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Church and Politics Under Pope Tawadros

Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)
Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)

Yesterday I linked to my article on Christianity Today about the role of Copts in the current presidential elections season. It is a true article, but space limits the ability to probe the full issue of how they have been involved, particularly through leadership in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Here is a longer treatment, excerpted from my article at Arab West Report:

By appearances, the Coptic Orthodox Church is doing everything wrong. But appearances can be deceiving; officially, they are doing everything right.

But there is a messy in-between which casts doubt on it all. As convoluted as Egypt’s post-June 30 transition has been following the popular deposing of President Muhammad Mursī, the church has matched it step-by-step.

The appearances are obvious. Posters are seen throughout Cairo bearing pictures of Pope Tawadros alongside the front running military candidate. Some call out to the faithful: “The Lord Jesus calls you to support Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattāh al-Sīsī to preserve national unity.” Others give the reason “to stamp out terrorism,” and a third, “to stamp out the Brotherhood.”

Text messages have also been sent bearing similar slogans, calling on Christians to give their vote to Sīsī. This is confirmed by Ihāb al-Kharrāt, a Coptic founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, who in an interview with the author on May 15, 2014 called it “an abuse.”

The question is, by whom? The identity of sponsors is unknown, and the church has publicly denied any relation to the campaign on its Facebook page. Instead, as early as January 28, 2014 Pope Tawadros was rebutting rumors he was supporting a presidential candidate, and on May 4, 2014 he reiterated the church’s stance of neutrality. The church has no political role, he said on May 13, 2014 and his presence in Mursī’s removal on stage with al-Sīsī and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib of the Azhar reflected national institutional backing for the pulse of the street. Thereafter, priests are instructed not to directly support any candidates.

If this official position is clear and correct enough, there is a convoluted undercurrent. On March 23, 2014 Pope Tawadros was quoted by Kuwait’s al-Watan TV channel saying al-Sīsī had a national duty to run for president. Tawadros praised him as having the discipline necessary to run the country, though everyone was free to choose the one deemed most suitable. During the interview he also disparaged the Arab Spring, describing it as a conspiracy to break up the region into smaller states.

The next day the pope backtracked, telling al-Shurūq newspaper that he had not made any official statements or given any interviews over the past 10-14 days. Notably, he did not deny the content of the interview, though this was implied. But the video of his interview was later released stating the opinions in question, though the footage is not of great quality and appears edited, possibly doctored. Even so, it appears the church made a misstep in revealing its private convictions.

But even its public stance is open to interpretation. The Facebook page which denied relation to the posters called on Egyptians to participate in the presidential elections. This itself is a political step, though perhaps legitimate in terms of fulfilling national obligations. But to what end is this participation designed?

It is these national obligations Pope Tawadros once again emphasized on May 27, 2014 the last day of voting before polls were unexpectedly extended to a third day. In the face of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed boycott campaign joined at least passively by many youth, he declared this to be unacceptable negativity and urged people to vote.

But the government campaign begs interpretation that this election is less a contest between candidates than a quest for the legitimacy of turnout. 51 percent of the eligible electorate participated in the 2012 second round vote that installed Mursī over Ahmad Shafīq as president. Mursī received roughly 13 million votes. In his presumed victory al-Sīsī would want to at least match these numbers to validate officially his popular support beyond the many substantial street rallies which buttressed the popular overthrow.

Having given many signals of favor toward al-Sīsī, official or otherwise, is church neutrality now only a superficial position? In calling for participation, is it simply echoing the state call to support, in effect, a referendum on al-Sīsī? If his opponent Hamdīn Sabbāhī stands little chance of winning, should the church position be interpreted otherwise?

It is useful to look back at Pope Tawadros’ papacy to judge the fine line he has walked between involvement in and abstention from politics.

The article continues by examining the pope’s statements about and within the political arena, since his selection in November 2012. Judging from this history, the conclusion tries to examine the current situation:

The pattern that emerges gives an indication of what it means. Despite earlier stated intention to remove the church from politics and allow civil society to speak on behalf of Copts, Pope Tawadros was quickly drawn in. His remarks largely, though not exclusively, pertained to issues that affect the Coptic community. The 2012 constitution opened space for a threatening Islamism, and the attack on the cathedral in April 2013 was unprecedented and largely ignored by Mursī, despite initial condemnation. Statements of allowance for Coptic citizens to protest suggested an effort to stay within church matters, in the spirit of the January 25 revolution in which Copts acted without church direction, even if he earlier discouraged demonstrations.

But in endorsing the protest against Mursī a day before military action against him, Pope Tawadros took a political stand. It was not necessary, and it compromises his interpretation of appearing with al-Sīsī a day later. Yes, his appearance was a national statement of unity, but he appears an eager participant. It was a full endorsement of the order to come, and a condemnation of what came before.

But fair enough, it was a national action. Subsequent reception of al-Sīsī can be seen as honoring a national hero. And endorsement of the constitution can be seen as in line with support for the national roadmap and overall stability. They can also be seen otherwise, but this is the fine line he is walking.

Therefore, urging participation in presidential elections can be seen as more of the same. It is a national measure to rebuild the state, and it can be imagined he will do similarly with coming parliamentary elections. What will be tested then will be his opinion of candidates, as there is likely to be significant Islamist participation through the Salafi Nour Party. They are currently allies against Mursī; will the church be similarly neutral between candidates then, officially?

But this narrative is complicated by the controversial statements to al-Watan, along with the semi-denial. Having tightrope-walked for so long on the borders of political-religious legitimacy, it is not surprising to see such a mistake. But it is not enough to undue his official rhetoric. The church is neutral toward all political candidates; it simply plays its role as a national institution to support the state and encourage popular participation in governance.

To say otherwise requires descending into a conspiracy that may well be present but must be proven. But even without the conspiracy, it is possible to criticize the church for playing this national political role. This can be on the basis of principle – that religion should stay out of politics altogether. It can be on the basis of wisdom – that if there is a reversal in favor of the Islamists the church now has an entrenched enemy. Or it can be on the basis of the common good – that Egypt and her Christians are served better by active Coptic citizenry, not clergy.

But this calls for a vocal Coptic lay leadership that is emerging, but not yet mature. This is unsurprising given the decades of church paternalism under Pope Shenouda, encouraged by the long authoritarianism of Mubārak. Perhaps Pope Tawadros is being pushed back into the old paradigm; perhaps he is willing and eager. Perhaps there is little alternative yet and he acts against his better principles. Noteworthy also is that Pope Shenouda began his papacy as a vocal critic of Islamist policies, under President Sādāt. Banished for 40 months in a desert monastery, he returned much more subdued and cooperative under President Mubārak. It can be estimated that contrary to his predecessor, Pope Tawadros was victorious in his criticism; how will he now conduct himself under President al-Sīsī?

Like the meaning of the church’s call to vote in presidential elections, these questions are matters of his intentions, which cannot be known fully. Appearances are not good, but official stances are reasonable. It is the in-between that rightly confuses observers.

Within a still messy revolution, anything other would be surprising. The church and its pope are fully Egyptian, and Egypt is still convoluted.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Bring Back our Coptic Girls

Coptic Kidnapping

Seeking commonality with the outrage over the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram, Ebram Louis and the Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disapperances (AVAED) is launching a hashtag of his own. #BringBackOurCopticGirlsEgypt.

I might advise to remove the ‘Egypt’ from the hashtag, thinking ‘Coptic’ builds sufficiently on the now viral #BringBackOurGirls. But Ebram is a dedicated advocate and researcher, and the issue of kidnapped Coptic women is longstanding.

Here I share some recent reflections on the issue, from an article in Arab West Report, excerpting my reflection on the difficulty of this research:

One of the greatest horrors that can befall a family is the sudden disappearance of their child. No country in the world could doubt such tragedy. Why then does controversy surround Coptic minors?

