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Voting Behind Barbed Wire

It is usually not an easy process to vote overseas. And then, all of a sudden, I had.

Weeks ago we printed out our internet registration form, necessary to secure a ballot sent from America. We also heard we could drop this off at the US Embassy in downtown Cairo, but delays – including a few days of rioting you may have heard of – kept us away.

But even then the process was complicated. Even after we received the ballot and sent it back, it was still necessary to physically mail an official registration form, even if it arrived late.

It has been a while since I voted in America, but basically all I recall is signing my name and pulling a lever. There is much I took for granted.

This includes, apparently, not having to walk through a war zone.

I exaggerate. Everything downtown is calm and has been for weeks. But the earlier riots only ended when the army intervened to impose its staple post-revolution solution: Build a wall. The main street of access to the embassy from Tahrir Square is now barricaded completely, forcing a five minute walk around the corner.

Didn’t I just lament taking things for granted? Now I complain about an extra five minute walk? The sign on the wall shows those who have a right of grievance. The shop owners outside the embassy and all along the now barricaded road are pleading with the government to take it down.

Once around the corner, however, the second security step is visible. During the original demonstration against the film protestors scaled the embassy walls and took down the US flag, replacing it with a black flag of Islam. The rest of the evening they stood atop the wall, holding placards but doing nothing in particular.

Now, barbed wire lines the embassy wall in its entirety.

Getting in was nearly as simple a process as usual. There was a line outside, ID, phone, and camera to leave at the desk, a metal detector to pass through, and then… that’s when things were different.

Normally the American Services Center of the embassy is calm and orderly, waiting in turn for your number to be called. The embassy advertized two days, however, to assist the absentee voting process, which was held outside regular visiting hours.

The line outside was due to the great crowd, let in by smaller groups to ease the congestion. There were few instructions given on what to do upon arrival. Forms were everywhere – mostly organized – but only one very helpful and very patient embassy employee inside. I had figured I only needed to drop off my ballot request form, so I was a bit confused.

And then she handed me my ballot.

I wasn’t quite prepared to vote on the spot. The main problem is that my attention is given almost entirely to Egyptian politics. Outside the headlines, I haven’t followed the US race much at all.

Basically, I hadn’t done my homework, nor had I reflected sufficiently. The only solution was to pray quickly, swallow hard, and write down a name.

With that, it was over. My envelope was sealed and placed in embassy mail. I don’t even have a hard copy registration letter for later, as they mailed that too.

Really, it was wonderful facilitation by the embassy, and a good reminder of the blessings of our system. It was a responsibility to cast a vote, but it was also a privilege.

Even behind barbed wire.

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Tahrir Protestors Turn on Each Other: My Video

For the first time since the revolution, protestors from opposite camps attacked each other at Tahrir Square. The events have been well documented – and disputed. Here is my version.

Please read this EgyptSource article for a good summary of events and context. Please read here for my brief introduction in the form of a prayer. In brief, a protest against the constitution drafting committee was joined by a protest against the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the revolutionary ‘Battle of the Camel’.

The former protest was called for largely by liberal and leftist forces; the latter by Islamists and revolutionaries. Perhaps there was some overlap between them.

‘Perhaps’ is the key word in all that follows. Previous violent skirmishes all involved the people against the police force. When protestor turned on protestor it was very difficult to tell one from the other.

I arrived at around 3:30pm. As I ascended from the Metro I looked around to see sporadic rock throwing in several locations throughout the square. It took me a little while to gain my bearings. I anticipated a full crowd of dueling chants. Instead, I discovered Tahrir to be quite empty.

As I watched I was surprised to find my only reaction was to laugh. The scene was so surreal. I was standing calmly beside the Metro steps with a few dozen others, while about fifty yards away on the other side of the Omar Makram statue rocks were being hurled through the air.

Onlookers told me there was a single stage set up by the anti-constitution protest, but it was destroyed by supporters of President Morsy. Others told me it was the Muslim Brotherhood members who were attacked first by rocks, and then responded. See the EgyptSource link above for video about the stage destruction. Clearly they are Morsy supporters, but how can one tell if it was the Brotherhood or not?

While we were watching the nearby rock throwing, other bystanders told me the Brotherhood had now withdrawn from the square. Their organization has since issued contradictory statements, but the official spokesman stated their members were not present at that time at all. I could see some of those tossing rocks wore beards in Islamist fashion. But then again, anyone can wear a beard.

Eventually the scene settled down nearby, and fighting concentrated on Mohamed Mahmoud Street towards the Ministry of the Interior. Months ago the clashes there with security had been fierce. Now, the battle lines were on the edge of the square leading in, with little to suggest either side cared particularly to advance.

But who was ‘either side’? Onlookers were completely confused and had no idea who was fighting. Eventually one person who seemed like he knew said it was the two wings of the April 6 Movement fighting each other. Indeed, the black flags with clenched fist of April 6 were on both sides. Then again, anyone can hold a flag.

Please click here for my video of this scene (three minutes). The proximity is from the zoom lens, but there were a few moments I thought to judge how close the stones were coming to my vantage point. At this point I wasn’t laughing. If anything, my eyes were a touch moist watching Tahrir disintegrate.

Again, it was hard to tell who was who, but I did not see many bearded protestors; one was assaulted by fists and ran away from the scene to the relatively open Tahrir Square behind us. As for April 6, they have long been divided into two fronts with separate leadership and institutional decision making. One front has closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood as a revolutionary movement. Perhaps the other increasingly sees this as a betrayal. It was hard to know.

And then, the reconciliation happened, sort of. All the while the stones were being thrown other revolutionaries were gathered to the left in front of Hardees, chanting furiously, but peacefully. They made their way towards Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and upon arrival, united the two groups. Once together, they chanted the now-popular anti-Brotherhood slogan, ‘Sell the revolution, Badie,’ referring to Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood General Guide. Perhaps they were not fighting over a supposed allegiance to the Islamists.

Please click here for my video of these scene (four minutes). It is after the reconciliation itself but shows that perhaps a quarter of Tahrir was now relatively packed, presumably by liberals and leftists.

Somehow they were still divided. A short while later the fighting broke out again.

But by now the main fighting had moved to the Talaat Harb Street entrance to Tahrir Square. This was too far away for me to determine who was who, but onlookers said the Revolutionary Socialists march had just arrived. Again, if flags are any indication, their banner was on one side, while April 6 was on the other.

At this point I decided to leave, figuring there was not much left to see. The only possible development would be if the riot police entered to stop the fighting. Indeed, that was my first thought near the Metro: Why did President Morsy not put an end to in-fighting?

One observer commented, likely correctly, this would then turn into a brawl against the police which would fall on Morsy’s account. At the same time, should it not be the role of the police to calm a civil disturbance? Was Morsy letting the protestors paint each other black? Does he not feel confident he has full control over security forces? Did he just hesitate? Or were there Muslim Brotherhood members present who were stoking tensions, even deliberately?

These are too many questions, which unfortunately fits with the lack of answers that characterizes Egyptian politics these days. Perhaps in days to come everything, everywhere, will be made known.


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Muslims Care for the Heart of a Monk

A spiritual man, Fr. Mercurious knows the only guarantee is from the hand of God. At the same time, his surgery to prevent a heart attack was in the hands of Muslims.

A few weeks ago the forty year old monk in the Monastery of St. Makarious in Wadi Natrun had open heart surgery. Suffering from high cholesterol, his doctor advised this course of action at the earliest date possible.

With genetic propensity from his father, and narrow arteries from his mother, the simple diet of a monk was not enough to guarantee health.

Fr. Mercurious did not intend it to be so originally, though this had nothing to do with religious preference. Like many Egyptians, he inquired first if he could travel to the US or UK for surgery. When embassy procedures did not go anywhere, his doctor recommended a specialist hospital in 6 October City, a new development outside of Cairo.

The surgery went well. Muslim Egyptian doctors grafted veins from his arms and legs to bypass his arteries, which were blocked at 95%. They even gave him special deference due to his clerical disposition.

It is not a remarkable thing, really. Well trained doctors demonstrate their skills on a human being. Unfortunately, it is often not the sort of story heard about Egypt.

Fr. Mercurious related his operation in the context of the changing religious climate of Egypt. While admitting his isolation from the world, he keeps up with events through visitors to the monastery and their tales of political and social developments.

Before entering the monastery after university studies, Fr. Mercurious stated he had only the best of relations with all Muslims he knew. Yet in the past several years he had the impression that the number of ‘extremists’ was increasing.

Is this a function of real change in the character of Muslims, or of real change in the perceptions of his Christian visitors? Surely the two must be somewhat related.

Dr. Mohamed el-Menissy is a Muslim doctor who volunteered at the field hospital in Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church near Tahrir Square during clashes in November. In asking him about his experience – not his faith – he insisted over and over again that Muslims and Christians love each other in Egypt. He was near desperate to get this message across to the West. He even gave me the phone number of his Christian doctor colleague so as to confirm their friendship.

Of course Dr. Menissy is telling the truth of his experience, but does such single-mindedness betray a deeper reality frantically denied? Is he hoping the world to be right, if only by insisting it is?

Perhaps it is as simple as rightful offense at media – both Western and Arab – which focuses on problems to such degree it obscures reality, perhaps even to the extent of transforming it. Speaking to media, perhaps Dr. Menissy wanted to transform it back.

What purpose does this story serve, then? In highlighting a non-news event of a Muslim doctor operating successfully on a Coptic monk, do I help stem the tide of negative reporting? Or do I play into the narrative of distinction between Muslim and Christian?

Fortunately, I carry no such burden. I tell the story of the monk because he is my friend and it is interesting. I tell the story of Dr. Menissy because it fits in this context and honors his desire. Both show a slice of life that is worthy to be known more widely.

