political cooperation between the FJP and Salafi parties? Some Brotherhood members have criticized the Salafis, while others have hosted conferences between the two groups. Is there an official stance?
  • What are the different trends among Salafis, who generally are not an organized presence in society? What are their methods of propagation? From where does their funding originate? Do they serve foreign or transnational agendas? Does the Muslim Brotherhood?

Many people, both in Egypt and the west, are asking these questions right now. While both the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood are working hard to demonstrate they are a moderate, centrist political and social force, their answers to questions like these will go a long way in demonstrating their credibility.

One final note concerning the historical reality of the Muslim Brotherhood, highlighted by Badran, a resident of Shubra and a Brotherhood supporter: in 1948 the Muslim Brotherhood first began conversations with the Egyptian armed forces, which were repeated in 1952. This opened the political space for them, but by 1954 they suffered repression. In 1970 President Sadat, a military official, once again engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, giving wide space for operation, but by 1980 began repression once again.

This pattern is undoubtedly known and feared by the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless of conspiracy theories which posit military favor for the group, it is certain that once again the Brotherhood has approval to operate openly. This may be one reason behind the constant reassertions of their civil, democratic, moderate intentions. If true, there is no need for repression. Yet it may be asked if they also wonder if their window of opportunity is now open, and that they intend to consolidate power before they are repressed once again.

The political future of Egypt is wide open. May all participants operate from integrity and concern for the nation. The short term horizon will be very interesting, and perhaps foundational. May peace, stability, freedom, and justice mark what is to come, Islamist or otherwise.

 


[1] From a personal conversation several years ago between al-Erian and Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab West Report.

 

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Conventional Wisdom and the Muslim Brotherhood

Logo Muslim Brotherhood
Muslim Brotherhood Logo

In the early days of the Egyptian revolution, one of the significant fears, especially in the West, was that a transition to democratic rule would usher in an Islamic government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. This has since been established as the conventional wisdom, even in Egypt. Liberal groups urge postponing anticipated September parliamentary elections, in order to gain more time to form viable political parties able to compete with the newly created and Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party.

Conventional wisdom was established following the results of the March 19 popular referendum on amendments to the Egyptian constitution. A yes vote was the adopted position by Islamist groups, many of which portrayed the effort as a defense of religion. They won overwhelmingly, with 77% of the vote, in unprecedented 40% voter turnout.

Yet in recent days there have been a few contrarian indicators concerning widespread popular support for the Brotherhood. Gallop conducted a poll in which only 15% said they support the group. The poll does match the uncertain and contradictory state of Egyptian politics, however, for although only 1% support a theocracy, 69% believe religious leaders should have an advisory role in legislation. Depending on how campaign rhetoric is spun, the population may vote Islamist out of fear from godless liberals, or else run screaming out of fear of becoming a new Iran. Yet in terms of tangible support, if the poll is accurate, the Muslim Brotherhood is not inherently perched to assume political power.

Part of the assumption of Brotherhood popularity is built upon their reputation of providing support to the poor in social services. This is true from their inception, and in the 1940s they built a wide network of service provision throughout rural and urban Egypt. Yet in the more recent decades under Mubarak in which the Brotherhood was an outlawed, though tolerated, social presence and the only semi-legitimate opposition political force, measuring and verifying their welfare reach became more difficult. Nevertheless, the assumption remained.

This assumption has been challenged in research conducted by Daniella Pioppi. She argues:

The Muslim Brotherhood’s social activities after the Nasser parenthesis have never reached the levels of diffusion and organization of the 1930s and 1940s. Furthermore, they are generally aimed at the middle to upper classes rather than the most disadvantaged social strata. Since the repression cycle that started in the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s social activities have been drastically reduced and do not seem to play a significant role in popular mobilization, not least for lack of a clear political and social project.

Her paper, and others, can be found here.

Excepting the previously stated referendum, Egypt has not had open, democratic elections for over fifty years. In the absence of criteria by which to judge, it is nearly impossible to forecast the electoral choices of over 80 million Egyptians, most of whom have been depoliticized their entire life. Will the ‘uneducated, religious masses’ be swayed to vote Islamist, believing this to be a vote for God? Will the ‘taste of freedom and liberty’ make them forswear the Muslim Brotherhood, widely known as an authoritarian organization in its own right? No one knows. Neither the Gallop poll, nor the referendum should be taken as an accurate gauge of political currents.

Politics is always full of surprises. In all likelihood, an unfettered election process will produce nothing less, no matter what the end result may be.

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Refuting bin Laden’s Martyrdom

The Middle East Media Research Institute recently highlighted a YouTube video issued by the former Mufti of Egypt, Nasr Farid Wassel, on May 7, 2011. In his presentation, MEMRI quotes him as saying:

The martyr bin Laden, Allah’s mercy upon him, waged Jihad for the sake of Allah against the Soviets and against America. … There was a call at the Al-Nour Mosque to pray for the soul of bin Laden, since he is a martyr. But I said that we were forbidden to pray for the soul of a martyr, and that bin Laden lives on. He is not dead. ‘Do not consider those who were killed for the sake of Allah to be dead. They live on, sustained by their Lord.’ Therefore, I said, immediately after his martyrdom, that he was a martyr, and that he had been killed by the enemies.

The link to the video clip presented by MEMRI can be accessed here.

Arab West Report spoke with Dr. Abd al-Muti Bayoumi, member of the Islamic Research Academy at the Azhar. Bayoumi did not know what would lead the former Mufti to issue a statement such as this. From his personal viewpoint, however, Bayoumi declared that bin Laden killed civilians, and therefore, was not a martyr.

Bayoumi stated that the Islamic Research Academy has not discussed the question whether or not bin Laden was a martyr.

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Attack on the Coptic Sit-In at Maspero: Eyewitness Testimony

Coptic protestors at Maspero suffered two separate attacks on May 14, attacks which included Salafi Muslims along with common ‘thugs’. This report updates a previous text written about the Maspero attack, which was crafted from interviews with leaders the day of May 14, supplemented with media reports the next morning and phone calls to Mina Magdy, the political affairs coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). According to witnesses interviewed May 16, a number of the details related in the news have been incorrect, if not outright misleading. This report is unable to corroborate claims independently. Efforts to speak with local army and police personnel on the scene were politely declined, as would be expected, in deference to announcements made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. To my knowledge, they have not commented directly on this event.

Security Measures

Testimony is taken primarily from Emad Farag. Farag is part of the committee for order, tasked with securing the northern entrance to the sit-in near the Foreign Ministry. In my earlier report I wondered why Coptic security measures were so tight, while a simple rope separated the sit-in area from the major thoroughfare running north-south along the Nile River. Farag explained the sit-in had previously cut off this road, but it was reopened through negotiations with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. In exchange for agreement to retry arrested members of MYU, who were apprehended during the first sit-in, General Coordinator Rami Kamel consented to pull back the protest area.