There are two prominent reasons, and both relate to the contested sectarian nature of Egyptian society. While Muslims and Christians live side by side as neighbors, colleagues, and often friends, there is an undercurrent of tension among many, stemming from religious identity. During a moment of crisis or a community dispute, sides can be drawn along religious lines.

Many Christians harbor suspicions that the Islam in a Muslim will push an otherwise friendly neighbor to discrimination, or worse. Many Muslims harbor criticisms that Christians are actually treated better than the average Muslim in society, yet complain constantly. While this tension is generally unspoken a disappearance can shatter the peace.

The first reason is due to an often heard accusation: The girl was kidnapped, with blame assigned to extremist Salafi Muslims. Salafis are understood to be very traditional, and though not necessarily anti-Coptic in essence, often hold a viewpoint assigning non-Muslims a secondary status as if in the historical Islamic caliphate. They also believe in early marriage for women, often below the Egyptian legal age of consent of eighteen. Combining these two characteristics it is posited that some Salafis will kidnap Coptic minors and convert them to Islam to weaken their community, and then marry them off within the Muslim fold.

Setting aside for now the legitimacy of this accusation, it is easy to comprehend its inflammatory nature within a sectarian-laced society. Muslims would be horrified to imagine that such a crime is committed, but furthermore, that it is committed on a religious rationale. But at the same time the alleged crime touches the nerve points of Coptic consciousness, molded over centuries of living within that historical secondary status. Raising the accusation offends Muslims, denying it embitters Christians.

The second reason is due to the social setting surrounding the accusation of kidnapping. Much of Egypt maintains a patriarchal attachment to women, attaching their purity to the family or community’s status of honor and shame. If a woman loses her virginity outside of marriage the offense is felt by the community. A woman who disappears puts their honor at risk, no matter the reason for her absence.

This charged setting is amplified if the suspected disappearance crosses religious lines, in any direction. But first imagine the situation is not one of forced disappearance, but simply of individual choice. The decision of a female to attach herself in relationship outside of family approval is a scandal; it is even greater if the relationship is with a man of a different religion. The reasons can be many and are essentially human: Often they are of love, money, or the desire to escape a difficult home situation. The temptation can therefore be very strong for a family to defend its damaged honor by claiming their daughter has been kidnapped.

These two reasons help explain the controversy, but there is a third factor that may or may not be equally sectarian. The Egyptian state, especially outside of the major population centers, is notoriously weak. Police investigations are often feeble, and the judicial system takes years to process a case. Community transgressions are often left to be solved by the community – with security looking on – and if the crime takes place across religious lines the two sides are encouraged-cum-compelled to ‘reconcile’.

What is more difficult to say is if there is an additional sectarian aspect in police conduct. Christians often accuse security of paying even less attention to crimes against their community. In cases of disappearance of minors, sometimes they fail to investigate at all. Is this due to individual fanaticism, institutional bias, or simply a common indifference?

But the end result for many families is they may have no idea if their daughter was kidnapped or not. She is simply gone. It could be she ran away from home to join her boyfriend. It could be she ran away, but then is met with a host of barriers denying her ability to return. Among these, it is claimed, is the pressure placed on her by the Muslim family, implying the horrors of what will happen to her if she goes back, having violated her family’s honor. Whatever violence she might face, she knows the shame she brought them.

Or, perhaps she was outright kidnapped. Especially following the revolution kidnapping has become a potentially lucrative career given the security vacuum. But if the police do not give due diligence to the cries of a distraught family, what conclusions can they draw? Even if she wishes to marry freely, even if she wishes to convert to Islam freely, the law prohibits these actions until she is eighteen. As a minor, she must be returned to her family. Very often, the law fails.

And also the fact that in a country of more than 85 million people, any one person’s individual problem is drowned in a sea of difficulty and inequity. In order to get the attention of authorities, one must yell louder than everyone else. ‘Kidnapping’ makes for a very loud scream.

Given all the above, this is why proper research into a disappearance is essential. Without it, not only can religious and social taboos be violated, but far worse, the girl may never return home.

But when research must take place independent of the properly invested authorities, it also acquires an air of advocacy. But what can be more appropriate? The task is to put right a wrong, not study sociology.

As such, Ebram Louis is both a researcher and an activist.

The rest of the article profiles his work through the Association for Victims of Abductions and Forced Disappearances. I have written about him earlier, and you can additionally click here for more information.

Ebram Louis
Ebram Louis

But the article closes with his idea for solving the issue. One of his colleagues proposed going through the newly formed Ministry of Transitional Justice, to right past wrongs. Louis, however, wishes to resurrect an old practice:

One possible solution can help sort through the vagary, and is endorsed thoroughly by AVAED. In 2004 in a case similar to that of Camīliah Shihātah, Wafā’ Constantine, another wife of a priest, sparked rumors and demonstrations when she disappeared. Eventually she was returned to the church, but the antagonism that developed between the church and security led to canceling the then-mandatory ‘counseling sessions’ for anyone wishing to convert to Islam.

These sessions were instituted in order to make certain that anyone expressing interest in Islam did so from their full and free will. The would-be convert would meet with a priest under supervision of security, and express his or her desire. The priest had the opportunity to counsel the individual back to the faith, and the presence of security ostensibly ensured an atmosphere of non-coercion.

Reinstituting these counseling sessions would not eliminate the problem of disappearances, but it would carve out space to explore the argument that these young Coptic women are converting to Islam freely. Of course, this only applies when they are of age; otherwise, the law must rule and return all minors to their families. But in the controversial cases where an initial love relationship becomes complicated, a formal procedure to evaluate and process a conversion to Islam would remove much ambiguity from the controversy of disappearances.

Of course, rule of law and freedom of religion are much more basic solutions, but given the nature of Egyptian reality, they are unfortunately not simple solutions. Except for the basic fact that families do not know where their children are, little about this issue is simple.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Kamal Helbawi: Wording Rightly the Constitutional Text

Kamal Helbawi
Kamal Helbawi

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution:

Seeking to represent all sectors of Egyptian society, the Egyptian Committee of Fifty to amend the constitution of 2012 was light on political parties. Only four seats were assigned, two for liberals and two for Islamists. This was in contrast to the Committee of One Hundred that wrote the 2012 constitution, which was heavily populated by political figures from the Islamist Freedom and Justice and Nour Parties.

After the fall of Morsi, however, few Islamists remained on the formal political scene. The Nour Party was the most prominent, representing the Salafi trend. One seat went to them, but who could represent the Brotherhood trend, with the Brotherhood boycotting the process? Announced as a representative of the Islamist trend was Kamal Hilbāwī, a former Brotherhood member who resigned in 2012 in protest of the group’s decision to field a candidate for president.

Helbawi was a member of the drafting subcommittee which was responsible to merge all articles into one contiguous text. To do so they changed articles according to language and syntax, but did not hesitate to also adapt the meanings.

But one of the most interesting points of his testimony concerns the negotiations with the Nour Party that resulted in the former Article 219, defining the principles of the sharia, moved in essence into the preamble and made subject to the Supreme Constitutional Court:

But in a compromise agreement the definition of the principles of sharī‘ah was moved to the preamble, with the term of reference being the collected rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court. These are about 4-5 cases, he estimated, involving sharī‘ah interpretation issued by the highest court in the land since 1985. Having a definition makes sense, Hilbāwī believed, for someone might want to know what the principles of sharī‘ah are. These cases were entered into the official transcript of the constitutional proceedings, and the preamble of the constitution has equal weight with its articles, according to Article 227.