As for what these stories say about Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt: They say the truth. It is not the whole truth, but it is an essential truth.

The next time a church burns, it is important to acknowledge this as the truth also. One story balances another.

Such complexity marks our own lives – we chafe at being reduced, simplified, or misunderstood. Let us grant the same grace to Egypt.

After all, as these stories show, she shows much grace to her own.

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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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Escalating Pressure for the Blind Sheikh

Omar Abdel Rahman, the ‘Blind Sheik’

On Thursday, July 26, the family of Omar Abdel Rahman ratcheted up their rhetoric in their awareness campaign to free their father. The family issued five demands to President Morsy and invited speakers to comment, some of whom threatened America harshly.

Otherwise known as the ‘Blind Sheikh’, Abdel Rahman is imprisoned in America for involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His family claims Abdel Rahman’s arrest was political, as the US yielded to Egyptian demands to silence him from criticizing Mubarak. The family has conducted an open-ended sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in Cairo since August of last year.

Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, one of the Blind Sheikh’s sons, called for a press conference and invited political leaders to speak on his father’s behalf. He desired to put pressure on President Morsy to intercede in the case, to fulfill his promise made during his inaugural address from Tahrir Square. Morsy identified Abdel Rahman as a ‘political prisoner’ and vowed to work for his release, along with hundreds of other prisoners in Egyptian jails, who were jailed for their revolutionary activity.

Morsy pardoned or otherwise freed over 500 Egyptian prisoners on the eve of Ramadan. He has backtracked, however, on promises to secure Abdel Rahman’s release.

Abdullah issued five primary demands:

  • For President Morsy to form an urgent committee to visit Abdel Rahman in his American prison and check on his health and the state of his confinement
  • For President Morsy to immediately authorize legal advisors to challenge the Justice Department’s use of an antiquated law to keep Abdel Rahman in solitary confinement for 19 years
  • For President Morsy to give the green light to the Foreign Ministry to begin diplomatic efforts to return Abdel Rahman to his country
  • To apply the principle of reciprocity on every American prisoner in Egypt and subject them to solitary confinement as is done to Egyptian prisoners in the US
  • For the presidency to allow some of Abdel Rahman’s family members continual visitation rights in America until he returns to his country

Political leaders in attendance were mostly from al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Abdel Rahman’s original group which is designated a terrorist organization in the United States. In the 1990s al-Gama’a formally forswore violent methods. Following the Egyptian revolution it has created a political party, called Building and Development, which cooperated with Salafi parties during the recent parliamentary elections.

Abbud al-Zumur

Abbud al-Zumor was the keynote speaker. A leader in al-Gama’a, he is unapologetic for his role in assassinating President Sadat in 1979.

‘Abdel Rahman was among the strongest to call against Mubarak and it resulted in his being exiled from Egypt,’ he said. ‘Eventually he went to America where he found no human rights, let alone the rights of a domesticated animal.

‘The matter is now in Morsy’s hands and he must move quickly to return Abdel Rahman safely to his family, as he is very sick.’

Mohamed Shawki al-Islamboli

Mohamed Shawki al-Islamboly is also a leader in al-Gama’a, whose brother was the actual assassin of Sadat. He recently returned to Egypt after spending many years abroad in Iran as a political refugee.

‘Abdel Rahman exposed the Egyptian regime so it pressed the US to arrest him in violation of its proclaimed human rights,’ he said. ‘This is a shame upon America.

‘We say to Morsy it is your responsibility to seek the freedom of every Egyptian who opposed Mubarak, whether inside or outside Egypt.’

Nasr Abd al-Salam

The most incendiary comments, however, were issued by Nasr Abdel Salam, president of al-Gama’a’s Building and Development Party.

‘Americans spend millions of dollars every year to improve their image in the Muslim world, but it has only gotten worse,’ he said.

‘If anything happens to Abdel Rahman, America and its people will pay the price. The criminals in the administration and the embassies will pay the price.

‘Abdel Rahman’s dignity is the dignity of every Egyptian.’

The final al-Gama’a speaker was Ezzat al-Salamony. He spoke of the need to ‘lay siege’ to the American Embassy, but Abdullah, the Blind Sheikh’s son, clarified these remarks afterwards.

Next Thursday, Abdullah said, there will be an open Ramadan fast-breaking meeting at the sit-in at the US Embassy. At that time he said they would announce the date for a massive demonstration at the complex, but there were no intentions to permanently close the embassy.

Salamony, meanwhile, clarified Abdel Salam’s remarks about ‘paying the price’. Speaking with him afterwards, he stated there were all sorts of means to pressure the American administration. Specifically he mentioned an economic boycott and sending fighters to Afghanistan to oppose the US military there. The objective would be to do to the US what was done to Russia, resulting in America’s loss of dignity in the world. This is the ‘price’ the American people would pay.

Salamony emphasized nothing would be done to American civilians, as this was against sharia law.

Other speakers outside al-Gama’a included Hanny Hanna, a Copt known as the ‘preacher of the revolution’ for leading Christian prayers from Tahrir Square.

‘The only way for Abdel Rahman to return to his children and grandchildren is to establish Egypt as a national regime,’ he said. ‘We must strive to return all Egyptians from foreign prisons as a humanistic demand.

‘As I love the Messiah I must also love the prisoner.

‘President Morsy has not dealt with his situation in wisdom. When he mentioned it at Tahrir he made the US think it was at the top of his agenda, and he made them aware of the importance of this issue. If he had been quiet and waited two years and asked then it would have been much simpler to secure his release quietly.’

Kamal al-Helbawi

Kamal al-Helbawi is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who resigned when the group nominated a candidate for president, believing they had betrayed the revolution.

‘We as Muslims must defend the right in every place, whether it is for a Muslim or a non-Muslim,’ he said. ‘I helped defend Nelson Mandela in South Africa, so how can I not defend our sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman?

‘We must mobilize Muslims and non-Muslims, Islamists and seculars, so as to make Abdel Rahman a national cause.

‘America is not a democratic nation; it is a nation of criminals. What they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan was not even done by the Mongols or the Tartars. But we do not fear America, we fear God.’

Finally, Yahya Ismail is a religious scholar from the Azhar university.

‘We must support Abdel Rahman from every mosque, every institution, every political party, and even the Azhar itself,’ he said. ‘We must put his picture everywhere and host seminars and raise awareness. What have we done for him so far? He is being persecuted by the Zionists and Crusaders.

‘God has permitted war in the case of aggressing against religious scholars. A nation’s peace rests in the peace of its religion, and the peace of its religion rests in the peace of its religious scholars.’

Chants issued during the press conference included:

  • Oh al-Gama’a, oh al-Gama’a, we want a million-man demonstration!
  • Oh America, collect your dogs, we are tired of your terrorism!

But the microphone for the chant leader malfunctioned shortly afterwards and chants were abandoned.

Following the conference I spoke with Safwat Kamal, an unaffiliated Islamist from the neighborhood of Imbaba, Cairo. With Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman standing beside, he spoke of the need to escalate the cause.

‘It has been a year now, and the people are getting angry,’ he said. ‘I have told Abdullah many times already, we must storm the embassy or kidnap a few Americans. But every time he says no.’


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Spinning the Muslim Brotherhood

In politics, spin is inevitable. But in times of great political struggle spin is often transformed into misrepresentation. In Egypt these days, as seen in the press, the Muslim Brotherhood is spun virtually into a dervish.

Consider first this article from al-Akhbar, ‘Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Reassures Washington’, published April 7, 2012. Though it details current Brotherhood efforts to portray itself as a moderate political force, the article opens with a similar effort from 2005.

Muslim Brotherhood Deputy General Guide Khairat al-Shater penned an article in the Guardian following the group’s victory of one-fifth of the parliamentary seats. US President George Bush had been pushing the region towards democracy, but now the West was fearful of the results.

The article carries Shater’s words, saying:

He added that they only ran for 150 seats out of 444 (in the people’s assembly), because they “recognize that the provision of a greater number of candidates will be considered a provocation to the system” and lead it to “falsify the results.”

Here, the picture Shater paints is of the Brotherhood as a keen political player, limiting their rightful ambition for the greater democratic transition. Rather than provoke the autocrat Mubarak, they will do just enough to keep nudging democracy along.

Fair enough. Only it isn’t the truth. Or, sort of. The Brotherhood alluded as such last month.

At the time there were rumors the Brotherhood had ‘cut a deal’ with the regime for partial political representation. The win-win gave a measure of political representation to the Brotherhood, while Mubarak could complain to the West about the results of ‘democracy’ and continue to rule autocratically. If true, it worked. The Bush administration fell silent and dropped its democracy rhetoric.

These days as well the Brotherhood is accused of ‘cutting a deal’ with the military council.

Therefore it is very interesting to consider the new spin the Brotherhood gives to the 2005 elections. Egypt Independent carried the news of their ‘confession’, on June 13, 2012.

According to ‘an official statement’, the Brotherhood:

Confessed to meeting with the State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) in 2005, saying in an official statement on Wednesday that it attended the meeting “in order to avoid a string of arrests that would have affected hundreds of Brotherhood members.”

The Brotherhood said the SSIS had summoned a number of the group’s members to its headquarters after it nominated 160 candidates for the 2005 parliamentary elections.

In its statement, the Brotherhood said that during the meeting, SSIS leaders asked them to withdraw a large number of candidates and to only compete for thirty seats in Parliament. However, according to the statement, the Brotherhood heads refused the request.

“We said, ‘Let the people elect 40, or more or less. This is their right. We do not expect all 160 candidates to win and no one will withdraw.’” The statement went on to say that the group was threatened, but that they were not intimidated by the threats.