Emad Farag

Upon arriving at Maspero on the morning of the 16th, however, I was surprised to find no Coptic security measures at all. Automobile traffic had stopped as dozens of riot police, army personnel, and military vehicles lined the road. Yet pedestrians, including myself, simply walked right through their lines, checked neither for ID nor weapons. Farag explained the army had assumed responsibility for safety after the attacks, and instructed the Copts to desist.

Farag then proceeded to relate the story of the evening attack. Around midnight, while he was stationed at his post, a group of ‘thugs’ began to gather under the May 15th bridge, and began harassing and beating individual Coptic protestors either leaving or joining the sit-in. Shortly thereafter, another group came from over the bridge, and began firing upon the Copts, though from a very far distance of about 1000 meters. When meeting up together, they began to advance toward the sit-in, carrying knives, swords, clubs, and stones, in addition to guns.

Off-ramp from the May 15 bridge. Blackened areas are from where Molotov cocktails burned.

Their approach took the attention of the protestors, but Farag instructed his colleagues in the committee to lock arms in front of the already constructed barbed wire, so as to prevent Copts from running out to meet them. Farag then phoned the captain of the police, who told him his men were ill equipped to meet armed ‘thugs’. They were stationed a few hundred meters to the north of the sit-in, blocking off a side road to the area. Their presence, though, was minimal, and outfitted only with riot shields and batons. The captain told him, however, he would phone the army to bring its weapons truck.

Farag then went personally to speak to an army officer who was stationed with his men at the Radio and TV building at the site of the sit-in. The officer refused to get involved, stating this was the responsibility of the police.

By this time some of the Copts had broken through the human chain and jumped through the barbed wire barricade. They wished to hold the ‘thugs’ far away from the sit-in, since several women were also participating there. Farag called the police captain again, who now responded that they could not get involved because they could not know who was who in the skirmish. Frustrated, Farag returned to his post and told the other assembled Copts to join in the defense, which he himself did as well.

Distance from the bridge to the sit-in area. The round building to the left is the Radio and TV building, where Copts were demonstrating.

Running out to meet the ‘thugs’, Copts broke off tree branches and wooden planks from sidewalk benches. Media reports stated they also broke up the sidewalk so as to obtain concrete to hurl at their assailers. Farag did not think so, but a few meters from the barbed wire was an area, perhaps one meter in diameter, that was pulled up. Perhaps Copts did so, Farag contemplated, but on the whole he believed they simply threw back the projectiles tossed at them. In any case, this was the only evidence of sidewalk destruction, not fitting with the impression of chaos described in some reports.

Sidewalk torn out to secure rocks for the confrontation. See the bench behind no longer with its wooden planks.

The two groups met about halfway between the sit-in area and the off-ramp of the May 15 bridge. There were immediate but brief clashes, after which Copts drove the ‘thugs’ back up the off-ramp where they took refuge on higher ground. From this point onward a buffer zone developed between the two sides, with rock throwing between them but also gunfire coming from the original attackers.

Farag confirmed media reports stating the Copts apprehended one of the ‘thugs’, and turned him over to the army. He was unable to confirm a report that stated the ‘thug’ possessed an ID card linking him to the NDP party of Mubarak. Yet Fadi Philip, foreign media spokesman for the MYU, stated he admitted to being paid 500 LE, the equivalent of slightly less than $100 US, by a sheikh in order to participate in the attacks.

Farag added incidentally that throughout the sit-in the committee for order turned over to the army a number of entrants upon whom were found weapons after being searched. He stated the army confiscated the weapons, but then sent the people on their way.

Given that he was a participant in the defense, Farag did not know exactly how much time had passed until the authorities arrived. He estimated that about an hour after the clash began, a police tear gas truck came from behind the Coptic position and launched its canisters which landed on the Coptic side of the standoff. The tear gas sent all parties scattering; Copts ran back to the sit-in area while the ‘thugs’ ran off into the distance. Farag states neither the police nor the army pursued the assailants. Media reports, however, claim that fifty ‘thugs’ were arrested for their role in attacking Copts during the sit-in. It is possible these were later apprehended.

Bullets and Tear Gas Canisters from the Attack

Farag then walked with me to the southern entrance of the sit-in area, to describe the attack which happened earlier. Though he was not present at the beginning, he ran to the scene to investigate when commotion occurred. Around 8pm a group of 100-200 ‘thugs’ descended the on-ramp of the October 6th bridge, and a similar story unfolded. Copts ran out to meet them, suffered injury from gunfire and other weapons, but drove them away after only ten minutes. In my earlier survey of the news, I was not aware of this attack. Farag stated that men in the appearance of Salafis were among the armed in this group as well. Salafi presence had been denied in earlier media reports.

On-Ramp for the October 6 Bridge

Media Manipulations

Along the way he refuted two matters that have been reported in the media. First, he directed attention to the Foreign Ministry and the Radio and TV building. It was claimed that Copts had attacked these building before the altercation, but neither showed signs of damage. It is possible minor damage may have been repaired, as a full day had passed between the altercation and my visit.

The second matter represented what Farag claimed was a propaganda falsehood. On the first floor balcony of the Radio and TV building was erected a video camera pointing to the main stage, but on a swivel pivot. Farag stated the camera was pointed toward empty ground to the side of the stage, and showed this footage on state TV, claiming the sit-in was over.

The Radio and TV Building, with Camera Mounted on the Balcony

Statements concerning the end of the sit-in may well have been believed coming on the heels of Pope Shenouda’s message on TV, apparently urging its abandonment. The pope declared the matter had moved beyond the level of expression, due to infiltration that was ruining the reputation of the protestors, as well as of Egypt. He feared for their safety after the attacks, and said they would be ‘the losers’ if they continued. Furthermore, he stated, the patience of the nation’s leaders was growing thin.

Fr. Mattias Nasr Manqarius, priest of the Virgin Mary Church in Ezbet al-Nakhl, Cairo, is the official spokesman for the MYU, and one of two priests committed to the sit-in. He stated the pope’s words were not meant as a directive for the protestors to leave; in fact, he stated he had visited the pope shortly before his announcement, and was given only encouragement for their ‘normal and righteous’ demands. The next day, however, Bishop Musa, bishop of youth, confirmed the validity of the pope’s encouragement to leave Maspero.

Media manipulations, however, are claimed by the MYU. Before the pope spoke on television, a report emerged from Bishop Musa urging the youth to give up the sit-in. Asked about their refusal to heed his words, Rami Kamel stated the bishop’s words were not conveyed correctly. He knew this from video messages afterwards from the bishop in which he denied asking them to leave. Instead, the bishop offered his blessing. Irresponsibility of the media, claims Philip, was one reason why the MYU chose to demonstrate at the Radio and TV building at Maspero in the first place.