But reference to the rulings of the SCC raised the issue of why Article 219 was necessary in the first place, if the court already defined the principles of sharī‘ah. Perhaps the legislature did not adhere adequately to these rulings, but if the legal basis was there, what was the big deal? And in any case, if the language of 219 was in the SCC rulings, does this explain why the Nour Party was satisfied?

Hilbāwī dismissed the criticism by liberals of Article 219 that it would have opened up the entire corpus of sharī‘ah legal history to implementation in legislation or in court rulings. But in referring to the charge of Safwat al-Bayādī, confirmed in his testimony of the response of Sa’d al-Dīn al-Hilālī, that the testimony of Christians might not be given equal weight to Muslims, as was once in Islamic history, Hilbāwī said ‘perhaps’, in recognition of Hilālī’s rejection of 219 and his status as a very good scholar. There are still shaykhs in Egypt, mentioning Abū Islām and Mahmūd Shabān in particular, who advocate very retrograde rulings. But given the firm guarantees on equality present throughout the constitution, Hilbāwī does not expect any sharī‘ah-based impingement on general freedom.

The article also contains a first effort to understand what the religious language of sharia interpretation means. Please click here to read this and the whole article at Arab West Report.

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How Salafis Supported the Constitution in Upper Egypt

Hamdi Abdel Fattah of the Nour Party
Hamdi Abdel Fattah of the Nour Party

Post-Morsi, some say, the Salafi Nour Party was pushed into a corner. Others say they played their cards perfectly. In any case they supported the 2014 constitution despite its removal of religious provisions they largely orchestrated only two years earlier. While the Muslim Brotherhood and most other non-Nour Salafis railed against what they called the ‘coup and its constitution’, the Nour Party nimbly tried to navigate the landscape.

So what did they do, and what was their rhetoric? In an interview with Arab West Report Sheikh Hamdi ‘Abd al-Fattah provided perspective from Maghagha, a city in the governorate of Minya.

The party held one large mass conference in Minya, in which Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, Nour’s representative on the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution, joined Sheikh Sharif al-Hiwari from Alexandria, and the local deputy of the Endowments Ministry formed a panel. The party’s approach to the constitution was explained by Mansour and others; Mansour himself spoke for an hour and answered questions for an hour and a half more. Everything was done in full transparency, ‘Abd al-Fattah stated.

From the government to the district level, such as in Maghagha and Beni Mazar, the Nour Party organized marches and had small four-to-five delegations circulate in the streets. Both were meant to give opportunity for people to speak face-to-face with party leaders and have their concerns answered.

For more details, and to discover the reasoning behind their controversial support, please click here to read the full article.

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Nadia Mostafa: The Hypocrisy of the Coup and its Constitution

Nadia Mustafa
Nadia Mustafa

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the composition of Egypt’s constitution. Nadia Mostafa is the former director of the Program for Dialogue and Civilizational Studies at Cairo University. She is also an Islamist, though not a formal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. But she is a severe critic of the events which removed him from power.

She did not want to even discuss the content of the constitution, unfortunately, deeming it illegal. But she was very willing to express her displeasure with several contributing forces:

Chief among them are the very Salafis the Brotherhood cooperated with, in error. In supporting their demand for Article 4, giving the Azhar a role in legislation, and Article 219, defining the principles of sharī‘ah, the Brotherhood gave into unnecessary, non-historical, and ultimately fear-inducing intimations of a religious state. But when the Salafis sided with the coup leaders, Mustafá notes, look how quickly they dropped these two articles. All the Nour Party desired, it seems, is to take the place of the Brotherhood in the political spectrum.

Next she takes aim at the liberals:

Early in the transitional period these same liberals bemoaned the extremism of the Salafis and the interference of their Saudi Arabian backers. Now, they speak of the Salafis as possessing political acumen and of the Saudis as important financial backers for Egypt.

Similarly, liberals rejected the constitution of 2012 because it was an unrepresentative document crafted by an Islamist majority. But this did not prevent them from orchestrating an unrepresentative majority of their own, which all but excludes political Islamists, except for those who play by the measure of the coup. And as for their rhetoric saying the Muslim Brotherhood was invited but refused, what sort of invitation can be accepted when the president and his aides are held incommunicado, and the organization brandished as terrorists? Their goal, Mustafá believes, is to eliminate political Islam, or at the least any political Islam that has leverage.

Finally, she criticizes the church:

Excited by the possibility of gains in the constitution, some Coptic groups threatened to boycott or urge a ‘no’ vote if they did not win a special parliamentary quota. But when this failed to materialize, Pope Tawadros stepped in to support a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. Christians, Mustafá believes, are not seeking their rights but to limit the rights of political Islamists, allied with seculars against the Islamic identity of the country.

But she also has critical words for the Brotherhood:

She and others of similar mind advised the presidency that Mursī was leaning too heavily on the support of Salafis rather than maintaining unity with liberals and other moderates. She believes there should be a separation between the preaching of a religious organization and the rhetoric of its political spinoff. A civil system must allow for religion in the public square, but politicians should not play with religion for political gain. When many call for the leadership of the Brotherhood to leave, she agrees, provided the same be true for current leadership across the board. The old guard, everywhere, must yield to the youth.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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How to Amend the Egyptian Constitution

During final discussions over the constitutional text
During final discussions over the constitutional text

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the development of Egypt’s constitution:

Following the passage of the 2012 Egyptian constitution in a disputed and divisive referendum, Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad al-Biltājī praised the text and tried to assuage opponents of any flaws it might contain.

Calling it a human effort, and therefore not without errors, he said, “I hope we all seek to implement what is good for the people of this homeland. Certainly, we will amend whatever future days will prove needs amendment.”

Shortly before passage of the 2014 Egyptian constitution in a largely uncontested referendum due to opposing boycotts, supporters praised the text and tried to assuage those unconvinced due to a few controversial articles.

Lamīs al-Hadīdī, a prominent television news anchor, rallied for a yes vote and said, “This is not a divine document, and by the way, this document can be amended. If you are fine with 80 percent of the constitution, or even 60 percent, then you have to go and vote yes.”

Apart from their propagandist intent, these statements beg the question: What is the process for amending the constitution? Both documents are remarkably similar, drawing on the 1971 constitution, but with one key difference added in 2014.

The article seeks to describe the procedure, but this excerpt from the conclusion will simplify and describe the difference in question, the key difference in both 2012 and 2014 from the 1971 text, and why both might be there:

To summarize, then, with basic context, it appears the authors of the two constitutions following the January 25 revolution recognized the necessity of giving hope to popular opposition to certain articles in their proposed charters. By lowering the initiation process from one-third to one-fifth, both constitutions allowed a minority presence in the parliament to stimulate constitutional change.

It is unclear why two discussion periods of debate are necessary, but in preserving the general process of constitutional amendment, the authors of both texts maintained the overall difficulty of securing an amendment, as is reasonable.

On the other hand, without an established tradition of a balanced parliament it may be argued that passing an amendment is a relatively easy process. Given the dominant Islamist makeup of the first post-revolution parliament, perhaps they intended the ability to further Islamize the constitution beyond what was negotiated among political forces. Similarly, given the popular turn against the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps civil forces anticipated reducing further the tinge of religion negotiated with the Islamist Nour Party. In either case, no public referendum in Egypt has ever been defeated [and requires only 50 percent approval].

Any discussion of intentions is purely speculative, but it appears the authors of the 2014 constitution were cognizant of the possibility of Nour Party or old regime electoral domination, either of which might chip away at their constitutional text. Perhaps aware of their own to-date failings to mobilize politically, these liberal authors added the clause to prevent any circumscribing of freedom and equality. It is unclear, however, the manner in which this clause will be interpreted.

Analysis aside, the process of amending the Egyptian constitution remains remarkably consistent over time. Securing the stability of the constitutional order will require the development of a diverse parliament, from which all future changes will need to find substantial cross-party agreement. This assessment, however, may be overly optimistic given that neither post-revolutionary constitution was passed with widespread societal consensus.