There is plausibility to this story, but it is a different tale than was given by Shater at the time. No longer is the Brotherhood the self-limiting democratic champion, but rather a political player negotiating with the regime for what it can get. There may well be spin in this presentation as well, as it fits with the post-revolution acceptability of exposing Mubarak’s ills. The Brotherhood, in this presentation, is a victim – though not powerless. They stood up to authority to the level possible.

It is noteworthy, though, to notice numbers. The Brotherhood confessed to seeking 40 representatives in this ‘deal’, however coerced it was. Somehow, they wound up winning 88.

In light of similar Brotherhood post-revolutionary promises to ‘limit’ their political representation, it is curious to watch the pattern repeat itself. To what extent in both 2005 and 2011 was the Brotherhood pressed to limit their ambition, and how in either case did they exceed the deal/expectation?

Perhaps they simply play the political game better than anyone else.

This fact becomes clear when examining the spin that is marshaled against them. The Egypt Independent ended its article:

The statement came after repeated accusations from presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq that the Brotherhood used to meet with and have friendly relations with the Mubarak regime.

Here, the writer does a good job of not endorsing the accusation, putting it in context, but also leaving the impression in the reader’s mind. It is a slight use of spin, but it is there.

Far less subtle is this example from Aswat Masr, published July 19, 2012. The headline reads, ‘The General Guide Commenting on the Death of Omar Suleiman: God, Save us from the Helpers of the Deposed [Regime]’.

Closer examination of the article, however, shows the Brotherhood statement has no direct relation to Suleiman whatsoever.

An indirect relation is possible. July 19 is the day Suleiman died. He was widely reviled for his alleged roles in torturing prisoners, and especially in his efforts to curtail the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.

During the revolution Mubarak appointed Suleiman as vice-president, but only a few days later he fell with the regime. When Suleiman briefly resuscitated his political career in a failed attempt to run for president, he fit well into the secular-Islamic dichotomy and was hailed by some as a hero. Upon his death he was given a military funeral.

While some Islamists have praised his death, the Brotherhood has been more cautious. President Morsy permitted the military funeral, but kept his distance and did not attend. It is judicious for them to keep their silence and not gloat over the fall of their long time enemy.

In this light the headline of Aswat Masr is better understood. It paints the Brotherhood as celebrating Suleiman’s death, and wishing similarly for salvation from those still alive.

Perhaps the writer has divined the Brotherhood’s intentions, but he has not accurately conveyed their words. The article takes from a written, weekly statement issued by the General Guide, Mohamed Badie. The text opens with Ramadan and praise of the Qur’an.

Only later on does the headline quotation occur, and Suleiman is never mentioned. Instead, Badie asks God:

Save us from tyrants, the corrupt, and the helpers of the dead, deposed regime. Aid our president in leading the ship of the nation to safe shores.

This statement can very much be read into the current political struggle between the Brotherhood and the military/old regime. The headline, however, makes the reader think it is an attack on Suleiman, painting the group as a vindictive entity worthy of Suleiman’s attempts at suppression.

When spin is present, it is best to find truth, however difficult.

According to my best and current understanding, the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime danced together, awkwardly. There were periods of oppression and jailing, and periods of limited freedom of operation. On the whole, the group was free to function socially, but restricted politically. The regime always had the upper hand, but the Brotherhood knew how to exploit its limitations and slowly develop its legitimacy.

Omar Suleiman was a loyal employee, tasked with protecting the state from violent Islamists, and protecting the regime from political challenges. I suspect the tales of oppression are true.

What is still unclear, due the presence of spin from all sides, is if the Muslim Brotherhood is a legitimate democratic governing party. There is a great political struggle underway, and nearly all focus rests on this question.

The Brotherhood is spun, but also spins itself. Perhaps soon the dust will clear.

Even a dervish eventually stops.

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Morsy Reinstates Egypt’s Parliament

Military Council head Tantawi (L) and President Morsy

That was fast.

After only one week in office, President Morsy has picked his first fight – he issued a decree to reinstate the dissolved parliament.

Shortly before the run-off election the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled parliament to be unconstitutional based on procedural grounds, and the military council issued a decree to dissolve it.

Morsy, now with the executive power of the presidency, has undone the decree of the council.

Moreover, he threatens the legislative power the military council afforded itself in the interim period between the dissolution of parliament and the writing of the constitution after which new elections will be held.

Morsy promised the return of parliament from his victory speech in Tahrir Square. He used language, however, which left him wiggle room to fulfill this promise simply with new, eventual elections.

When he took his oath of office in front of the constitutional court, however, it seemed he was accepting the court decision and military prerogative to set the path of transition until a new constitution was written.

When he was seen repeated hobnobbing with the generals, it gave the impression a deal, or at least an understanding, had been reached. That is, Morsy made his ‘revolutionary’ speech, but now was getting down to business in cooperation with the military.

He is certainly getting down to business now.

The ruling to dissolve parliament was questionable, but it was issued by the ‘independent’ court. Whether or not it is, of course, is also questionable, but Morsy pledged to uphold the law and respect the judiciary.

On the other hand, many observers see the court ruling and subsequent constitutional declarations by the military as a power grab, or at the least as an effort to balance the power of the president and an Islamist parliament. Yet both president and parliament were elected democratically – though perhaps this is also among the questionable issues of Egypt’s transition.

This statement is not necessarily to cast doubts on the results, only to reflect the common perception that Egyptian’s votes are only an aspect of the power struggles underway in the country.

Morsy’s move comes one day before the High Administrative Court was set to issue a ruling on the legality of parliament’s dissolution. It is unclear if this case will docket as scheduled. The military council is holding an emergency meeting at present.

Two items to cast shades of conspiracy. One, some suspect this is a continuation of play acting between the Brotherhood and military council. A few months ago they railed against the performance of the government and threatened to withdraw confidence. They never did, but used the episode to justify going back on their promise not to field a presidential candidate. Under this theory, the crisis was engineered then, and is engineered now to present the Brotherhood as a revolutionary force deserving of popular and international support. The military, it is posited, is simply being a foil for the emerging power, with which they are fully in cahoots.

Two, it is noteworthy that in the last day or two President Morsy received a letter specially delivered by the undersecretary of state, William Burns. Its contents were not made public, but the timing is suspicious. The released text, incidentally, narrates the parliament before the constitution.

‘It will be critical to see a democratically elected parliament in place, and an inclusive process to draft a new constitution that upholds universal rights.’

According to conspiracy, however, ‘secret’ instructions could either supplement the theory above, or, more deviously, could be telling the Brotherhood the US has your back in a move against the military.

Away from conspiracy, the next moves may be telling. Morsy’s move is a definitive challenge to the military’s authority. If there was a deal, it seems clear he is violating it.

The military’s position is difficult. It will be hard pressed to go against the executive authority of a popularly elected leader. Indeed, it is the right of the executive to implement – or ignore – administrative aspects of the state.

It was assumed, if there was a deal, that the military possessed a number of cards which could be played against Morsy, with which to hold him in check. There is a court case pending, for example, to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. There may also be challenges to the legality of his campaign. He, like all other candidates, violated rules. He may also – though this is speculated popularly – have received foreign funding.

After all that has transpired, it would be difficult to imagine any of these legal measures unseating a president, but Egypt has had surprise rulings before.

And at the end of the day, a coup d’etat is ever on the table.

It was not imagined Morsy would move against the military so quickly. The expected path was to accommodate and slowly squeeze them from power, as in Turkey, and to a degree, in Latin America.

It seems Morsy will play his cards now, however. Coming days will reveal either his flush or his bluff.

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The Goal of the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is a difficult subject to tackle. Some of this is the fault of others – there appears to be significant bias against them in many quarters. Some of this is their own fault – they are a closed organization accountable to no government oversight.

Some of it is due to the nature of their task. Their goal – to be examined below – is currently being pursued in the arena of politics. It is the nature of politics to appeal to as many as possible, presenting one’s ideas in as amenable a form as possible. The general public is left wondering what is real and what is spin, though usually most politicians can be pegged somewhere along a definitive spectrum.

This is true of the Brotherhood as well, which has fully embraced the vagaries, if not the hypocrisy, of the political game. After the revolution they appeared as centrists, seeking to unite all political powers in cooperation with the military’s transition plan. Though unity broke down, their strategy was successful as they won the lion’s share of seats in the parliament.

As the first round of presidential elections approached, they turned to their base. They gathered conservative Salafi scholars around them and spoke of sharia law, while their handlers rallied the crowds with chants against Israel and the establishment of the caliphate. Again, they were successful, as a splintered electoral field yielded just enough votes to advance to the run-off elections.

Now, with the final round of elections only days away, the Brotherhood positions itself as a revolutionary force. Running against the ‘old regime’ candidate of Ahmed Shafik, they are mostly assuming the support of conservative, non-political Muslims while trying to assuage the substantial non-regime, non-MB electorate they will be inclusive in government and faithful to the nation. Time will soon tell if they will be successful again.

Yet despite these changing postures and the confusion it engenders, almost everyone understands the Muslim Brotherhood to be a conservative, religious entity seeking greater integration of Islam into the fabric of society and government.

The difficulty is in establishing what this means. Detractors make them out to be fascists, while promoters paint them as democrats. Brotherhood rhetoric – tailored to the audience – can lend credence to either extreme.

Therefore, the best solution is to examine what the Brotherhood says to itself. Earlier I partially translated and analyzed a book distributed by the Brotherhood which assembles excerpts from the speeches of Hassan al-Banna, the group’s founder. More recently I came across the transcript of an address given by Khairat al-Shater, the MB’s chief financier and one-time presidential candidate. The video and translation are available online.