Medical Clinic

Injured Copts from the two attacks were treated at a makeshift clinic. A total of twenty-four doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have set up shifts in order to provide medical care. All medicines have been donated, and George Sidky Eskander, who has taken a vacation from his pharmaceutical company in order to join the sit-in, states supplies and equipment have always arrived at just the right moment, as if from God.

Medicines Stored inside the Clinic

Three of the twenty-four medical team are Muslims, one of which even keeps to the Salafi trend, but rejects the behavior of those practicing violence. Another Muslim is Mustafa Ibrahim. Though possessing no medical education he has been trained in field-based first aid, and has volunteered previously in Tahrir Square and in Libya. He states he is willing to die here with his brothers the Copts. His assistant, the other Muslim Ahmed al-Masry, is a graphic design student at Ain Shams University, but learned medical care from his father, a surgeon. He is disturbed how religious groups are tearing the nation apart, after the experiences of Muslims and Christians together at Tahrir Square. As a revolutionary there, he was shot in the arm by police on January 25, the first day of protests.

Mustafa and George, in front of the Clinic

Ahmed, Showing Where he was Shot in the Arm

Eskander stated that many of the injured refused to be transported to hospitals, out of fear they would be arrested there. Instead, during the attacks of May 14 the clinic tent grew three times in size, treating open wounds and bruises as best they could. Many of the serious cases, such as one skull fracture, were rushed to local hospitals.

Legal Services

Karam Ghubriyal is a Coptic lawyer providing volunteer legal services and documentation for the MYU. He stated that fifty-six people were arrested from two hospitals, and only eight of these were Muslims. It is not known if this number corresponds to the totals announced of those involved in the attack, or has simply been unreported in the media. These arrested were taken from the Coptic Hospital on Ramsis Street and the Police Hospital in the Aguza neighborhood. They were charged with ‘thuggery’, and detained first in a military holding facility, before being transferred to a public jail.

Ghubriyal, working with a team of lawyers including several Muslims, was able to secure the release of thirty-two arrested Copts. Due to the late hour running into the designated curfew of 2am, Ghubriyal made sure those returning to Minya in Upper Egypt did not try to return home and perhaps be rearrested. Instead, the five went back to Maspero and spent the night at the sit-in. He is currently working with his team to secure the release of the remaining sixteen Copts in custody.

Area Management

As the day progressed Maspero appeared more and more chaotic, as pedestrians on foot traversed the area on their way north or south. The army permitted street vendors to enter the area as well, setting up booths for tea or snacks. More and more Copts also arrived simply to join in the demonstration. It was a working day, and thus numbers did not resemble the weekend totals of several thousands, but it was clear many Copts continued to support the effort, despite the message from Pope Shenouda.

Rolla Subhi is a twenty-two year old Coptic woman heading up the committee for order. She supervises the subcommittees for checkpoints, as mentioned earlier with Farag, the speaking state, food, drink, and cleanup, and a very important committee – given the increasing commotion – called ‘rangers’.

Ramon Nadir and Claire Makram are two of the approximately fifty rangers, ten of whom are women. Their responsibility is to roam the area and look for signs of trouble. They communicate with the Egyptian police and army, and were able later in the day to re-setup the separate Coptic checkpoints to ensure no weapons entered the area. They inquire about the hunger, thirst, or fatigue of key volunteers. Perhaps their most important responsibility is simply to check in on crowds. Whenever a group begins to assemble of more than three or four, and certainly if voices are raised, the nearest ranger investigates to see that everything is ok. Rangers make certain disputes are resolved quietly, before escalation. It is impossible to control every Copt who comes to protest, Subhi states; fears exist that less educated or more traditional Copts might respond to an insult given, becoming easily provoked. The ranger team, however, has kept problems to a minimum so far.

Ramon and Claire, to the Left

Conclusion

In his first live television appearance, General Tantawi of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces addressed the graduating class of the police academy. He stated the most urgent needs of Egypt rest in its economic and security stabilization. He promised he would not allow any forces to divide the national unity of Egyptians along religious lines, mentioning specifically that sit-ins harm the economy and provide opportunity for ‘thugs’ to wreak havoc toward their self-serving goals.

Many at Maspero believe the actions of the army and police, in this and other sectarian instances, to indicate they are against not only the Coptic sit-in, but biased against Copts in general. Coupled with an understanding that Pope Shenouda has declared them to be ‘the losers’ if they continue, the protestors believe more violence will be directed their way, and perhaps they will be evicted by the army. For now, their protest continues, but Fr. Mattias does not paint a pessimistic picture. ‘Yes’, he states, ‘some of our demands have been met. Sixteen closed churches have been promised to be reopened. We believe the authorities when they say they will open them. But we will stay here until it actually happens, so that lower level officials receive pressure from above to make it happen.’

It is difficult to say if the Copts, and several Muslims, at Maspero are correct in their actions. They press on contrary to the leanings, if not will, of both their civil and religious authorities. Yet they are people of conviction, courage, and organization, fighting for the rights of all Egyptians, not just Copts. Their appearance, either if manipulated through the media, or if truly in essence, is of a separatist action. Are they uniting Egyptians, or dividing them? If dividing, is it in positive effort to bring awareness to those in the dark?

Philip sees their struggle as akin to the civil rights movement in the United States. It is not only that laws are bad, but that good laws are not enforced. ‘It is not just for ourselves that we demonstrate,’ he says. ‘If Coptic rights are not respected, then perhaps next to fall will be the rights of Muslims of different persuasion.’

It is too difficult to judge, and furthermore it is not my place. Yet may prayer be asked for wisdom on their behalf, patience for those who grow weary of their voice, and forgiveness for those who violently attack them. May all find place to give blessing to the other, no matter how stridently they wrestle politically.

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Attack on Coptic Protest at Maspero: Early Details and Context

Two people were killed and scores were injured following an overnight clash at the site of an ongoing Coptic protest outside the Egyptian Radio and Television building at Maspero, Cairo. According to Mina Magdy, head of the political committee for the Maspero Youth Union organizing the sit-in, hundreds of thugs arrived around 12:30am and began attacking the protestors. Magdy stated the police did not involve themselves immediately, but the attack continued until 1am when police fired live ammunition into the air, and fired tear gas to disperse the attackers. Magdy relates there were around one thousand demonstrators at the time of the attack, and though the numbers have now decreased, the sit-in is continuing.

Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reports there were 250 attackers, fifty of whom have been arrested by police. Attackers lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails from an overhead bridge nearby. Al-Masry al-Youm reports the attackers fired ammunition into the demonstrators. CNN reports that the Coptic demonstrators broke up the sidewalk so as to defend themselves by throwing chunks of concrete at their assailants. One, it is reported, was apprehended and beaten badly.