Please click here to read the whole article at Arab West Report.

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Hagag Oddoul: Nubia Recognized in the Egyptian Constitution

Hagag Oddoul
Hagag Oddoul

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution. Hagag Oddoul is a novelist of Nubian origin, and an advocate for their cause. The article describes his background as well as that of his people, and this excerpt defines that cause as it became defined in the constitution:

Article 236, however, was his crowning achievement, and he did not have to play the withdrawal card to win it. It specifically refers to Nubia as a geographical area:

The state shall develop and implement a plan for the comprehensive economic and urban development of border and underprivileged areas, including Upper Egypt, Sinai, Matrouh, and Nubia. This is to be achieved by the participation of the residents of these areas in the development projects and the priority in benefiting from them, taking into account the cultural and environmental patterns of the local community, within ten years from the date that this Constitution comes into effect, in the manner organized by law.

The state works on developing and implementing projects to bring back the residents of Nubia to their original areas and develop them within 10 years in the manner organized by law.

It should be noted the term ‘right of return’ does not appear in this article, and that is fine with Udūl. He recognized this expression was charged with connections to the Palestinian issue, which would only serve to distract the discussion. It is the concept he advocated for, and he faced little opposition from his colleagues.

Recognition that the border areas of Egypt needed development that involved local residents was easily achieved, the language of which pleased Udūl as a great achievement. But there was some discussion about how to term the responsibility of the state in returning the residents of Nubia to their original areas. He personally wanted the state to be ‘obligated’, while a lesser wording ‘to secure’ was also rejected. In the end he was satisfied with ‘works’, because it was accompanied by a timeframe of ten years. Being measurable, it must happen.

Oddoul also describes the negotiations over anti-discrimination articles and those pertaining to culture. Please click here to read the rest of the article at Arab West Report.

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Debating Religious Freedom in the Constitution: European Concerns and Egyptian Realities

L: Amr Moussa, head of Egypt's constitutional committee; R: Catherine Ashton, EU representative for foreign affairs
L: Amr Moussa, head of Egypt’s constitutional committee; R: Catherine Ashton, EU representative for foreign affairs

From my recent article at Arab West Report, focusing on the critique of Dr. Wolfram Reiss, professor of historical and comparative studies of religions at the University of Vienna, and the response of Bishop Antonios of the Coptic Catholic Church:

Reiss believes that the post-Mursī constitution of 2014 removed the worst features of the 2012 charter, in particular the role given to the Azhar in review of legislation in Article 3, and the definition of sharī‘ah along traditional lines of jurisprudence in Article 219.

Yet despite the amendment and removal of certain articles, Reiss finds that the constitution of 2014 does not provide a sufficiently new basis for any of the urgent questions which have long prompted interreligious debate. The question of the building and repair of churches is postponed, religious freedom is guaranteed only for already recognized groups, the question of apostasy is not addressed, and the mention of political representation for Christians is very vague.

“I do not see any progress concerning religious freedom and the status of the Christians in Egypt,” he wrote in an email to Cornelis Hulsman. “So I see the ‘new’ constitution as a preservation of the status quo only. I would be grateful if you (or H.G. Anba Antonius) could convince me that I am wrong.”

The article elaborates his concerns and adds Hulsman’s description of background context. Reiss had read the full transcript of an earlier interview with Bishop Antonios, and responds:

As for the articles specifically discussed concerning religious freedom, Bishop Antonios both agreed and disagreed with the comments of Reiss. “Anything in the world might not be done correctly and could go wrong,” he said. “There has to be a public will for the constitution to be applied.”

This was his comment specifically about Article 53 on discrimination, but it concerns also the issues of apostasy and the rights of non-monotheistic religious adherents. The constitution states that freedom of belief is ‘absolute’, improving and strengthening the language of earlier versions. Of course this means one has the right to change religions. Concerning Baha’is in particular, Article 6 on citizenship states that obtaining official papers proving his personal data is a right, so how can the religion field be recorded incorrectly? But, he understood, the reality for both could be different.

Reality also dictated the acceptance of Articles 2 and 3, as well as 235 on church building. His personal opinion is with Reiss, that it would be better if the language of the constitution did not differentiate by religion. This even included Article 244 on Copts in parliament. Bishop Antonios is against quotas of any kind.

On this article he agreed with Reiss that the language was vague, but that this provided flexibility. It may be preferable to have a certain system to promote Copts in parliament given current realities about the lack of familiarity with democracy, but the law on this matter can change year by year as the reality changes. Ongoing political dialogue, as well as the will of the public, will determine implementation.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Salafi-Jihadis, Sinai, and the Anticipation of Terrorism

L: Mohamed al-Zawahiri, R: Mohamed Morsi
L: Mohamed al-Zawahiri, R: Mohamed Morsi

This post recalls two articles published last year at Arab West Report but not referenced on the blog, on the SalafiJihadis. The testimony is poignant based on current developments:

“We are distinguished from other Islamic trends by not accepting partial solutions,” he said. “The Brotherhood has understandings with the Americans, and they are not working on behalf of the shar’īah but to keep power for themselves.” As for the Salafīs, “They were a pure religious movement, far from politics, but when we see how the Nour Party has behaved after the revolution we see a great similarity to the state security apparatus, finding consensus with the military and even with the liberals.”

This jihad, however, does not target the West directly, though he lauds al-Qā’idah, justifies the Benghazi operation, and warns Americans their blood is not safe in Muslim lands. In fact, though his rhetoric is violent – “We have come to smash the pillars which the people have gotten used to” – the Salafī-Jihadi effort consists entirely of preaching, however much the State Department says otherwise.

“We do not carry weapons in Egypt,” he said. “We are engaged only in an intellectual battle. The security wants to charge us with being armed, but we reject this completely.”

The above quotes from Ahmed Ashoush, a colleague of Mohamed al-Zawahiri. They are accused of links with the Muslim Brotherhood and of fueling Sinai-based terrorism to protest his removal from power.

The second article reflects an email exchange with two experts on Islamist movements, Khalil al-Anani and Ahmed Zaghloul. Here is an excerpt from the latter, on the propensity of different groups toward violence:

Do you believe they are engaged in or preparing for an armed struggle and/or terrorist activity in Egypt or the region?

A large number of the remaining Jihad Organization has renounced violence; so has Jamā’at al-Islāmīyah following their ‘Revisions’ and created a political party with members in the Egyptian parliament. These are the classic organizations associated with violence.

But the idea of using violence is still present and will never disappear. There are a number of vine-like organizations in the Sinai which have conducted violent operations recently. There are others who have adopted the ideas of al-Qā’idah in Egypt.

But the source of danger is not the known groups but the sleeping cells who maintain the idea of jihad. Some of these have traveled to Iraq, Libya, or Syria for the jihad there. As long as there are places subject to aggression there will be suitable areas for these cells to be active.

Reality changes frequently, as does the ability to accept comments at face value. But these testimonies are offered in the ongoing effort to determine what is happening in Egypt, for the good of the country. Please click here to read the full articles at Arab West Report.

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Bishop Antonious: A Full Transcript on Constitutional Proceedings

Bishop Antonios

Bishop Antonious Aziz of the Coptic Catholic Church served as his church’s representative on the Committee of Fifty which rewrote Egypt’s constitution. He agreed to an interview with Arab West Report on December 10, 2013, shortly after the final text was approved by the committee and just over one month before ratification by the Egyptian people in a referendum on January 14-15. In the interview he provided clear and frank insight into the inner workings of the committee.

Arab West Report has provided a full transcript of the interview, available here. To summarize, Bishop Antonious described the process of his selection by the president and church, and the subcommittees on which he served. Each member assigned himself a place in one or more of five groupings: Basic Components of the State, Rights and Freedoms, System of Governance, Listening, and Drafting.