This speech was delivered in Alexandria on April 21, 2011, significantly before current political machinations yet after revolutionary euphoria had settled. Much of the speech concerns issues of internal organization and the importance of unity and obedience. It describes a group battered by security during the previous decades, which now has finally been able to rebuild itself. Now that the democratic moment has arrived, the group must double its effort to maintain cohesion and discipline, so as to accomplish the goal of Nahda – renaissance.

This is now the Brotherhood’s presidential slogan: Renaissance… the Will of the People.

Before exploring this goal in more detail it is useful to examine why this internal cohesion is so necessary. On the one hand, Shater compares it to party discipline found in every political movement:

‘[Political] parties always talk about partisan commitment, which is synonymous with obedience; meaning that people hear and execute the party’s policy and commit to its instructions, so the analogous term we have for partisan commitment is obedience.’

Yet it is clear that Shater does not see the political arm of the Brotherhood – the Freedom and Justice Party – as an end in itself:

‘The party is a vessel born of the Western idea which has a particular nature within particular limitations; it is designed and conceived, as manifested by everything from its philosophy to its methods, for the political process which is only one part of the greater Nahda project in politics, economy, society, education, morals, values, behavior, children, women, the elderly, the young.’

Stated even more clearly:

‘It is an instrument or a vessel for the deliberation of power in the political space, an instrument for [engaging in] the conflict for the sake of obtaining power.’

Yet obtaining political power is not necessarily the end goal:

‘Our one and only concern is for there to be a government that is faithful to the method of our Lord Almighty, a government keen on establishing the lives of people on the basis of Islamic reference, whether it be us or someone else. We are different from other parties; the issue is not that we ourselves need to govern as some think.’

So while the party is only an instrument, the group – the Brotherhood itself – is the focus. Interestingly, though, it also is only an instrument:

‘The Gama’a [group – the Muslim Brotherhood] is thus an instrument and not a long-term goal. It is an instrument or means to Islamize life in its entirety and institute religion.’

In this line of thought the Brotherhood is conceived as a vanguard, but Shater is clear the responsibility for renaissance is not theirs alone, it is upon all:

‘When we talk about developing the Ummah’s [nation, in collectivity of Muslims] Nahda on the basis of Islamic Reference, we don’t mean that the Muslim Brothers are the Ummah’s representatives in developing the Nahda, but rather that they think, plan, spread awareness, and market the idea. The entire Ummah participates in developing its Nahda because the responsibility falls on the shoulder of the Ummah as a whole.’

Therefore, while the Muslim Brotherhood seeks power in order to implement this renaissance, it does not imply the monopolization of power. Current political events may or may not argue otherwise, but establishment of a dictatorship is not part of the essential Brotherhood program:

‘[We desire the revolution] to guarantee that the current government or any future government commits to the interests of the people, to building a stable political life including peaceful rotation of power, independence of the judiciary, rule of law, security, and attempts to develop the country and people and fix [their] problems.’

Yet while these aims are democratic and for the good of the nation, the group as an instrument is clearly a vanguard, derived not from useful political philosophy but from God’s method in establishing Islam, exclusively along this vision:

‘The Muslim Brotherhood’s method is that of the Prophet’s, and thus we say that the Muslim who is connected to the Gama’a and the method must believe and realize that he is on the right path and that he must not be on a path other than this one. One of the fundamental prerequisites to develop the Brother within the Gama’a is to realize that you are on the right path and that you must not be on a path other than this one.’

This vision is also necessary:

‘We say Islam disappeared from life, thus preachers of the Ikhwan [Brotherhood] undertook the work of restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believed that this would only come by way of the strong Gama’a … Whoever studies the jurisprudence of instituting religion as established by our master the prophet will find that the instrument which our he used was the Gama’a.’

The stakes are high, for without this group religion itself cannot exist:

‘Omar Bin Al-Khattab [the second caliph in Islam], which some scholars attribute to the prophet himself, stated, “There is no religion without a Gama’a, no Gama’a without an Imam [leader], and no Imam without obedience.”’

Therefore, as seen above, the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to ‘restore Islam’. Here is how Shater states it clearly, at the opening of his address:

‘You all know that our main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s religion on Earth, to organize our life and the lives of people on the basis of Islam, to establish the Nahda of the Ummah and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to subjugate the people to God on Earth.’

The word ‘subjugate’ should not imply compulsion, for Shater says at the end of his speech:

‘Every human is free in his choice because a Gama’a is based on voluntary commitment. We chose this path; no one forced it upon us, and if our Lord Almighty said, “No compulsion is there in religion,” then definitely there is no compulsion in the Muslim Brotherhood’s method.’

But subjugation does have a clear worldwide connotation. It is achieved through the concept of Ustathia, best translated as ‘professorship’.

‘Therefore, the path was clear, thus the Rashidun [rightly-guided] Caliphs continued the stage of the Global State of Islam, and so its domain expanded, and the Persian and Roman (Byzantine) States fell as the new state of Islam emerged on the global level. This state arrived after some time to the point where it became the strongest state in existence, and therefore Ustathia was actualized in reality.’

The crisis for Muslims came centuries later:

‘The last form of the Islamic Caliphate was the Ottoman government, but last century, it first lost the state of Ustathia which had been present but in a weak form. Hence we lost Ustathia and then after this the caliphate itself collapsed.’

The Muslim Brotherhood is a patient organization, and it recognizes that preparatory work must be done in stages. Yet the end goal is clear:

‘As Ikhwan we have spent a long time working on the individual, walking along this line, working on the household, working on society. So we are now developing the Muslim individual and God willing we will continue. We are developing the Muslim household and God willing we will continue. We are developing the Muslim society and God willing we will continue. We are preparing for the stage of Islamic government after this because it is what follows the stage of society.’

While nothing Shater mentions in his speech demands the use of military force, his analogy to the Prophet allows it, seeking application of Ustathia outside the realm of the peoples of Islam:

‘We have reviewed the stages from the Individual to Ustathiya, but where are we now along these stages? I mean are we now at the stage of the Individual, Household, Society, Government, Global Islamic State or Ustathiya? To answer this question we look at our situation and our history. His Eminence the Prophet, before he met his creator, had already made headway for the Muslim Gama’a under his leadership, regarding the household, individual, and society stages, and he established the Islamic state in Medina. He then began to expand this state to cover the Arabian Peninsula, and then began the launch of the Global State of Islam; and the evidence is that Ghzawat [raid] Mo’tah took place in his time, and we all know that Mo’tah is in Jordan and not in the Arabian Peninsula.’

Shater does not speak in detail of what Ustathia would imply if realized. It seems fair, however, to translate the concept as ‘leadership of the world’. A few final comments are necessary in conclusion, therefore.

It must be remembered that while this speech was given to Brotherhood members, these ideas are discussed publically. As seen in the video above, popular preacher Safwat Hegazi interpreted this vision as anticipating a march of millions of martyrs to Jerusalem to establish the United Arab States.

Yet when asked about the idea of caliphate by Western audiences, the Brotherhood refers to ideas like the European Union or the gradual economic integration of Islamic nations. Asked specifically about Hegazi, they emphasize he is not a Brother, does not speak for the group, is not based in reality, and in any case they have enough to worry about in Egypt.

But there is no denial; the dream is simply pushed back a hundred years or more.

It is not a matter of timing since God is on their side. Long or short, they follow the path of the Prophet and will in the end be victorious.

For non-Muslims, then, or non-Brotherhood Muslims, what should the response be? It is hard to gauge.

There is no reason a nation should be prevented from integrating their religion into the fabric of society if this is the will of their people.

Furthermore, there is no reason sovereign states should be prevented from consolidation if this is the will of their people.

Then, when a civilization establishes itself it is fully natural for it to seek a place of primacy in leadership and the promotion of principle consistent with its interests.

In each of these aspects Western nations, indeed Western civilization, can see itself reflected. If it criticizes the Brotherhood, does the pot call the kettle black?

Recognizing this reality, there are three areas worthy of discussion in which to take caution concerning the Brotherhood.

First, though a sensitive topic, Islam itself must be considered – at least in the sense the Brotherhood interprets it. Do the values of Islam in their entirety, since the Brotherhood calls for full implementation, befit the world and the principles of human rights?

Second, this consideration begs the following. Is the Brotherhood a worthy vanguard? By embracing the duplicity of politics do they show themselves as true Muslims or as frauds and manipulators? This is essentially a question for Muslims within their lands of influence.

Third, whether or not Islam is a power for good in this world, the discourse of the Brotherhood reinforces the narrative of a clash of civilizations. They are clearly engaged in a civilizational struggle in which Islam must obtain worldwide leadership. Many in the West are very guilty of the same; the question is if all must desist.

The above is rendered in hopeful education about the Muslim Brotherhood’s purpose. Loud cries from many are issued with little consideration to be fair toward their intentions. Others fail to consider these matters at all, either from ignorance, complicity, or dismissal.

Neither attitude serves the public. I am hopeful this article honors their words and contributes to the better discussion of proper domestic and international response.


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What’s Behind the Mubarak Verdict?

Mubarak, transferred to Tora prison

The headlines in the West will read, ‘Mubarak sentenced to life imprisonment.’ They may also say, ‘Egyptians take to the street in protest.’ Confused?

Unless one reads more deeply the obvious connection must be that protestors wanted his head, literally. The reality is rather simple, just not within the headlines.

Mubarak and the former Minster of the Interior Habib al-Adly were convicted, but the chiefs of the Ministry of the Interior were declared innocent. The statement says there was insufficient evidence to link them to the charge of killing protestors during the revolution.