Al-Ahram reports the altercation originated following arguments with the protestors and drivers of vehicles on the major road in front of the protest area. It quotes a protest organizer who stated the driver of the vehicle tried to enter the demonstration area, but refused to be searched for weapons, and tried to instigate trouble. The paper states the attacks were in revenge of this altercation, but the driver is not identified.

None of the reports or Coptic sources at Maspero stated the assailants were Salafi Muslims in their appearance; rather, they were thugs. The identity and motivations, however, are unknown. Salafis stand accused of fermenting and perhaps perpetrating many of the recent attacks on Copts and others since the revolution, though it is also claimed remnants of the former regime and security system have been provoking sectarian conflict.

I was able to visit the Maspero protestors yesterday, before the attacks, and learned of their organization, witnessing the layout of the area.

The protest area at Maspero has three main entrances, each with both army personnel and Coptic guards to search all before they enter. The system is similar to that established at Tahrir Square during the revolution, to ensure all weapons were kept out of the protest area.

Yet despite the precautions taken at the walkway entrances, the protest area stretches parallel with the major north-south thoroughfare running along the Nile River. There was simply a string of rope separating the protest area from the street, and traffic passed smoothly. Several policeman were present, but there was no cordon to separate the protestors from the street. Sporadically protestors would cross over to the opposite sidewalk, and relax on the other side. I witnessed what appeared to be one or two minor altercations with vehicles as they passed by. Nothing transpired, but traffic slowed as protestors emptied into the street inquiring about the vehicle.

The Maspero Youth Union is coordinated by Rami Kamel, a 24 year old law student at Cairo University. It represents a merger of several Coptic organizations which organized following the attacks on a church in Atfih, to the south of Cairo. The conducted a sit-in protest over several days, vacating the premises upon promise of the ruling military council to investigate and rebuild the church. Yet Fadi Philip, foreign media spokesman for the media committee, states their departure was not entirely voluntary, as they were attacked by the army as they were leaving. Nineteen protestors, including three Muslims, were arrested on charges of weapons possession and thuggery. Philip stated these charges were baseless.

The location of Maspero was chosen for three reasons. First, they believed holding their sit-in at Tahrir would be too provocative. Second, the site of the Radio and Television headquarters represented their belief concerning media bias against Coptic affairs, especially in the reporting about the Atfih church. Third, they had established Maspero as a place of protest earlier, following the attacks on Nag Hamadi, in January 2010, and Alexandria, on New Year’s Eve 2010. Before their initiative, Coptic protests had almost universally been within church grounds.

Following the attacks on churches in Imbaba, Copts returned to protest at Maspero, where the sit-in has now continued for over a week. On Friday, the day of protest at Tahrir Square for national unity and Palestinian solidarity, thousands of Copts joined the sit-in protest instead at Maspero, about a ten minute walk to the north of Tahrir Square.

The protest area at Maspero hosts a stage from which speeches are delivered and chants issued. Rami Kamel states the stage is open to anyone; Michael Munir, a youthful activist stated I could speak if I so desired, and introduced me to the committee member who could arrange this. Kamel states even Salafi Muslims are welcome to speak, though none have as of yet. Several Muslims, however, have joined their protests in expression of solidarity.

The Maspero area also houses several tents. One is for medical supplies, another for food, and two for providing space for interviews and committee discussions. Banners proclaiming Coptic slogans are everywhere, also lining the street in front of the area. Among these was a large sign showing sixteen pictures of recent incidents suffered by the Coptic community. Most banners were not provocative, but did emphasize a particular Coptic frame of reference.

Rami Kamel, however, states the efforts of the Maspero Youth Union are to emphasize Coptic rights within a framework of citizenship, far from sectarianism. He desires the sit-in to be seen as political action, not as religious or church based.

Two Coptic Orthodox priests have joined the sit-in, Fr. Philopater Jamil, from Giza, Cairo, and Fr. Mattias Nasr Manqarious, from Ezbet al-Nakhl, Cairo. Kamel states the presence of two priests helps lend legitimacy to the protest in the eyes of the Coptic faithful, but that it is good to have only two priests, and not more, or else the Maspero effort might appear to be more religious than is intended.

Fr. Philopater and Fr. Mattias were among the original Coptic demonstrators which merged into Maspero Youth Union, and Fr. Mattias is the official spokesperson for the group. They are also the editors of al-Katiba al-Tibiya,[1] a Coptic newspaper focused on reporting about grievances suffered by the Coptic community. The newspaper is widely distributed in Coptic Orthodox Churches, and has been understood as enflaming the widespread Coptic perception of persecution. They are linked also to Copts in the United States, which often call for the intervention of the US government or the international community in defense of Egyptian Copts. For their activities they have come under approbation from church hierarchy.

The CNN article quoted Rafiq Hanna, a protestor, as calling for international protection, stating the Copts are threatened all over Egypt. As I visited Maspero, identifying myself as an American, I was often asked why the United States did not intervene, putting pressure on the Egyptian government to secure their human rights. Yet during the national unity and Palestinian solidarity protests in Tahrir Square, Fr. Philopater, officially representing the Maspero Youth Union, addressed the crowd in the strongest language possible: We reject all international interference in Egyptian affairs. The concerns of the Copts are Egyptian concerns only.

Mina Magdy explained this was part and parcel of their Egyptian identity; the continuity of Christianity in Egypt is in their hands alone. If support was sought from a foreign power, this power would only support as long as it was in their interest to do so. Meanwhile, the effort to appeal internationally would be seen as traitorous. One only would have to look to Iraq, he stated, to see how poorly the United States has protected the Christian community there.

I asked Madgy if his position had changed after the attacks on Maspero. It did not, he said. We reject foreign interference in Egyptian affairs.

The goals of the Maspero Youth Union are to work for a civil state, the concept of citizenship, and equal rights and equality for all. Their particular rights, demanded in this sit-in, are for a unified law for building houses of worship, a law against discrimination in any form, the right to be ruled by Christian law in personal affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), opening of churches which had been closed by security prior to the revolution, the release of their imprisoned colleagues, and the release of a nun, Maryam Raghib, who was arrested for adopting children, as adoption is forbidden under the Islamic sharia.

Additionally, the union supports calls, made also by others, for a joint military-civilian council to guide Egypt through its transitional period of government. It seeks the trial of all criminals involved in recent sectarian attacks. It wishes the cancellation of all traditional use of ‘reconciliation committees’ to smooth over sectarian conflicts and release perpetrators. It does not call for removal of Article 2 of the Constitution, which declares Islam to be the official religion of the state, with the principles of Islamic sharia as the source of legislation. Though it finds this article to be contrary to principles of civil government, it believes the removal thereof to be impossible, and is thus not on the agenda of activity.