The bishop worked in the first and last of these subcommittees, making him uniquely qualified to comment on the passage of the key religious articles, from start to finish.

The listening committee received proposals from hundreds of citizens, forwarding these to members of the appropriate group. The group would interact with these alongside their own proposals, taking internal votes to forward their consensus text to the drafting committee. The drafting committee would then amend both wording and content as they saw fit, sending the article back to the subcommittee to produce a consolidated text. This text would then be debated by the full Committee of Fifty, which after agreement would enter a final, non-binding review by the Committee of Ten. These ten were constitutional experts who provided the Committee of Fifty the initial amended copy of the 2012 constitution, from which to work. Finally, every article required a 75 percent vote of approval to merit placement in the constitution, and the majority of articles passed without difficulty.

Getting to the place of passage, however, often entailed much difficulty. This was nowhere more evident than the religious identity articles which lead the constitutional text. Because of the difficulty, these were postponed until the end.

Bishop Antonious described the interaction between the church, Azhar, and Salafi Nour Party representatives. In Article 1, should Egypt be part of the Muslim nation (ummah)? Should Article 2, making sharī’ah the primary source of legislation, remain in the constitution? Should it be further interpreted, as done in Article 219 of the 2012 constitution?

Should Article 3, giving rights in personal status and religious organization to Christians and Jews, be extended to non-Muslims in general? Should Article 7 maintain language from 2012 giving the Azhar a role in the process of legislation? In all these articles and more, Bishop Antonious provided insight into the manner of discussion which eventually produced agreement. He also describes the personal interaction and attitudes experienced along the way.

Not everything in the final text met with Bishop Antonious’ agreement, and he is frank about some of these areas. But even so, the end result is a constitution with which he is deeply satisfied. Please click here to read the full transcript of the interview at Arab West Report.

Photo credit: ACN

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Adel Maged: Transitional Justice in the Constitution

Adel Maged
Adel Maged

From my recent article at Arab West Report, in a series of interviews about the composition of Egypt’s constitution. Adel Maged is the vice-president of the Court of Cassation, and has recently written a draft law on ensuring a process of transitional justice in Egypt. Its details are in the article, but here is an excerpt describing his effort to enshrine the concept in the new constitution:

Mājid’s law can come into existence through a simple presidential decree. He sought, however, to ground the concept of transitional justice more fully by inclusion in the 2013 amendments to the Egyptian constitution. Early on during the period of listening sessions, with Suzi Nāshid, a Coptic professor of economics at Alexandra University, who previously was selected to serve on the Shūrá Council, he presented his vision to the official dialogue committee in the fifty member constitutional assembly.

But so did representatives of Counselor Muhammad Amīn al-Mahdī, the head of the recently established Ministry of Transitional Justice. It also proposed the creation of a commission, but insisted that the ministry be included in it.

According to Mājid’s interpretation, this would ruin the most important characteristic of the commission: its independent standing. The ministry is an official arm of the executive branch, which could potentially threaten the necessary neutrality of the process. How can the government investigate itself?

Mājid believed the members of the constitutional assembly recognized the need for independence in transitional justice, but succumbed to the pressure of the ministry and failed to issue a decisive judgment on the matter. He declined to speculate on their reasoning, but suggested we speak with ‘Azzah al-‘Ashmāwī, the representative of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, who served on the listening committee. But the end result was the inclusion of an open-ended Article 214 into the constitutional text, which states:

In its first session after the enforcement of this constitution, the House of Representatives commits to issuing a transitional justice law that ensures revealing the truth, accountability, proposing frameworks for national reconciliation, and compensating victims, in accordance with international standards.

Basically, the committee enshrined the principle of transitional justice, but left the hard decisions of definition, composition, and methodology to the coming parliament. Fair enough, believed Mājid, but he would have preferred a stronger guarantee that his vision – based on extensive study of international models – would become a reality.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Mohamed Abd al-Salam: The Azhar on Religion in Egypt’s Constitution

Mohamed Abd al-Salam
Mohamed Abd al-Salam

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the committee that wrote the constitution. Mohamed Abd al-Salam is a judge and the legal adviser to the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyib. He discussed a number of religious articles briefly, and gave insight into the controversy whether Egypt should have a civil state, a civil governance, or the expression eventually adopted – controversially – a civil government:

The Azhar did play an active role on a different controversial issue, however, that of the identity of the state. Salām stated that some members wanted to define Egypt as a ‘civil state’, but the Azhar, the Nour Party, and other members expressed caution. In their opinion the great majority of Egyptian equate the term ‘civil’ with ‘secular’, and Salām rejected that Egypt was a secular state for Islam was its official religion. But neither is Egypt a religious state – in the sense of the Western, theocratic understanding – nor is it military. In fact, Salām did not oppose the term outright, but preferred to see the idea expressed within the constitutional text, rather than as a description of the state itself.

Again, the Azhar returned to studying the issue, and it was the Grand Mufti, Shawkī ‘Allām, who proposed what would become the compromising solution. In his description, Salām stated both words around which a controversy would develop. Civil ‘governance / government’ was an acceptable substitute for a civil state. He believed the majority opinion in law held that ‘government’ was a more precise word, but that the Azhar had no objection to either phrasing. Some committee members objected, saying that ‘governance’ was the agreed upon terminology. ‘Amr Mūsa, however, announced ‘government’ from the podium – twice – and it was voted upon in consensus, said Salām.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Arab West Report.

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Naguib Abadir: The Experience of a Reserve Member in the Constitutional Committee

Naguib Abadir
Naguib Abadir

From my recent article in Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the committee which wrote the constitution. Abadir is a founding member of the Free Egyptians Party, and was selected to participate as a stand-by member in case of possible resignations. But he was far more active than that:

Within his own subcommittee, Abādīr related he was free to influence the discussions, lobby, and explain his viewpoints. He never felt like a second class citizen. He was present at the internal voting of the subcommittee, and witness to the early contentious debates on Egypt’s identity issues.

‘Early’ debates, because midway through the process the reserve members were sent home. He complained to no avail, but provided insight as to the process of these contentious debates, which were eventually decided long after he left:

Abādīr explained that this liberal majority did not want Egypt defined in light of religion. They desired a civil state that had nothing to do with religion, dealing with citizens irrespective of their beliefs. They tried to insert this word ‘civil’ into Article 1, but met stiff resistance from the Azhar representatives and the Nour Party. Ten were in favor and only four against, but the word was removed. Later on it was attempted to be put into the preamble, but again the Azhar and Nour Party objected, so it was substituted for ‘civil government’, rather than a ‘civil state’. This was done in conjunction with removing language that placed Egypt as part of the Islamic ummah, which has ideas pointing toward a caliphate, and instead listing it as part of the Islamic ‘world’.

In Article 2 Abādīr stated his group wanted to make sharī‘ah ‘a’ source of legislation, removing the word ‘the’ that had been changed by President Sadat in 1980. ‘Everyone’, he said, thought this article should be phrased differently, but they decided to leave it unchanged. ‘Responsibly so,’ he commented, for in the charged atmosphere Egypt is in any adjustment would cause more trouble than it was worth.

So when the internal subcommittee vote proceeded, Abādīr expected it to pass unanimously among all fourteen members present. It did not. Zarqā’ of the Nour Party objected, and said he would support it only in conjunction with Article 219, which in the 2012 constitution provided a specific interpretation of the principles of sharī‘ah. This was somewhat out of order, Abādīr said, because their subcommittee was only tasked with discussing the first fifty or so articles of the 2012 text. But having brought it in, the committee immediately threw it out. Eventually the committee would semi-compromise in the preamble by leaving the interpretation of sharī‘ah bound by the collected rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court. These, Abādīr said, rely on the sharī‘ah only where no scholars disagree, leaving the principles of sharī‘ah to equal the broad principles of humanity.