So the primary revolutionary reaction sees a political ruling pure and simple. Mubarak and Adly were thrown under the bus – though many fear the case may be overturned on appeal. Meanwhile the figures on the ground who represent the backbone of the old regime are let free. The cry is that the regime is rebuilding itself, just in time for presidential elections.

To add salt to the wound, Mubarak, his two sons, and other financial cronies were declared innocent on corruption charges.

Therefore, this is where Egypt currently stands. A year and a half after the revolution, the president is in jail, but still no one knows who actually killed the protestors.

What is far more curious is the estimation of what is going on behind the scenes. It is little coincidence that the verdict was issued today; closing arguments were presented months ago. The only difficulty is deciphering what the coincidence means.

To preface, however, it must be stated first and foremost this may have simply been a ruling according to the evidence. Sufficient or otherwise, all involved may be honest men. It is noteworthy few voices are asserting this at the moment, though some have celebrated the achievement of a guilty verdict being issued against a former Arab strongman. Like the trial itself, it is a marked change in the traditional status quo.

But it is much more fun to engage in conspiracy, however sad the fact it is still the traditional status quo.

There are three main variations espoused:

The immediate judgment, for which thousands have now descended to Tahrir Square, is that the old regime is defending its own henchmen, though Mubarak has outlived his usefulness. Fitting in with halting efforts at implementing social justice and real democracy, protestors see this judgment as one more nail in the revolution’s coffin. The final one will occur with the election of Ahmed Shafiq, by hook or by crook. Many of this ilk judge his presence in the run-off elections as due either to their outright interference, or to the fostering of conditions prejudicing the people to desire the return of law and order.

How does the confusing judgment against Mubarak aid the Shafiq campaign? This removes the conspiracy one step beyond the revolutionaries who have been sucked in. Conspiracy number two has two prongs, the second nastier than the first.

The first prong states the verdict was made exactly to draw protestors back into the square. Over the past eighteen months the legitimacy of street politics has been whittled away as the people grow tired of endless protest. Given the revolution is still largely leaderless, protestors can be relied upon to trip over themselves in greater and greater radicalization. If not, well-placed infiltrators will foul things up for them. This pattern has been seen over and over again. Repeated once more on a large scale, the public will say – ‘But they convicted Mubarak, what more does the revolution want?’

Then they will go to the booths and elect Shafiq.

The second prong posits the conspiracy is not working solely for the preservation of old regime or military council power, but for a United States and Israel who desire to see Egypt devolve into utter chaos. Here, the powers-that-be are accomplices, but the Mubarak trial and the presidential elections are simply means to pull the rug out from under those whose appetite was whet for reception of power.

This could be the socialists, or it could be the Islamists. The point, as mentioned before, is radicalization. A coming corollary to the manipulation of Mubarak’s trial could be the ruling on the constitutionality of parliament, or on the constitutionality of parliament’s law to isolate Shafiq politically, not yet applied. Any number of vague, unclear, or manipulative judgments on these issues could get people back to the streets en masse. Take care to watch if somehow or other the presidential run-off elections are ‘postponed’.

At what point will aggrieved parties take up arms? This prong of the conspiracy is salivating at the question.

The final conspiracy batted about is not nearly as nasty but nearly equal in cynicism. This has been heard most often by Coptic voices and some liberals, finding a scheme in the works to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

To introduce this strand of thought, it is noteworthy the Brotherhood has called upon members to take to the street in protest of the Mubarak verdict.

Of course, drawing the Brotherhood in fits well with the different prongs of conspiracy two. Back before parliamentary elections the Brotherhood stood aside while revolutionaries were being killed on Mohamed Mahmoud St. They feared a trap, and did not want to jeopardize the elections in which they were poised to do well.

As it turns out, pragmatically, they made the right decision. But though they won the great plurality of seats, they lost almost all of their revolutionary legitimacy. Now deeply committed to the presidential election, the Brotherhood is trying to claim it back. As Shafiq is clearly a non-revolutionary candidate, they must capture the revolutionary constituency if they wish to win.

Now back at the square, they can either be discredited or radicalized, but conspiracy three posits otherwise. It notes the Brotherhood has been in close collaboration with the military/intelligence service since the revolution began. It furthermore asserts that Brotherhood-regime bickering has been mostly a show.

The point at hand is in order to cede power to the Brotherhood legitimately, the population must embrace them democratically, and by a wide margin. A wary public and international scene would demand no less. Step one engineered the victory of Shafiq, to the detriment of other candidates with more revolutionary cred. Step two is to engineer crises in order to get the Brotherhood to lay claim to revolutionary leadership.

Most revolutionaries have not bought any of the Brotherhood’s efforts at rebranding, but this does not matter much. They have already been strong-armed into at least a boycott if not grudging support for Morsy out of their deep conviction against the old regime. They have little appetite for an Islamist project, even if some to many have Islamic sympathies. But they feel they can deal with the Brotherhood whereas a Shafiq victory will crush them.

But revolutionaries have no nationwide electoral weight, though the revolution bears much electoral sympathy. The conspiracy states the public is being shown every reminder of old regime corruption – gas shortages, shady court cases, financial fraud, and even the reconstituting of the Ministry of Interior – in order to lend their vote to anyone but Shafiq. Who would this be now, after the run-off? Only the Muslim Brotherhood, as all other revolutionary forces have been set aside.

Since this scenario is so counter-intuitive to the traditional status quo, the question must be asked about why. The simple answer is that in order to remake the old regime, it needs the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s political power rested in the National Democratic Party, which was thoroughly dismantled – and headquarters burned – after the revolution. No suitable party exists to take its place, except the formerly hated Islamists.

Of course, if this conspiracy is true, there are even more possibilities. The first is that the presidency is given to the Brotherhood for the same reason parliament was given – to discredit them in the eyes of the people. Perhaps the old regime, not truly in cahoots with them, will give four years to watch them fail in handling every crisis they inherit, and others to be provoked along the way. Then, finally, Islamism can be dismissed without weapons or prison terms – the ineffective methods of the traditional status quo.

The second and third possibilities return the conspiracy to the international scene. The United States (Israel features less prominently here) desire Islamist rule perhaps to foster regional stability in accordance with democratic principles. Egypt is Muslim, let the pro-business and pragmatic Brotherhood rule, and we can get on with our lives without incessant instability from Cairo.

Or, in the apocalyptic scenario, the United States desires another eventual enemy. The war on terrorism is running thin, with the only current conflicts parried about through drone warfare. The military-industrial complex needs more than that. The region – through Islamism – must become stronger to at least enable another Cold War. This will permit defense contracts to remain plumb parcels of every budget for years to come.

Unfortunately, this scenario works well to prove the depth of depravity to which conspiracy thinking leads. Unfortunately further, this is the reality in which Egypt is currently operating.

Perhaps the Mubarak verdict was perfectly just given the standards of law. The standards of revolution, however, are always murkier.


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Felool and Islamists, in my Home

With Ahmed Shafiq

‘Felool’ is the Arabic word designating ‘remnants of the regime’, that is, those who lost power and influence after the revolution, having formerly benefited by proximity to Mubarak and his circles of influence. An Islamist favors a system of government in which sharia law plays a principle role in determining legislation. What then are they doing in my home?

Well, they belong there. They are my two oldest daughters, aged 5 and 4. Our youngest, age 2, does not yet have political consciousness.

Once the revolution began becoming politics, ‘felool’ expanded in meaning to include those who support some continuation of the old regime, perhaps saying things like, ‘It wasn’t so bad,’ or, ‘Not everyone in it was corrupt.’

But in many cases, ‘felool’ also served as an accusation to throw around against political opponents deemed not sufficiently revolutionary, or sufficiently Islamist.

In its final incarnation, used thereafter in this article, it applies specifically to the candidacies of Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, and their supporters.

So why is my oldest daughter felool? Here is the imagined explanation, sufficiently plausible.

The Egyptian political spectrum has evolved into basically three camps. The first camp is Islamist. Mohamed Morsy represents the Muslim Brotherhood, and while Abdel Munim Abul Futuh has sought to position himself as a centrist, he still identifies as an Islamist. Having gained the endorsement of many Salafis, he has scared away a number of former centrist or revolutionary supporters.

The second camp, as mentioned above, is felool. Ahmed Shafiq was Mubarak’s last-ditch prime minister, appointed to stem the tide of the protests. He carried on for a little while after Mubarak stepped down, but continued protests in Tahrir forced Shafiq’s sacking as well. Running for president, he does not outright call for a return to the days of Mubarak, but he does call for a return of stability and opposition to Islamists, with lip service to the youth of the revolution.

Amr Moussa is less felool, having served in Mubarak’s cabinet early in his administration but having more detachment from the regime while serving as chairman of the Arab League up until the outbreak of the revolution. Still, he is old, and certainly a product of the Mubarak era. He will be gentler with diverse political parties, most likely, but still represents stability and non-Islamism, as well as a vote toward ‘reform’ rather than ‘revolution’.

The third camp says a pox on both your houses. Hamdeen Sabbahi is an old school Nasserist, which means he is a nationalist with socialist tendencies. His campaign has been advancing as of late as many voters are fed up with the above choices. They have rejected Mubarak, but don’t trust Islamists.

This is where my daughters come in. We are an American Christian family living in Egypt. We have attempted to live in the culture, speaking the language as best we can. Within this choice we worship at the Coptic Orthodox Church, and my daughters both attended preschool therein. The oldest just completed kindergarten as the only non-Egyptian in her private school.

If you tweak out the demographics of this simple description of our lives, you will find we are predisposed to supporting the felool, and to a lesser degree, Islamists.

We are Westerners, and Islamist candidates unnerve us no matter how many reassurances they issue. (Living here, we can also see the opposite of these reassurances at times.)