Kamel stated negotiations with the ruling military council were resulting in progress in crafting an anti-discrimination law, and also in securing the opening of several churches.

The Maspero Youth Union does not advocate any particular political position or party, but rejects official dialogue and cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups. This is on the grounds that, whatever individual members of these groups might profess, sincerely or otherwise, as ideologies their written words speak against the concept of citizenship. Therefore, until this changes, the union will not allow itself to be co-opted into the betterment of the Islamist image.

Rami Kamel states that the political and non-religious stance of the Maspero Youth Union is informed by his personal philosophy of liberation theology, in an Orthodox Christian perspective. He emphasized this was not of the Latin American variety which promoted violence; rather, non-violence was the rule though self-defense is permitted. He believes the Christian faith should drive one to strive for social justice, though through means limited by Christian ethics. Specifically, one should submit to violence and not strike back, not cowering from the attack but insisting on one’s rights all the while. Paul the Apostle, in Acts 22, is taken as a model.

Yet it seemed that despite the sincerity of this philosophy among Maspero leadership, it did not necessarily reach the hundreds of ordinary Coptic Egyptians who populated the protest. Kamel stated they do their best to instill this value and reign in the excitement of the protestors. There were not, however, religious activities such as prayer groups or Bible studies, through which commitment and discipline might be achieved. These activities, Kamel stated, would transform the demonstration into a religious activity. He purposed their efforts be seen only as political action, in defense of Coptic rights, but from a position of citizenship, not religion.

The facts of the overnight attack on the Coptic demonstration are still yet to be determined. The day before, Mina, an ordinary protestor, stated that Maspero was suffering from attempts to instigate conflict. He was afraid that if fighting broke out, the army would use this as pretext to evict them from their place. In terms of instigation, this fear now appears justified, but so far, the army has allowed the sit-in to continue.

There is much distrust currently among Copts concerning the direction of the revolution, the space Salafi Muslims have to operate, and the suspected secret intentions of the ruling military council. Many Egyptians of all persuasions have equal concern and confusion, even if their questions are directed differently. May patience and wisdom be sought by all, as they continue to cling to calls for justice. May civility reign as this process, however messily, is determined.


[1] In Coptic history, al-Katiba al-Tibiya was an Egyptian legion from Thebes, fighting for the Roman army in Europe. When demanded to renounce their faith and worship the emperor, the entire legion refused, submitting instead to martyrdom.

The concept of martyrdom is key for the Coptic Orthodox Church; indeed, their church calendar begins from the era of Diocletian, a Roman emperor responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christians. A popular chant of Copts states, ‘with our souls and our blood we will redeem you, oh cross!’ As Kamel explained, this was not an aggressive slogan. Rather, as Jesus redeemed humanity through death, so also are Copts willing to suffer martyrdom for the sake of the cross.

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Attack on St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo

Over 10 people were killed and more than 200 injured in an attack on the St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo, which took place overnight on May 7, 2011. The following information is taken directly from the testimony of two Christians of the church, one named Rimon, the other wishing to remain anonymous.

Approximately 4pm following afternoon prayers, Imam Muhammad Zughbi led between 150-200 armed Muslims a distance of one kilometer to the St. Mina Church. There he inquired about a Coptic woman who, he believed, had converted to Islam who, he believed, was being held in the church. Both sources believe this rumor was completely unfounded, and this was only a ruse by these Muslims to instigate conflict.

Shortly after their arrival church officials called the police. The police were invited to enter and search the premises, but found nothing. They carried this report back to the crowd, and then withdrew.

Having originally arrived with weapons of all varieties – clubs, swords, and automatic guns – the Muslim group began to use them. Christians rallied to defend the church, largely weaponless, but with a few simple pistols. One source said local Muslims participated in the defense of the church; the other denied this, saying they joined in the attack. It is possible both reports are true. Sources say that community relations between Muslims and Christians had been good.

Around 5:30pm Muslims from other nearby areas – Warraq, Haram, Faysal, Umraniyya – heard the news and joined the attack, increasing the number to over 400. Eventually their total was estimated at 3,000. The dead and injured were carried into the church, and fighting continued at the local homes as Christian residents hurled stones from their balconies. In all, three homes near the church were burned, and over 50 shops were vandalized in the area.

The army did not arrive until 10pm, at which point it launched tear gas at the church. Sources stated this was aimed at them, even landing inside the walls, rather than at the Muslim attackers. The Muslims also began attacking the army, launching Molotov cocktails. The army responded by firing into the air, and sources stated they did not actively intervene to end the rampage. Instead, they arrested those in the immediate vicinity as they were able, including many Christians.

The presence of the army did disperse the assailants, who then scattered and attacked other area churches. The nearby Church of the Holy Virgin was set ablaze and completely destroyed around 2am. Three other local churches also suffered damage.

Gunshots continued throughout the night. The next day the army placed the area in complete lockdown mode, arresting anyone coming out of their home. Sources say the area around the church also had water and electricity cut. The minister of the interior and governor were set to visit the area, which was under a 24 hour curfew.

Both sources identified the attackers as Salafi Muslims, due to their appearance with beards and white robes, typical of their traditional dress. They cried ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the attacks. Salafi Muslims are adherents of a conservative interpretation of Islam that desires strict application of the sharia in imitation of the era of Muhammad and his companions. Following the revolution they have been vocal in calling for an Islamic state and have been accused of multiple sectarian attacks on both Christians and other Muslims. Though admitting to their particular religious interpretation, Salafi leaders have either denied their involvement or condemned such violent incidents.

Regardless of the original intention of the attack organizers, accusations of the illegal imprisonment of Coptic converts to Islam in churches or monasteries have been rampant both pre- and post-revolution. A woman named Camilia Shehata, to be mentioned below, is the cause célèbre in this effort. Following the attack on a church in Baghdad in October of 2010, al-Qaeda declared Coptic Christians to be fair game for attack for this alleged crime. Yet rumors are also rampant that sectarian conflict in Egypt was stoked by the former security forces under the Mubarak regime, which have allegedly continued this policy since his resignation.

The above testimony was provided by two sources directly involved in the evening’s altercation. Independent verification of their testimony is not possible at this time.

Since the attacks public response has been both swift and polarized. Prime Minister Sharaf cancelled a scheduled visit to the Gulf region and called an emergency cabinet meeting. The army has arrested 190 individuals and will try them in military courts. Furthermore, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently governing the nation, has threatened the death penalty for anyone found inciting sectarian strife. Salafi leaders and popular preachers, for their part, labeled attackers ‘thugs, not Muslims’, and fully condemned the action. Similarly, many Imbaba Muslims harshly condemned the action as un-Islamic, and said the thugs were tied to the old regime.