But the earlier resistance to Article 219 prompted Zarqā’ to leave the committee entirely – on health grounds, as reported in the press. The Nour Party did not withdraw from the committee, but substituted Ibrahim Mansour in his place. But Abādīr had a different take on these ‘health’ reasons. He stated that Zarqā’ said when he saw us he felt he wanted to throw up, that we were nauseating, and these were the exact words of his declaration. He felt that we were insulting all his beliefs. Mansour, he said, was more diplomatic in his listening, though their opinions were the same.

But in his absence the subcommittee discussed Article 3. Previously this article gave Christians and Jews the right to refer to their own ‘sharī‘ah’ in matters of personal affairs, religious rites, and leadership selection. Abādīr said liberals wanted to change it to state ‘non-Muslims’, but the Azhar representatives would not accept this, as it would open up rights for religions not recognized in Islam. Though the internal vote was ten to three, above the target threshold of 75 percent, they failed.

Article 4 of the 2012 constitution dealt with the Azhar, which became Article 7 in the new charter. Here there was unanimity with the Azhar, for all wanted to remove the previous stipulation stating the opinion of the institution had to be taken in all matters of legislation that might concern sharī‘ah. Otherwise, Egypt might find itself in the Iranian model in which the mullahs have a say in every law.

In most of the other articles discussed in the subcommittee, Abādīr stated, there was general consensus. Only on these first four did contention arise, prompting Mūsa to take them away and basically ignore the work and the votes of the subcommittee.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Hosam al-Massah: The Disabled Member of Egypt’s Constitutional Committee

Hosam al-Massah
Hosam al-Massah

From my recent article on Arab West Report, in a series of interviews with members of the committee which wrote the new constitution. Hosam al-Massah is afflicted with cerebral palsy, yet works as a lawyer in the Ministry of Finance. He represented Egypt’s disabled community through the National Council for Persons with Disabilities:

He certainly believes the constitution supports his community. The first article to tackle was the hardest, he said, because the idea of adding clauses specifically mentioning the disabled was a new concept for many. This was Article 53, establishing equality and non-discrimination, and the disabled are mentioned alongside factors of religion, belief, sex, origin, race, color, language, social class, and political or geographical affiliation.

Massah was even able to mention ‘dwarfs’ specifically in the constitutional text. But his biggest triumph, explained in detail, was how he ensured ‘adequate representation’ for the disabled in parliament:

He did not attempt like some groups, however, to argue early on for a quota. He calculated he would not have the influence to push it through, and did not want to appear weak and spoil the effort at the beginning.

Instead, Massāh took advantage of the controversy that emerged over Articles 243 and 244 together. Article 243 concerned giving ‘appropriate representation’ to workers and farmers, who earlier had a longstanding 50 percent parliament quota removed. There was no real objection to 243, but members were aware of opposition to 244 and preemptively voted against 243 in order to force their hand. 33 members voted in favor, but 13 said no, he tallied in his notes. In turn, and lacking any mention of the disabled at this point, Article 244 also failed to reach the 75 percent threshold, with 27 in favor and 15 against.

Committee rules stipulated that if an article passed with less than 75 percent, it be discussed again. ‘Amr Mūsa as committee head called the members into private chamber, and it is here Massāh took advantage of his opportunity. He found three or four allies, and said he would not vote for Article 243 unless people with disabilities were added to the text of Article 244. In the end, both articles passed, with 46 and 44 votes respectively. Celebrating his achievement and responding to my marveling at his acumen, he smiled wryly. “I am a lawyer,” he remarked.

Massah comments also on military articles and the system of taxation, and the article seeks also to convey the color of his exuberant personality. Please click here to read the rest at Arab West Report.

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Safwat al-Baiady: Negotiating Religion in the Constitutional Committee

Safwat al-Baiady
Safwat al-Baiady

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of Egypt’s constitutional Committee of Fifty. Safwat al-Baiady is the head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, and lent his experience in how the committee’s religious members came to agreement on contentious articles. Here is his perspective on Article 3, giving Christians and Jews the right to refer to their religious laws in personal affairs and religious organization:

But one part of society that was not represented by the committee, Bayādī stated, were the Baha’īs. He personally argued that Article 3, guaranteeing Christians and Jews the right to govern themselves according to their own religious laws, should be phrased instead for ‘non-Muslims’. This wording won the majority in the ‘fundamentals of the state’ subcommittee on which he served, with ten votes for and only four against – the representatives of the Azhar and the Salafi Nour Party.

But when the subcommittee sent the article to the writing committee, it came back changed. Bayādī said the Azhar’s Muhammad Abd al-Salam, consultant for the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib, led the charge against this wording. Bayādī said he was very mad, and told the committee their job was in wording, not to change the meaning of the article and throw the majority outside. They responded they were also members of the full committee and had the right to their own ideas. In the end, Bayādī admitted that perhaps the change was wise, as it would not be good to upset the religious elements in society who look to the Azhar and Salafi scholars. After all, they want people to vote for the constitution.

In the committee, Bayādī said, everyone had to compromise, getting something and leaving something. This is the way to resolve differences, and he described an article the church left behind. Having already received a number of useful articles, which will be described below, Bishop Antonious of the Coptic Catholic Church proposed an article granting approval and independence to the Egyptian Council of Churches. Formed after the revolution, the council had been operating but had no official recognition. Majority approval was easy in the subcommittee, but after submission to the writing committee it was removed. Bayādī said that no one opposed early on because it did not concern them as non-Christians. But upon further deliberation committee members felt they had already received enough attention in the constitution. ‘Amr Mūsa pledged his help to get the president to give his official approval, which pleased Bayādī. But what the president gives he can take away, and if in the constitution it would be harder to revoke.

Baiady also described the battle to remove the old Article 219 interpreting sharia law, as well as the article assigning a specific age of childhood. He gives a grammar lesson in Article 64 on establishing places of worship, and describes the shenanigans over securing ‘appropriate representation’ for Christians in the coming parliament. Here is an excerpt on the fight over the term ‘civil’, and to what it should apply:

The final controversy Bayādī described came at the time of the vote itself. The preamble of the constitution declared Egypt to be a modern democratic state with civil governance. This last phrase – civil governance – was very difficult to achieve, and even Bishop Bula, to Bayādī’s surprise and anger, said he did not care for the word ‘civil’. The Salafīs in chief opposed this designation, and the Grand Mufti found the proper compromise when he supported ‘civil governance’. Everyone clapped, and the matter was over.

Or so it seemed. At the final vote Mūsá read ‘civil government’. Muna Dhū al-Fukkār, who was elected as his assistant, spoke out to correct and help him. But the vote took place and passed. According to the official transcript, of which he showed a copy, Mūsá afterwards stated that he misspoke and meant ‘governance’. But the next day, at a dinner function with the army, they received the official copy of the constitution with the words ‘civil government’. Bishop Antonious especially was very upset, saying the text was changed. Some say it doesn’t matter, Bayādī related, for government can mean the whole system of government and not just the ministers. In any case, he does not want to spoil the whole bouquet because of the insertion of one thorn, but he does believe it was meant to be changed, and not simply a mistake, due to opposition to what the mufti proposed.

For this and more, please click here to read the full report at Arab West Report.