Yet we also see the conservative religious make-up of much of Egyptian society, and recognize the right of a people to be governed according to its mores. Islamism should not be dismissed in principle, though certain interpretations may be.

We are comparatively wealthy, having our daughter in a private school. Those who benefitted economically from the Mubarak era are more inclined to support felool candidates.

Yet Islamists are also successful businessmen in Egypt, having much support among the middle class, which populates the private school our daughter attends.

We are Christians, and rub shoulders with the Copts. This community is desperately worried about the possibility of Islamist rule, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Their oft-spoken preference is for Ahmed Shafiq.

As is the preference of my oldest daughter.

Yet we also place high respect on the values which drove much of the Egyptian revolution, and recognize the corruption and lack of representation characterizing much of the Mubarak regime. We sympathize with those who desire an Islamist, yet revolutionary candidate, and their oft-spoken preference is for Abul Futuh.

As is the preference of my second daughter.

My daughters do not know the names of any other candidates. Perhaps they simply picked up on the name their Western, school, and Coptic friends banter about, who themselves have picked up on the name uttered by their parents.

That is the plausible, though invented explanation. The reality is much simpler.

Driving about in a taxi the other day a Shafiq supporter tossed his political brochure into the vehicle. A little further on a truck full of Shafiq partisans beeped their horns loudly, flew high his banner, and chanted as they drove, ‘Ahmed Shafiq! Ahmed Shafiq!’

Now my daughters do the same, even the Abul Futuh supporter.

Many Egyptians have shown political acumen far beyond their nation’s democratic experience. Others, perhaps, have made their decision in a similar matter, gauging the preference of those in the area, or gravitating to the candidate with the greatest name recognition.

Surely, however, they have not done as my second daughter.

Each candidate sports a symbol to help illiterate voters find their preferred candidate on the ballot. Mohamed Morsy, of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has the scales of justice. Sabbahi, the Nasserite nationalist, bears an eagle akin to that on the Egyptian flag.

My four-year-old, simply, likes Abul Futuh’s orange horse.

Translation: Abul Futuh, for president of Egypt; Number 5

As a foreigner I escape the responsibility, and privilege, of having to decide. Yet my respect and admiration goes to the Egyptian people seeking to craft the future of their nation amidst diverse paths.

At times the rhetoric has been strident, and there is sufficient cause for worry in multiple directions. Yet as we have learned much from the Egyptian people, we hope there is at least one lesson we may offer them:

Felool and Islamists may reside peacefully in the same home.


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US Congressman Advocates ‘Limited Voting Power’

Does the phrase used in the title of this post suggest images of dictatorships restricting the rights of its people? Perhaps instead the decline of representative democracy in the face of big business and multinational corporations?

On the contrary, it is the positive suggestion issued by a US congressman, though fortunately, concerning no one in his own constituency.

Joe Walsh is a Republican congressman from the 8th district of Illinois. On May 3 he penned an op-ed for the Washington Times, reprinted in the Jerusalem Post, advocating a one-state solution in Israel.

The one-state solution is not a bad idea; I have cautiously advocated for it here. The basic premise is that Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza would be incorporated into one state. This would drop the contentious negotiating and intractable issues of the two-state solution, and the difficulties of creating an independent Palestine.

The issue with Walsh is that he argues for an Israel for Israelis. It would go too far to say ‘only’, but his preference is obvious. He writes,

Those Palestinians who wish to may leave their Fatah- and Hamas-created slums and move to the original Palestinian state: Jordan.

Unfortunately, the will of sovereign Jordan does not enter into his analysis.

But the rub of his Israeli preference bears ill fruit just a few words later, when he discusses those Palestinians who do not leave.

Those Palestinians who remain behind in Israel will maintain limited voting power but will be awarded all the economic and civil rights of Israeli citizens.

Let us admit that these economic and civil rights are substantial. Yet how is it possible that a proud inheritor of ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘out of many, one’ might limit the fundamental political rights of a whole class of people?

As long as Israel maintains the Palestinians in their occupied territories, they have no claim to political rights in the Israeli system. Yet Walsh advocates the annexation of these territories, making Palestinians, at the very least, residents of Israel.

For Walsh, this does not make them citizens.

Rev. Stephen Sizer has described the dilemma of the Israeli situation. There are three choices:

1)      Allow an independent Palestinian state and maintain a Jewish and democratic Israel.

2)      Create one democratic state of all the territories, giving up a mandated Jewish nature.

3)      Maintain the occupied territories and forfeit the democratic nature of a still Jewish state.

Walsh has amended the third choice: Create one nation but limit democratic rights.

Within the op-ed Walsh does not elaborate on his proposal. What sort of ‘limited voting power’ does he intend? Readers are invited to share if they have heard Walsh out and can demonstrate consistency with cherished American values.

On current reading, however, Walsh appears to hold to the values of Manifest Destiny and the 3/5th Compromise. At one time, these were American indeed.

May the people of the 8th district in Illinois judge if they remain so.


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Egyptian Wisdom and Easter Hope

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

In Egypt, Easter is celebrated today according to the Orthodox calendar. It is a rather strange holiday as it sets off a bit of schizophrenia in the country. Unlike Christmas, which is a national holiday, Easter is a regular day.

Except it isn’t. Christians are allowed the day off, and many Muslims take it also. The Monday following Easter is a national holiday, called Shem al-Naseem (Smelling the Breeze), which is a social holiday going back to the Pharaonic age in celebration of Spring.

The government grants many holidays, both national and religious, and as Muslims and Christians together recognize the prophet Jesus, Coptic Christmas is designated officially. There is little protest of this fact, save for some Salafis who also oppose recognition of Muhammad’s birthday. For Muslims of this ilk, the only proper holidays are designated by Islam – the end of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael – and does not include the honoring of a mere man, no matter his prophetic status.

Yet whereas Christmas enjoys wide acceptance, Easter is trickier. On religious holidays Muslims and Christians exchange phone calls, wishing friends a joyous celebration. Can Muslims do so in honor of the resurrection of Christ?

Islam holds that Jesus was not crucified but rather ascended directly into heaven. Therefore, he cannot have been resurrected from the dead, as he never died.

Such a denial undoes Christianity, but it need not undo social pleasantries. Many Muslims wish Christians well on the occasion of this feast. The aforementioned Salafis do not, nor on Christmas, but maintain this is only due to religious doctrine. They argue instead we should greet our Christian neighbors and treat them well on every occasion.

This does not hold too much weight with Christians, who greet Muslim friends despite non-belief in Islam. Regardless, it is not as if this issue is tearing Egypt at the seams. Photos like the one below demonstrate the general spirit seen among many Egyptians.

Translation: the Pharmacy of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs Wishes Brother Copts Happy Holidays on the Occasion of the Glorious Resurrection Feast (Easter)

This sign was placed on the wall of the church in Kozzika, which serves as diocesan headquarters for the Orthodox of Maadi. The pharmacy in question may simply be seeking good business, but in offering Easter wishes in particular it makes a social statement.

The owner of this pharmacy has always evaded the question of his political allegiance with me, but his location is within the complex of a mosque which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the days after the revolution he hosted an area wide meeting to esteem national unity, attended by priests of the church, local religious leaders, and representatives of the ruling military establishment.

It would be wrong to say that such public Easter greetings are seen everywhere in Egypt, but they are not uncommon outside of many churches.

One reason why such wisdom is found socially is due to the wisdom of Pope Shenouda. Former President Mubarak established Christmas as an official holiday, and was pleased especially with the Christian response.

Following this decision Mubarak approached Pope Shenouda about designating Easter likewise. Pope Shenouda encouraged him not to, recognizing the majority of the nation did not accept the resurrection of Jesus. Making such a statement on behalf of the state would cause unnecessary social strife and likely a public backlash.

Such an anecdote, whether true or apocryphal, provides a glimpse into the nature of Egyptian society. The state is neither secular nor religious, but maintains an odd balance between the two. Of course, the nature of the state is under deep debate following the revolution, and both fear and hope abound as to the outcome.

Yet the reality of Egyptian society is seen well through the common wisdom displayed by the pharmacist and many others. Despite religious distinctions Egyptians across the nation offer good wishes to their friends and neighbors, even on Easter.

Unfortunately, this reality is also undergoing potential redefinition, as society fractures into different identities and isolated communities. One reason the Salafi refusal to greet Copts on their holidays does not cause much social disruption is that so few Salafis and Copts have a relationship to begin with.

If the Egyptian revolution can be made akin to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when the crowds shouted in triumph and celebration, these current days may well represent the caustic debates while in Jerusalem, if not his outright death and time in the tomb.

Is a resurrection coming for Egypt? On this holiest of holidays, Egyptian Christians must maintain their hope. Yet more alike to Mary Magdalene and her female companions, they must confront their grief and visit the tomb – perhaps akin to visiting their Islamist nemesis which they believe has buried their Messiah of a civil state?

Parallels must not be stretched too far, but the Gospel resurrection was first experienced at the tomb. Might Egypt’s be as well? Jesus’ resurrection was entirely a surprise, and his form completely different from that of their familiar companion.

What form will Egyptian resurrection take? What surprises are in store? Will Egyptian Christians remain cowered in the Upper Room? Will the resurrected Egypt still appear to them there?

Or will the women be the herald of the new reality? They upon whom all social relationships depend may hold the secret to this resurrection. Women will always greet their friends.

Yet it was men and women together who carried the news of resurrection abroad to all the land. Egypt’s resurrection must be similar. Copts, Salafis, Muslim Brothers, secularists – solutions must be found and proclaimed together.

For Egyptian Christians, will they approach them, even after the loss of their hope? Resurrection can only follow desperation and defeat. Will they trust their Savior? Will they trust their fellow citizens?