Meanwhile, Copts took to the street to protest. A small group went to the US Embassy to demand a meeting with the US ambassador and ask international protection. A much larger and more representative group began assembling at Maspero, site of the Egyptian Radio and Television headquarters. Here, only a few weeks earlier, thousands of Copts protested over several days to demand official inquiry into an attack on a church in Atfih, an area to the south of Cairo. Instinctively, following this conflict, they return again.

Along the way they were met with derision and minor attacks from Muslim youths and other ‘thugs’. Once there, a few suffered injuries as stones were thrown upon them from the balconies above. Yet they were joined by significant numbers of Muslims, including fully covered women, declaring that Muslims and Christians in Egypt were ‘one hand’. Eventually, the opposition settled down and the protest is ongoing.

The rumor about the convert to Islam being protected has received more investigation since the initial altercation. Apparently, a woman named Abeer from Upper Egypt married a Muslim and adopted his faith. Though not required by Islam it is the near cultural necessity, especially in traditional areas, as both religious groups ostracize members who either convert to another faith or marry outside their faith community. Apparently, Abeer later on ran away from her husband, who later received a phone call that she was in hiding near the St. Mina Church in Imbaba. The official version related by the government is that her husband contacted Salafi groups in the area, and asked for their intervention.

Other sources relate that the incident/rumor circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter, identifying the location of the woman by the very street name of the church. The campaign picked up speed, and resulted in large numbers of protestors demanding Abeer’s release. Yet to date, no woman fitting this story has been identified at all.

Of consequence is that the social media campaign began a mere hours after Camilia Shehata appeared on a foreign Christian satellite program, denying she had ever converted to Islam. Previously, Salafi groups had organized seventeen separate demonstrations to demand her release from the monastery where she was allegedly being held. Pictures appeared of her wearing a hijab, but may have been easily Photoshopped. Meanwhile the church released a video of her Christian confession, but this was either ignored or dismissed by Salafis. Poignantly, she never appeared in a live setting to settle the matter once and for all. That is, until this satellite program, which was announced a day before.

Does this suggest the assault on the church was planned in advance, and that the rumor, however true the story of Abeer may be, was constructed to play on the emotions of disturbed Salafis reacting to their mistaken fury over Camilia Shehata?

This is impossible to ascertain at this point, but the location of Imbaba would have been well chosen as a Cairo neighborhood easily ignited by such a spark. Imbaba is one of the poorer districts of Cairo, hastily and haphazardly constructed in the 1970s following large scale population transfers from Upper Egypt to the city. Basic services such as water, sewage, and paved roads were absent, and the poverty combined with the resurgence of strident religious identity drove many toward extremist Islam. The conditions led local Muslim leaders to declare themselves ‘the Emirate of Imbaba’, which successfully secured practical independence from the state, keeping out all unwanted visitors, including police, for a period of weeks. During this time, there were few Christians in the area at all.

After the police broke the siege and reestablished government control, in the 1980s Egypt cooperated with USAID, an American aid agency, to bolster living conditions. The program was largely successful, improving infrastructure and microenterprise, but was also subject to local criticisms. Over time, Upper Egyptian Christians also relocated to Imbaba, and though there were occasional sectarian tensions between them and Muslims, nothing to the extent of this attack had ever been witnessed before. Yet given that community growth was random in constitution, the centuries-long historical bond between Muslims and Christians in traditional village settings, however tested on occasion, was absent from Imbaba.

What is next? It is too difficult to judge all the different conclusions being paraded. Christians are furious at the police and armed forces for taking so long to contain the violence. Accusations are that they deliberately stood aside, yet it may well be they were simply ill equipped to confront such a large, apparently organized attack in an urban setting. Some in Maspero were heard chanting, similar to the revolutionary cry, ‘the people want the downfall of the general’.

Others say this and other sectarian conflicts have been engineered by forces of counterrevolution. Most major former regime members are in prison, and Mubarak himself was recently cleared by doctors to be interred with them as well. Salafis traditionally and in their theology had always sided with the Mubarak government as being established by God. Assumptions abound that they are heavily financed by Saudi Arabia, which was loath to see an autocratic ally ousted from power, and now under judicial trial. With these allegations, the army could either still be implicitly aligned with the old order even as they ‘protect’ the revolution, or, such incidents are meant as a wedge to drive people against the army, invalidating their popular stand with the revolutionaries. Or, it could simply be the interweaving independent errors of misguided action coalescing into deep conspiracy.

Yet on the side of the Christians there is conspiracy-worthy evidence as well. Why was Camilia Shehata silent for so long, only to appear on a foreign, not Egyptian, program? Her lawyer chastised her publically for going against his advice to speak on Egyptian television, and legally with the public prosecutor. This was only days after he procured a photo with her reconciled with her husband, with public documentation he was entitled to speak on her behalf that she was a Christian, never having converted to Islam. Interestingly, even if irrelevantly, the satellite program she appeared on is produced in the United States, and carries frequent testimonies of Muslim converts to Christianity. Provocation could have been anticipated.

Arab West Report has been able to secure an interview with Camilia and her husband. She admitted to marital problems which caused her to run away. Likely ashamed, as often occurs in such situations in Upper Egypt, local Christians and perhaps her family instigated protests claiming she was kidnapped by Muslims. This played into a known narrative which Muslims picked up on, then assuming the reality that she did in fact convert to Islam.

As protests about her increased, Camilia testified she was a Christian online, but this failed to convince the hardened Salafi audience, believing the YouTube video was a fake. She grew and is increasingly terrified for potential violence against her, understandable given the events in Imbaba. All the same, her testimony in this case puts aside the many conspiracy theories surrounding her. She is simple a woman who made a mistake, which amplified exponentially and engulfed a nation.

Yet to return to conspiracy along the same lines, the subsequent Coptic protest at Maspero was their natural destination point. Why then did a few hundred gather at the US Embassy, demanding international protection? This call is consistently rejected by local Christians as being traitorously fatal to their interests as citizens of Egypt. It is heard from Copts abroad, but almost never internally. Simultaneous to their denouncing of the Imbaba attacks, Salafi leaders criticized Copts for appealing to America. Are elements of the Coptic Church or community, perhaps even the United States, also aligned with counterrevolutionary forces?

Or, does all this simply represent the coalescence of error in the midst of confusion? In all likelihood, yes. Deep conspiracy helps to make sense of facts difficult to connect together. Egypt is undergoing significant changes, and these are uncomfortable for all. Conspiracies such as these are on the lips of many, which do not help the effort to foster national unity and democratic development.