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Mervat al-Tellawi: Women’s Rights in the Constitution

Mervat al-Tellawi
Mervat al-Tellawi

From my recent article in Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the constitutional committee. Mervat al-Tallawi is the head of the National Council for Women. She described that strengthening of articles concerning women’s rights was not difficult, setting right the Islamist tinge from 2012. But Tellawi felt these protections were not enough, given the realities of Egyptian society:

So the text of Article 11 makes clear that women have the right to serve in high government and judicial positions, which actually did meet quite a bit of opposition in the committee – from a surprising source. The Salafī representative objected in clear and straightforward manner, as expected, and the Azhar did not speak either in favor or against. But otherwise liberal members protested, naming Diā’ Rashwān of the journalist syndicate specifically, the head of the lawyers’ syndicate (Sāmih Ashūr), the head of the doctors’ syndicate (Khayrī ‘Abd al-Dā’im), and the head of a university (not specified, either Jābir Nassār of Cairo University or Ahmad Muhammadīn of Suez Canal University). She anticipated religious representatives might oppose her efforts, but was taken aback by these educated and liberal figures.

Article 11 also spoke against violence against women, which was passed unopposed. But it also called for ‘appropriate representation’ for women in parliament, which also proved controversial. Originally, Tallāwī asked for ‘just and balanced’ to be the phrasing on this issue, but Sayyid Badawī of the Wafd Party objected, saying this meant she wanted fifty percent. No, she replied, but if specification is needed let us officially propose a one-third parliament representation for women. The others mentioned above joined in what became a three hour fight, the end result of which was the wording of ‘appropriate’. This only postpones the battle, Tallāwī stated, until the drafting of the electoral law which will define what appropriate means, but there are several acceptable modalities. Perhaps the law will oblige parties to place women high on their voting lists; perhaps each governorate will assign three seats to be contested by women only. Other options can be discussed.

Tellawi also addressed the much overlooked, but vital sphere of local governance, and ensured women would have a place therein:

If social conservatives, though, had objection to appropriate women’s representation in the parliament, they did not object to a full quota in the local councils. Article 180 stipulates women must receive one quarter of elected positions, with one quarter to youth, and half to workers and farmers, with undefined appropriate representation for Copts and the handicapped. The only issue raised against the women’s representation here was if there were a sufficient number of women capable of serving administratively. Without a doubt, Tallāwī assured, giving specific names and stating the National Council for Women had 20,000 rural women who helped communicate between the council and illiterate women in the villages. But people are not aware of this, and men tend to only see men as qualified. But the members of the committee did not treat this issue with the same importance given to parliament.

She comments also on the controversial articles concerning the military and civil governance versus civil government. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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A Security Source Speaks on the Sinai


From my recent article at Arab West Report, describing an interview with a former security officer in the Sinai, who wished to remain anonymous. In light of the current accusations leveled against the Muslim Brotherhood, his comments, issued in May 2013, are very pertinent:

These known political figures, including leading Salafi-Jihadis such as ‘Adil Shahātah and Ahmad ‘Ashūsh, are currently playing a political role and not in charge of the operations on the ground, he said. But they still indirectly administer their policies and act as a go-between for the jihadists and non-violent political Islamist groups, and even the Mursī administration.

The Islamists, the advisor says, have divided up roles between themselves – this one to be violent, this one to be political – and having multiple entities helps fill the political space. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular is the head, and their deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shātir is one of the chief beneficiaries of the tunnel economy. They have three main uses for Salafi and jihadist entities.

The first is to win elections. In keeping a unity among real groups that do compete with each other, they ensure better results at the ballot box. The second use is as a threat for their competition, liberal and secular minded Egyptians who might find it necessary to cooperate with a ‘moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood to ensure they do not side publicly with the more extremist Salafis. The third use is similar, but aimed at the West. By being in league with jihadist elements, the Muslim Brotherhood can demonstrate they are the only ones capable of deterring their violence.

And while the military is currently destroying the aforementioned tunnels, here is how the state used to deal with them:

But if Bedouins were frozen out of official state business, they thrived in the unofficial business of the tunnel system to Gaza. The advisor numbered tunnel totals around 1200, and at their height during the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead a single tunnel could earn up to one million US dollars per day. The tunnel could be rented for one hour at a cost of $20,000 US, with administrative taxes taken on the other side by Hamas.

Before the revolution, Egypt used the tunnels as a foreign policy tool. Whether for pressure on Israel or Gaza, or indirectly on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar via their Sinai proxies, the flow of goods into Gaza could be variously eased or restricted. The nature of goods, also, could serve the state’s unofficial international policies. Technically, the Bedouins ran the tunnels, for all crossed through their land. But the government watched, which also provided an additional incentive for the tribes to cooperate.

The article also describes the demographic features of the Sinai and estimates the violent, jihadist elements. But given the severity of current political accusations, two lines from the conclusion are vital:

In reference to the information therein he assured its veracity. ‘This is not analysis,’ he said, ‘it is intelligence.’

Arab-West Report has not verified his assertions.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Mohamed Abla: A Voice for Culture in the Egyptian Constitution

Mohamed Abla
Mohamed Abla

From my recent article at Arab West Report, the first in a series of interviews of members of the committee which wrote Egypt’s constitution. Mohamed Abla is an internationally acclaimed Egyptian artist and was a leading figure in the protests against the appointment of an Islamist head to the Ministry of Culture. As such, protection of culture became a constitutional necessity:

One area that was mostly uncontroversial, but dear to his heart, was the inclusion of several articles promoting culture. Articles 47-50 oblige the state to foster cultural development and protect its cultural heritage, but this section was strange to many only in that it was new. In the end, only Salafīs opposed.

Most of the interview dealt with controversial elements, however. One area in question was the decision of the committee to yield the decision on electoral order and system to the president. Some have wondered if this was cooked in advance to make way for Sisi’s presidential campaign:

‘Ablah said this was completely absent from their negotiations. Some members favored presidential elections first, other parliamentary. Some favored a parliament elected by individual candidacy, some by party list or something in-between. As they debated, positions shifted. In the end, the Committee of Fifty decided two things. First, they were unable to come to an agreement. Second, they were unequipped to come to an agreement. Technical matters such as these require data that would take a long period to study judiciously. Given their sixty day timeframe, proper determinations were not feasible. The president, however, will be able to summon all the tools of state to engage in social dialogue, gather pertinent data, and make a decision in the best interests of the country. Beside, ‘Ablah stated, such matters should not be made permanent in the constitution. Members desired flexibility in the political system; if an individual candidacy is preferred now, perhaps party list will be better in ten years when political life is stronger.

‘Ablah admits he was an anomaly in the committee, as he is not connected to the government. But as such he may have been ignored in any backroom political machinations. He saw very little, however, that even approached the idea of trading votes for certain articles. “These issues were not postponed for anyone’s interests.”

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Arab West Report.

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Lessons in Peacebuilding from Northern Ireland

Avila Kilmurray
Avila Kilmurray

From my recent article on Arab West Report, reporting a visit to Egypt by Avila Kilmurray, a veteran peace activist from Northern Ireland. The lecture was arranged by the American University in Cairo, hoping for cross-pollination of ideas.

Her lecture was entitled, ‘Peace Building during Religious Strife: What Can Citizens Do?’ But even the title demands questions about the Egyptian particulars. Is Egypt’s religious strife the suffering of Copts at the hands of Islamists following the deposing of Morsi, or the longer patterns of discrimination and neglect on the part of the state? Or, is the strife the suffering of Islamists after the coup and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, or the longer patterns of discrimination and exclusion on the part of the state? Others would deny there is religious strife at all.

Within these options Kilmurray would counsel not a definition, but a participation. Citizens are free to label the troublemakers as they wish, but they must share a common purpose toward community peace. But a further recognition is necessary, at least from Northern Ireland’s experience. It will prove especially controversial in Egypt.

Kilmurray stated that early citizen initiatives sought to exclude the extremists. There was only one problem: It did not work. As long as the sponsors of violence remained outside the process peace proved elusive. Solutions began when they were brought into the room.