Will they trust Egypt?


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Cultural Imperialism: Egypt, America, and Sudan

Salafi campaign banner in the shade of a church

Egyptian Salafi parliamentarian Mohamed al-Kurdi created a minor stir last week while testifying before the education committee. He declared his opposition to a USAID program to encourage English language teaching in government schools, beginning in grade two as opposed to grade four. Kurdi found this to be an example of ‘cultural imperialism’ and urged the government to cancel the grant.

The Salafi Nour Party, for its part, distanced itself from Kurdi, consenting to their member’s referral to a disciplinary hearing.

Amina Nossair, professor at the Azhar University, criticized:

‘We definitely should not neglect our mother tongue but I would remind Mr. Kurdi that learning foreign languages was advised by Prophet Mohamed.’

Nevertheless, through conversations with many Muslims in the Arab world, I have felt there is a palpable discomfort with the dominance of Western culture. Many of these conversations were conducted in English, so few would argue the language itself should be stricken from education.

Many other conversations, often in their language, have flipped the sentiment arguing Arabic is the language of God. Exasperation at Western culture is often awkwardly articulated as a desire for the reassertion of Islamic cultural dominance. In these cases the issue is seen as one of struggle, rather than respect for the uniqueness of each cultural expression.

But really, why argue in any direction? After all, who can resist the flow of culture? It is above us all.

Such a statement threatens to undo the reality of education as a shaper of values. It is this which Kurdi is addressing in reality, and reflects why the Salafi Nour Party maneuvered to receive the education file in the distribution of parliamentary committee leadership.

An example more akin to Western sensibilities may help win Kurdi sympathy, along with others frustrated over ubiquitous Pepsi commercials starring scantily clad Arab women.

Rev. Emmanuel Bennsion is the pastor for Sudanese ministries at the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. Sudanese himself, he has lived the past twenty-four years in Egypt. Unlike many of his parishioners, however, he did not arrive as a refugee. In fact, he was a privileged student selected to study in Zagazig University in the Nile Delta.

‘Privileged’, however, is adjoined to the word ‘politicized’. Bennsion is a non-Arab Christian Sudanese from what is now the independent nation of South Sudan. He explains the independence movement is quite old, and the Arab leadership in the north moved to diffuse it as standard policy.

Bennsion stated Sudanese officials targeted bright students from the south to study in Egypt so as to assist in soft, low-key Arabization. During the 1970s up to 300 students a year were selected for the program. They would learn Arabic, gain a picture of Arab civilization from friendly interactions with colleagues, and increase their sense of belonging to Sudan-as-Arab nationality, even though they were ethnically, linguistically, and in some cases, religiously different.

Is this wise policy to unify a diverse population, or cultural imperialism of the sort which Kurdi would decry if applied in reverse?

Consider how many university students from around the world come to the United States. While many come of their own accord, seeking the best preparation for their fields, US policy actively facilitates many programs to give the best and brightest minds a taste of America. If they stay, we profit from brain drain. If they return, they have gained insight into American freedom and values, winning, perhaps, their hearts and minds.

Cultural imperialism, generous welcome, enlightenment sharing, or mere education? It is not a simple question.

Bennsion continues, however, to give what would appear to be a more sinister Sudanese cultural manipulation. All students wishing to enter government elementary schools must first complete two years of preschool in the ‘Kharwa’. Education here, he maintained, consisted entirely of Quran recitation and study of hadith.

This requirement could be avoided if the student entered a private school, but this was cost prohibitive for many. To receive a free education, all students, Christians included, needed to learn the Quran.

In Egypt, all schools teach religion, but separate Muslims and Christians into different classes, taught by approved members of the religious establishments.

Even so, many Christians complain that it is always the Christians who must leave the room, while Muslims remain behind in the normal classroom. Furthermore, the secular curriculum – science, math, and especially Arabic – is laced with Islamic concepts which all are required to learn.

Of course, Islam is the religion of the vast majority and a major shaper of cultural values. In Sudan, this was subjected upon a non-Islamic geographical region. In Egypt, there is no ‘Christian’ area, though Christians are everywhere. Should not Egyptian Copts simply adapt to their cultural setting?

How might your opinion of such issues shape your response to these American questions:

  • Teaching of Spanish versus English-only educational systems
  • Mandatory inclusion of ‘intelligent design’ theories in school textbooks
  • Providing financial vouchers to poor students to attend private/religious schools
  • Allowing Muslims students to absent themselves during class for prayers
  • Sponsoring school prayers or moments of silence before football games
  • Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase ‘under God

The parallels are not exact, but evaluation of the question shapes the search for consistency. What is the proper relation between culture, religion, and freedom? Must we allow for the other what we desire for ourselves? Or is this itself a sentiment derived from a particular cultural-religious framework?

Even if so, is the sentiment superior to cultural imperialism, whether in its Western or Islamic form? Or does appeal to the sentiment itself reflect a return to the zero sum ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative?

Kurdi, however lamentably, reminds us that while we may flail at unwanted cultural expressions, education plays a real role of determination. Egypt, much like America, is in struggle to set its course.

Sudan, meanwhile, has divided over the issue. Is this lamentable? So much depends on perspective, shaped by education, the common collection of which forms a culture.


note: This article was originally published on Aslan Media.


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Brotherhood Deliberations

Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party

The latest violent crisis in Tahrir finally de-escalated through the courageous act of thousands of women marching to the square demanding an end to clashes. Meanwhile, political leverage is being sought as parties propose an idea to hurry the presidential elections. The military council succumbed to such pressure following the clashes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir, to guarantee these elections before the end of June 2012. Current ideas now call for elections to be as soon as January 25, the one year anniversary of the revolution.

Proponents of this idea argue that the military must be returned to its barracks as soon as possible, having mangled the democratic transition if not actively opposing it. This cry is heard from across the political spectrum, from liberals and Islamists alike.

The issue for Islamists, however, is that they have repeatedly based their decisions on the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the March referendum. This mandate granted the army the right to oversee the transition, during which the lower house of parliament would be elected, then the upper house, then the constitution drafted, and finally presidential elections held. Should Islamists call for departure now they go against their own rhetoric.

It appears they have, and then shortly after, they haven’t.

The Ikhwanweb Twitter account represents itself as ‘The only official Muslim Brotherhood’s English website. Our Tweets represent the official opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood’. On December 19 the account tweeted:

Democratic Alliance demands #SCAF to handover both legislative and executive power to the elected parliament no later than February 2012.

The Democratic Alliance is the coalition led strongly by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. While it includes a variety of liberal and Islamist parties, the FJP is widely understood to control the direction of the group.

Here, the coalition demands not simply the early election of the president, but the transfer of executive power to the legislature, which, not coincidentally, is controlled by 40% FJP alongside 25% Salafi party members. By all appearances it is a power grab. It certainly represents a departure from the March referendum and the ‘will of the people’.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, or in a desire to not confront the military directly, the website of the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement on December 21 to return to the mandate of the referendum. They state:

3 – The FJP believes that to end the violence, which erupts on the scene each time popular will requires full-throttle efforts to complete the legislative elections so the elected People’s Assembly participates in the peaceful transfer of power. Furthermore, the party deems premature all calls for immediate handover of power to the People’s Assembly Speaker-elect, and rejects them, because the idea is not compatible with the current Constitutional Declaration.

  4 – The FJP asserts that demands put forward for holding presidential elections before January 25 will not solve the current crisis, because the issue is now about who is stirring strife, sedition and crises, who is acting with exemplary short-sightedness, and fails to appreciate the requirements approved by all parties in the Constitutional Declaration – which provides for elections of the People’s Assembly, then the Shura Council, drafting the new constitution, and finally the presidential elections.

Analysis elsewhere can determine the wisdom of either statement, the opportunism therein, or the best interests of the democratic transition. What is interesting is to wonder who in the Brotherhood authorized the Ikhwanweb Twitter account to demand transfer of power to the parliament? At what level did this reflect the consensus of the organization, and what transpired to result in this second announcement?

Though the Muslim Brotherhood is a pyramidal organization, its members consist of diverse trends and political pragmatism. These statements perhaps can be viewed through the lens of organizational groupthink, of internal deliberations which spilled out into the public.

Another possible insight is that these statements belie the idea the Brotherhood is the possessor of a grand conspiracy to move events along until power is consolidated in their hands. While this may or may not be an ultimate goal, the contradictory statements indicate the group is trying to figure things out as they go along, much like everyone else. In all likelihood they have a strategy, but they do not pull all the strings.

In the meanwhile, in the current relative calm of Tahrir, all political forces and the military council are regrouping, repositioning to come out on top. Even after Friday and the latest massive demonstration gathering, there is no clear indication who is winning.


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Coptic Preparation for Elections, in Tanta

Bishop Boula, of Tanta

From before the revolution, many Copts have realized their community suffers from a dearth of political and civic participation. The Coptic Orthodox Church’s Bishopric of Youth, for example, has an area of focus entitled ‘Promoting Coptic Participation in Society’, which I encountered when a representative spoke at our local church encouraging the congregation to register to votein the 2010 legislative elections. When he informally polled them for who planned to vote, only a handful indicated any interest at all.

That was before the revolution, when everyone knew that election results were rigged. Yet conventional wisdom still suggests the Copts of Egypt are reticent in their political participation. Recently, a representative of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party presented a brief primer on basic civics in a Sunday School meeting at church, and while the subject received more apparent interest than earlier, the attitude still seemed subdued.