Yet it could also be said that once again this tragedy has engendered demonstrations of Muslim support for their Christian kinsmen. The revolution unleashed clear evidence of Muslim-Christian unity from Tahrir Square, confirming the solidarity witnessed after the church bombing in Alexandria. Then, Muslims around the country surrounded churches and joined Copts inside, willing to die with them should the act be repeated.

Now, Christians are worried that Islam in the hearts of Muslims will ultimately make them side against Christians in times of strife. Unfortunately, Imbaba offers evidence of this. Yet even during the hours of attack in Imbaba, groups of Muslims came together in demonstration, proclaiming Muslims and Christians to be ‘one hand’. Post-revolutionary freedom has also unleashed Salafi activity and fervor, threatening the revolution in the eyes of many. Or, could Salafi drum-beating cloud over the essential unity which normal Muslims assert has always been characteristic of Egypt?

Many Egyptians are tired. They have crafted a great revolution but are now running into the realities of their success. Interruption of the national economy has exasperated an already poor multitude. Freedom of expression has brought unwelcome views to the forefront, regardless of perspective. Governance is entrusted to military forces simultaneously valuing stability and seeking to carry out revolutionary demands, all the while having little experience in day to day management and public relations. Political factions argue over issues both major and minor, with consensus rarely apparent.

It is understandable to be tired; yet now more than ever commitment and resolve are necessary. Christians must cling to faith, both in God and their fellow citizens. Democrats must navigate political streams yet maintain unity in the reconstruction of government. Islamists must curb their quest for influence developed over long years of oppression, while continuing sensibly to shape society as they believe God intends. Salafis … I don’t know what is needed here; may God guide them as he guides all the above. May each commit to the other as an Egyptian, and refuse to allow legitimate differences to divide them in essentials. Egyptians have always been one people; perhaps there are forces, both internal and external, which seek their unfastening. Yet these are days of opportunity; a great future is before them. May the issues of Imbaba be brought justice in all its forms; may these be the labor pains following a great revolutionary conception. May belief be held that a baby is soon to be celebrated.

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Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity

For an introductory essay to this text, please click here.

On August 19, 2010 AWR interviewed Dr. Rafik Habib, an Egyptian Christian scholar who has devoted his research to the realm of Christianity and Islam contemplating on Muslim-Christian relations, Islamic civilization, and the role of the state in the Egyptian society.

Dr. Rafik Habib was born in 1959 in Minya, Upper Egypt, into the family of Samuel Habib, an evangelical pastor who later became the President of the Evangelical Denomination in Egypt (1980-1997). Dr. Habib refers to himself as an ordinary Christian who came to Cairo to attend ‘Ain Shams University after finishing his secondary education in his hometown. He obtained a masters degree in psychology (1985) and later a PhD in the same field (1988). During his studies Dr. Habib researched significant issues in the Christian community, and later published Psychology of Religiosity for Copts in Egypt. He has since published over twenty other titles. Despite this, though he sought work in a university or academic research center such as al-Ahram, he was never accepted. Many suggested that it was due to the fact that he is a Christian. But, Dr. Habib is of a contrary opinion:

I found it to be a matter of social relationships. To have someone support you in this kind of issue is more important, in many cases, than if I am a Christian or a Muslim.

Dr. Rafiq Habib has been influenced by his family, as he himself acknowledges, and his father was a leading evangelical personality in Egypt at that time. Nonetheless, he is well-known for his ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an entirely Muslim organization.

Dr. Habib has never attempted to join the organization, nor would he be able to, but his adherence to its ideas led him to join the Wasat Party, a political organization based on the moderate ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood. As he points out, religious movements (be they Islamic or Christian) are exclusive to their denomination, but organizations working at the political or social level should be open for anyone.

Yet being a Christian and a scholar, he has sought out dialogue with the political Islamists. Dr. Habib has been interacting with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia, and other Muslim groups since 1989. His has primarily involved himself with the peaceful groups, but has also received criticism for engaging with violent entities. He is quick to distinguish nuances:

At that time, it is important to notice that this organization (Islamic Jihad) was violent, when they murdered Anwar Sadat. But after that, they continued to be a preaching organization with a militant wing, a very weak one. (…) You could meet a member in al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia, who is not a militant. (…) In my opinion al-Jihad was a revolutionary organization from its basis, but al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia is in its basis a preaching group in its organization.

Nevertheless, Dr. Habib maintains that for a researcher is important to learn about the different groups, even those that are militant. Dialogue, however, is not possible with militant personalities, only with those who are peaceful within a militant organization. According to Dr. Habib, extremists reject dialogue altogether, making them inaccessible.

Who are the extremists? What is extremism for Dr. Habib?

Dr. Habib finds this difficult to answer as the term is drawn from western definition. Nevertheless, he asserts that extremism is not a permanent condition but a temporary phenomenon. In his opinion, most of the Islamic movements are becoming more moderate. But,

(Extremism is a) part of the Islamic project, where some make the most clear-cut points; all issues are white and black, even the values and variables. (…) Similarly some take a clear-cut position towards Christians, thinking the Islamic society is for Muslims only. For these, Christians can be present in an Islamic state, but only within their Christian community subsumed by Islamic society, not as a part of Islamic society.

How do Christians have a place in Islamic society? Dr. Habib offers his perspective based on his doctoral study of the national character of the Egyptian society. He maintains that Egypt is a part of Islamic culture and civilization, which is in fact a continuation of Pharaonic culture and civilization. Religion (first Christianity, later Islam) did not destroy the ancient culture, but rather reshaped it. Therefore, he argues that:

I think that the national character, culture, and values of the Christians in Egypt are similar to that of the Muslims, and I found that Christians themselves belong to the Islamic character and culture of Egypt. Muslims and Christians have the same national character and identity.

Based on the argument that Muslims and Christians in Egypt share the same national identity Dr. Habib believes that:

We can have a chance in the future for Christians and Muslims to discover their shared values and rebuild the Islamic culture together.

Nowadays, their mutual relations are negatively affected by developments of the 1970s. Dr. Habib argues that at the time of Anwar Sadat Egyptian society began to dissolve. Both communities began to develop separate religious identities leading to the enclosure of Christian community within the Church and to the establishment of numerous Islamic movements. These communities preferred their particular religious identity (Muslim or Christian) over the prior Islamic-Egyptian cultural identity. According to Dr. Habib, the separation of the communities happened because the state was unable to represent both Christians and Muslims in the same value system. Instead the state pushed a secular agenda foreign to both religious groups.

In order to restore the previous order – to bridge both communities again – Dr. Habib suggests a controversial idea:

The Egyptian society will continue to be an Islamic society and the Christians must return to their conservative identity and join it in one identity as happened before. If we go back 50 years, the whole society looked conservative and very Islamic, though the Christians were a little cautious of the Islamic identity. But if we go more than 100 years back, we find that Christians were unified with the Islamic society under Islamic Sharia and under the Islamic state and there was no problem.