Kilmurray presented in November, 2013, before the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, but while official and popular sentiment was very much against them. They cannot be brought into the room now; what then are the possibilities for peace?

From this foundation relationships can be built, so that any proposed solutions to conflicts become mutually agreed upon, not forced. Otherwise, the culture of blame, which runs rampant when each group speaks among themselves, can result in accusation and acrimony when together.

Simply agreeing on these principles does not ensure success, however. Activist peacemakers from all sides must take care not to move too quickly. Otherwise their hopeful but perhaps reluctant constituencies grow uneasy and divisions will creep into each camp. Their commitment will be especially tested when sponsors of violence erupt again in community disturbance.

At times like this, it may be necessary for their representation to withdraw, but not absolutely. As meetings continue between normal citizens on both sides, those connected to groups of violence are to be briefed, so as to be part of the process, if from afar. When the time is right they must be encouraged to reengage, for no success can come unless every faction of society sees itself represented in these community groups.

The acrimony is present, and violence has erupted again. Are there any backdoor channels currently operating between anyone in the government and Brotherhood leaders, whether in prison or abroad? During the process of crafting the constitution, the participation of the Salafi Nour Party ensured that some Islamists could see themselves involved, though many others labeled them as hypocrites and opportunists.

But few mixed community groups exist; the above only describes the very limited official sessions. Here is one example of some citizens who are trying.

To progress, Kilmurray notes, they must leave out the politicians. But to succeed, they need them.

Community peace groups, therefore, had to have a positive agenda. Many took up the cause of human rights, holding accountable both militias and police. They also tended to operate without politicians, giving participants of sense of responsibility and risk taking that eluded electoral leaders. They would hold protests in the street condemning violence. But they would also work behind the scenes to craft a shared narrative history of ‘the troubles’, in order to work their perspective into society’s official institutions.

Participants in community groups were aware that peacemaking must not be surrendered only to the politicians, or else their rhetoric might become just one more tool in the political power grab. But lasting peace cannot be achieved without politicians, for they operate within government to make lasting agreements in the name of the divided peoples.

So perhaps this is too late, if it was feasible anyway. But from the conclusion:

Kilmurray did not speak about Egypt, but a number of her remarks engender reflection on the current political and sectarian struggles. Given the current rule of an army backed government that deposed the Islamist Morsi from power following popular demonstrations, especially critical will be any role for his Muslim Brotherhood.

I imagine Kilmurray would draw a distinction between participation of Brotherhood politicians and of citizens, both members and sympathizers. Of the former she would likely take little interest, for they, like their rivals, are involved in the back-and-forth power struggles that were unhelpful in Northern Ireland.

Instead, she would likely counsel the desperate necessity for greater civil society involvement in the issues of peace. Dialogue groups exist among clergy, and human rights groups exist as per the issue chosen. But where are the community groups that are deliberately inclusive for the sake of local relations and development?

Such groups must bring together Copts, liberals, Salafis, Sufis, Baha’is, Nubians, the non-religious, and yes, the Muslim Brothers, she would likely advocate. Here, Egypt’s challenge is potentially greater than Northern Ireland’s, for in Belfast the population is relatively evenly divided. In Egypt, the presence of any of these groups might offend the sensibilities of others right from the start on a conceptual basis. And furthermore, the inclusion of some tiny minorities might appear more a political statement than a representation of an actual community.

But community groups are not chiefly for the political statements. It might be hoped that local citizens within the above factions might bear less grievance against their neighbor. And if the tiny minorities are not present in any particular local community, there is no representation necessary. As the circles widen, however, all must be included.

This is another of Egypt’s challenges: 85 million people would engulf Belfast. Finding appropriate citizen participation to speak peace to the nation is a herculean organizational endeavor. But to start small, in each community, is the task at hand. Hold together, and hold to account. However Egypt’s sectarianism is to be defined, this is the beginning of the solution.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Placating Salafis for Constitutional Passage?

Placating Salafis

From my recent article in Arab West Report, about warnings that Salafis, despite only having one member in the Committee of Fifty to amend the 2012 Constitution, were nonetheless exerting undue influence against a liberalizing majority. Some argued they were being placated on several issues so as to keep them involved in support of the overall roadmap:

Arab West Report does not here differ with Coptic Solidarity about the potential implications of furthering the role of sharī‘ah law in the Egyptian Constitution. Their concerns are valid and worthy for discussion. Their statement, however, allows an opportunity to provide context for this struggle.

The mobilization of Tamarrud against President Mursī culminated on June 30 in vast protests calling for early presidential elections. A significant percentage of protestors were motivated by sectarian tendencies reflected in his policies and the predominance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the administration of government. But many protestors also called for his removal due to the ineffectiveness of his government in terms of the economy, security, and general standard of living of the ordinary citizen. Finally, the decision to oust Mursī, taken on July 3, was supported also by the Nour Party, Egypt’s largest political representation of Salafīs.

It is not possible to gauge the level of ordinary Salafī support for the removal of Mursī. It is clear that many sided with the president through their participation in the sit-in protests dispersed violently on August 14. But many Salafīs also voiced consistent opposition to Mursī, though for reasons at times very different from those of their liberal and leftist allies of convenience.

Therefore, Arab West Report wishes to nuance the sentiment of Coptic Solidarity when it speaks of the “dreams of most Egyptians”. The Egyptians who bravely fought against Mursī were diverse.

Yes, diverse, though the Salafi presence was one of the less numerous participants. But their strength in the committee came from another source:

By including the Nour Party among the Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church, the military was able to portray its action as one of national unity, to remove Mursī who had transgressed the popular will. Early overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood also contributed to this rhetoric, though whether offered sincerely or otherwise, failed to bring Mursī’s parent organization on board. But without the key role played by Nour, the military risked allowing an opposite rhetorical stratagem, that of portraying Mursī’s removal not only as a coup against democracy, but as a war against Islam. With the largest Salafī political party in cooperation, this latter accusation was severely muffled.

By acting either from brave conviction or political acumen, the Nour Party risked alienation from its key constituency that still hoped Mursī might provide the rule of sharī‘ah. As the crackdown ensued on the Muslim Brotherhood in general, non-Islamists might say that Nour’s survival as a political entity is reward enough for their participation. But as article after article is debated, Nour holds the threat of switching sides and mobilizing against a constitution free of sharī‘ah. In an already polarized environment, supporters of the new government are ill at ease risking further agitation against them, let alone igniting a voter base that may rise against the constitution in the upcoming referendum.

This, therefore, is the “intense pressure” to which Coptic Solidarity is worried the committee will succumb. It is an understandable fear. This close to a “window of opportunity” in which they can win every article demanded, will the chance be thrown away simply to placate the Salafīs?

Unfortunately, this idea that Salafi viewpoints should simply be outvoted recycles the logic of the earlier constitutional committee which exhibited Islamist numerical dominance. The failure of consensus was greatly criticized by liberals at the time. Now, it appears, some desire it.

Or, such language was simply a pressure technique of their own. If so, here is the final article excerpt, from the conclusion:

But AWR also recognizes that long term social peace depends on the ability of all Egyptian citizens to come together and decide their national charter. None must yield on principles, and Coptic Solidarity is right to advocate strongly.

As Salafīs advocate in return, it is good to take a step back to see the big picture. They also are part of the June 30 revolution. However much the Committee of Fifty represents the diverse institutions of Egypt and the participants in the overthrow of Mursī, it does not represent fully the diversity of political-religious thought. Fair enough, perhaps, as many Islamists rejected their place at the table. But unless a wide consensus of society is able to approve the final constitutional text, it will take its place in the line of charters drawn by an elite and swallowed by an unengaged people, even if they vote for it.

Salafīs should not be placated, but neither should they be alienated. Their pressure is valid.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.