Dr. Habib identifies the main obstacles to such a return as the secular nature of the state, the pressure from Western countries to secularize further, and the Christian community that wants to protect itself under secularization.

The core idea of Dr. Habib theory is that the revival of Islamic state would bridge the communities again. Originally, the Muslim Brotherhood aimed to restore the Islamic state following the end of Ottoman caliphate and the establishment of an imposed secular nation-state model. Dr. Habib argues that the secular state model did not reflect the religiosity of the society which rebelled against it. The Brotherhood rallied such opposition, but was double crossed:

The Nasserists came to the power with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. It turned out to be a historical mistake, when they supported Gamal Abdel Nasser. Because after he took power with their support, he said I am not building an Islamic state.

Nasser introduced instead his own nationalistic vision of Arabism that was, to some extent, related to Islamism, in that Arabic identity can shelter both Christian and Muslim identity. The development of Arabism was, however, stopped by the 1967 defeat to Israel. The Six Day War significantly challenged the existing societal and political order in Egypt, initiating deep consequences:

When you’re defeated you return back to your deep, deep identity, and try to protect yourself inside the protection-point: your identity and social consciousness. And, the strong protection-point in our society is the religion. Then both Christians and Muslims returned back to their religions.

Dr. Habib provides an example of the daily routine at the universities in the 1970s:

If you entered a classroom, there was a special place for Christians guarded by members of the “Coptic Family” and for Muslims guarded by the “Religious Group”. But there was no conflict or violence between them; it came spontaneously. The different societies wanted to feel secure, and they turned to religion.

Therefore, Dr. Habib maintains that in order to bridge the communities again, it is necessary to return to the Islamic culture, value system, and civilization as the identity of the society, as both Christian and Muslim values in Egypt have been shaped by the same surroundings. Dr. Habib argues that these conservative religious values are embodied in the Egyptian society and therefore the existing project of the secular nation-state is failing. To succeed, the state must reflect the value system of the society which it is not the case in Egypt:

I think that this model (the secular nation-state) will not work in Egypt or in other Arabic countries, because it depends on the power of law, whereas society depends on the power of religion, which means the power of morals. If you want to organize society by the power of law, the society will not obey it. (…) All society thinks of the state as an enemy, because the state will not accept the societal identity; the state is meaning of law. (…) There is no reason for Egyptian Arab Muslims to obey the secular state, because the reason which is to be found in Western countries is not here. Western societies obey the state instead of the church. They obey the state, because it is the way of progression, and they think that if they obey the church, they will not progress.

Dr. Habib’s argument is based on the significant role religion plays in the societal order. He assumes that:

If the state obeys religion, then the people will obey the state. Because people will always obey the religion in their life, they will not obey anything other than religion, and if you want them to obey the state the state must obey the religion.

Conversely, if the state does not obey religion, the people do not find the justification to obey the laws imposed by the state. In Islam, people are to obey the ruler, even a corrupt one, as long as he applies Islamic Sharia. According to Dr. Habib, the Egyptian state fails to apply Islamic Sharia, even though it is embodied in Article 2 of the constitution.

If the present state applied Article 2 it would not be an issue, because Sharia as a basis can reshape the nation-state to Islamic state in 2 or 3 years if applied.

The proper application of Article 2 would enable the establishment of the Islamic state – an ideal type – restoring the harmony between society and the state. Dr. Habib goes further arguing that the society would be more free and powerful. The church, al-Azhar, and NGO’s would all be independent, as well as the fields of health care and education policy. There would be no interference of the state in civic society. The ideal form of the Islamic state would be a completely decentralized parliamentary system. In sum, it would mean less government in all sectors of society.

When society becomes powerful, it builds its frame of reference and it chooses its ultimate values, and then the state is obliged to behave according to these values.

Nonetheless, Dr. Habib notifies that there are several models of the Islamic state, e.g. the Iranian or Saudi models that are not desirable. He prefers the concept of the civil Islamic state where the authority is political, maintaining only the Islamic value frame of reference. Religious authority would be non-existent as there is no religious authority in Sunni Islam.  The state would be governed by the rules of religion, but no one would have religious authority. Islamic scholars would have the right to say their opinion, but the people would have the right to choose which opinion to follow. Once both scholars and society agree upon something, it would become enforced.

Understandably, the question what the position of religious minorities would be like in the Islamic state arises. Dr. Habib offers two rationales that would secure the position of Christians in the Islamic state scenario. First, the freedom of confession would be guaranteed:

Nowadays Christianity exists inside the church but is limited to the Christian community. Thus, secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under the Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.

Second, the majority of those significantly influencing the character of the state are moderate Muslims with moderate thoughts representing the underlying idea of the Islamic culture. Therefore, Dr. Habib maintains that it is essential for Christians to interact with the moderate mainstream (implicitly meaning the Muslim Brotherhood):

I call on Christians to interact or just even dialogue with the mainstream, because if you are against the mainstream, you make the extremists more powerful. I have a problem here, because the state and the secular elite are always against the mainstream. By weakening the mainstream and having a powerful nation-state, the extremists will take the state.

Dr. Habib defeats the plea that dialogue between Christians and Islamists is difficult to achieve, utilizing a love-your-enemy argument:

Because of Christian values you must love all of Egyptian society, not only your neighbor or the persons you know. Within Christianity there is the fundamental idea that the Christian is to love his enemy. If we apply Christian values in that way with our traditions, which are very social, we can make bridges with the Muslim community, Islamic movements, and other trends. But, the political issue here is ruining the whole situation, especially when the church became in coalition with the state, as the role of the church should be societal.

Accordingly, the current linkage of the church and the secular state harms the reestablishment of harmony between the two religious communities. Dr. Habib claims that once the church accepted the coalition with the state, it became a part of a secular political agenda which completely contradicts the Islamist movements. Dr. Habib asserts that:

The state knows that if the Christian community agreed upon a project with the Islamic movement the secular state will end. This is because the secular discourse here in Egypt uses the existence of Christians as a reason why the Islamic state cannot be established, and the government uses Christianity to say that they are protecting it and therefore the West must support it.

By maintaining a relationship with the government the church adopts the position of a supporter of the secular nationalistic model of state. As such, the Christian community is now in a unique situation: It is separated from society, preaching and practicing Christian love inside its own community, implicitly or explicitly supporting western interference in its homeland. Finding a way out of this situation, according to Dr. Habib, is very difficult.

Dr. Rafik Habib is a unique Egyptian Christian scholar who has not been afraid to stand out and address sensitive issues in Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. He has devoted his academic career to enhance the mutual understanding of both groups. Though his findings might be controversial, it should not be forgotten that all has been done in his best belief to contribute to a better and healthier atmosphere between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

 

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