It was not always such. Copts were equal participants with Muslims when British colonialism was repulsed, and helped shape a liberal democratic polity under the Egyptian monarchy. The revolution of 1952 steadily put an end to the budding democratic system, and Copts began to feel excluded from the corridors of power. The increasing religiosity of the state under Sadat accelerated the feelings of marginalization, and Mubarak succeeded in concentrating the Coptic voice within the walls of the church, with Pope Shenouda as its spokesman in both religion and politics. Whatever merits the Copts gained from their direct line to the president, it cemented their tie to the autocratic state, especially against the feared possibility of Islamist rule.

This line of reasoning was heard recently from Bishop Boula, head of the Clerical Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church and bishop of Tanta, a city in Delta region an hour’s drive north of Cairo. He spared me a few minutes of his time in between meetings with the supreme military council, in Cairo – to discuss the Maspero affair – and an election preparation meeting with the priests under his charge, in Tanta.

He related to the priests that despite the military council being much in the wrong in Maspero, where twenty-six people were killed following protests, almost all being Copts, Christians must still support the army. It is the only functioning institution left in Egypt, and Islamists are chomping at the bit. Much of his counsel, however, was to keep the anger of Copts at bay. Priests should work to prevent other political forces from getting Copts all fired up, and too many were going out to demonstrate during a time of economic trouble. The military is having trouble running the country, and Copts should be careful not to make things worse.

There was Biblical counsel in his words as well. Christians should take care not to chant against Field Marshal Tantawi, head of the military council, as this was against Christian teaching. In response to the Maspero tragedy, the church must remind its flock that as the Bible says, ‘All things work together for good,’ and that now was a time to increase societal dialogue, not protest.

The thrust of the meeting, however, was in application of an unmentioned Biblical concept: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Coptic attention during this time must focus on the vote of every single Christian – a chief responsibility of citizenship. Bishop Boula then reviewed the homework he had each priest prepare.

Each priest had reams of paperwork – maps, graphs, or hand drawn versions of the same. They demonstrated the results of previous instructions to select a church volunteer to be responsible for every fifty houses in his area. Many priests had done admirably; others had not done enough. These had failed to map their constituency down to the details of names and exact street location. The bishop wanted nothing left to chance, or for anyone to slip through the cracks. Not only should the volunteer know each and every Christian under his responsibility, he must also be readied to give clear instructions on voting procedures. He must master the content of, so there would be no confusion the day of the vote.

Bishop Boula issued further instructions during the session as well. Many Christians in Tanta have their official residence outside the area, and several poorer professions, such as the doormen, come from Upper Egypt. Each priest must identify these Christians as well, and study arrangements to assure they are present in their home district for elections. If this involved the church paying their transportation back home, it is worth the expense. Even beyond the coming legislative elections, priests also must help mobilize for the more immediate syndicate board elections. All Christian professionals – engineers, doctors, journalists, etc – must be located and encouraged to vote.

It was a very impressive meeting. Bishop Boula went far beyond exhortation to convince Copts of the necessity of political participation; he actively served as campaign coordinator. It should be noted he gave no instructions on which candidate or party to vote for, only that a vote be cast. The necessity, however, was lost on no one.

According to the results of the March referendum, the elected parliament will appoint the delegates charged with writing the new constitution. The importance of these first elections, therefore, goes far beyond simple legislation. It will set the ground rules for future governance.

If as expected the Islamist parties perform well at the ballot box, will they craft a civil, democratic constitution? Only a handful of Copts admit to the possibility they would fare better under an Islamic system; the rest lean overwhelmingly with the liberal parties, at least among those who have a political inkling. Copts are commonly constituted as 10% of the population. They may be as low as 5-6%, and one partisan estimate tallied them as high as 20%. Regardless, if all mobilized they would have much electoral sway.

Does the effort of Bishop Boula represent illegitimate church interference in politics? Does it represent wholesome spiritual impetus for civic engagement? Or, does it represent the desperation of a religious community pressed between the history of autocratic rule and the fear of Islamist? How much is it a combination of all three?

The Copts of Egypt are well represented in many aspects of business and professional life, but the political arena requires savvy and acumen long left unpracticed. The Egyptian revolution has opened wide the doors to politics, but many Christians are only in the aperture. Bishop Boula is trying to push them through; God may weigh the intentions of his heart, but the ballot box will measure the extent of his success.


This article was originally published on Aslan Media.

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Early Election Observations in Egypt

The Pink Pinky of Voting

I took a stroll through our neighborhood this morning to see the early activity surrounding our four public schools hosting parliamentary elections. Polls opened at 8am, and I crossed the street, walked a block, and began to observe.

A few things stuck me immediately. First, a long line. Over 100 people were in cue, side by side. Second, they were all men. I thought this was peculiar. Third, the guard. About four or five soldiers manned the entrance to the school, while two or three policemen monitored traffic and paid general attention to the surroundings.

Fourth, the propaganda. Opposite the school were about twenty volunteers for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, distinguished by their bright yellow hats with the party logo. Some were distributing leaflets, some seemed around just to establish presence. The main contribution, however, was to set up a table with two laptop computers, helping voters identify their polling station.

Some have complained about the odd distribution of voters through various districts, with family members in one home often in three different places. Still, the government has established a website in which one’s national ID number will provide the exact location for voting. The Muslim Brotherhood effort provides an uninformed voter which neighborhood school to visit. It also provides them with a leaflet for the party, on the back of which their volunteers write down the polling station info, to help with ease of access. Last Friday at church two laptops were set up in the courtyard to provide a similar service, without the leaflets.

Interestingly, the electricity to run the laptops was provided by the private school across the street, where our daughter attends kindergarten. Private schools do not serve as polling stations.

Leaving this location I walked down the street for about three blocks to visit a second school, which cleared up my confusion about gender participation. Actually, two schools here were back to back, both receiving only women voters. Two lines were formed, each having at least 200 people. I saw a few people from church, waiting their turn, optimistic and excited about this their first vote ever.

Returning back home I passed by the first school with the men, with the line just as long as when I left it. I noticed a fourth school around the corner, however, which also serviced male voters. Only about 50 were in line here, however.

Standing on the corner keeping observation there are two other minor events to relate. First, a campaign car for Mohamed Amara of the Salafi Nour (Light) Party drove by, with a prominent sticker of his mug shot on both back windows. This helped identify him as he stepped out, shook the hands of one of the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers, got back in his car, and drove away. To note, Amara is the lead local candidate on the Islamist Alliance for Egypt list, headed by the Nour Party, which is in competition with the Democratic Alliance, headed by the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party. Liberal and other parties are also in competition, of course.

Second, our elderly neighborhood gardener saw me standing around and motioned that I follow him away from the area. The presence of a foreigner, he stated, might concern and worry the people. In addition, there are police around in civilian clothes taking note, which he could see but I would be unaware of. Having seen enough anyway, it is best to follow the advice of a friendly Egyptian, so I left with him, as he was himself off to vote at a station three metro stops to the south. The Freedom and Justice Party helped him find his way.

Three final observations. First, though the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers were out in force, they were not the only ones. Many party representatives were distributing leaflets and information. I received information additionally from the moderate Islamist Wasat (Centrist) Party, the liberal Egyptian Bloc electoral alliance, and a couple independent candidates as well. I am not familiar with all campaign laws, but I have read that each of these propagandists are breaking the law forbidding party promotion at the polling stations 48 hours to the lead up of elections.

Second, given that in Egypt one’s religion can be outwardly identifiable, I can make some very rudimentary and cautious exit poll guesses. In the men’s line, about 20% of the people wore long robes, had heavy beards, or prominent prayer calluses on their foreheads. These are often signs of being a conservative Muslim, particularly of the Salafi trend. A beard and robe can be worn by any Muslim, of course, many of whom do not support political Islam. Many Brotherhood supporters, meanwhile, do not necessarily have distinctive dress, and many ordinary non-Islamist Egyptians may vote for the Freedom and Justice Party, given their longstanding role as an opposition party and the relative newness of other liberal entities.

As for the women, perhaps around 30% of those in line were non-veiled. This indicates in general that there are Coptic, or else Muslims willing to resist the cultural pressures to wear a head covering. This segment of society would be unlikely to vote Islamist, though some may. To note, only about 10% or less of the population is Coptic, and though I have no official estimates, non-veiled Muslim women appear to be a similar minority. On the other hand, wearing a veil is no necessary indicator of political affiliation. I saw only a handful of women wearing the niqab, which covers all but the slit over the eyes. This could be reflective of conservative tendency, but as in all the above deductions, caution is needed above all.

Third, everything concerning the vote seemed orderly and peaceful. Yesterday’s rains made the environment wet and muddy, but turnout was impressive and lines were respected – which is not always true in Egypt. Voters were let into the school a couple at a time, and everyone behind waited their turn. In our neighborhood at least, early signs are promising.

There may yet be surprises of many sorts, let alone in results. From what I understand, results from the individual election competitions will be announced on Wednesday, followed by runoff elections as needed. Results from the list-based competition, however, will wait until all three election stages are completed, geographically arranged across the country. Most pundits expect a plurality of votes for Islamist parties. Meanwhile some predict their victory will be overwhelming, while others think they will receive surprisingly little support. Now has begun the process to tell, for the first time in modern Egypt. May it be the first of many.

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Clashes, Deaths at Coptic Protest in Maspero

Scene from the Violen Dispersal of the Protest

Egyptian State TV confirms 23 dead and over 170 injured in clashes between largely Coptic protestors, unknown assailants, and Egyptian military police on October 9, 2011. Protestors began their march from the heavily Christian neighborhood of Shubra at 5pm, culminating at the Egyptian Radio and TV Building in Maspero in downtown Cairo. The peaceful march was scheduled to end at 8pm, but was attacked at various stages along the route by unknown opposition.

I received word of the protest earlier in the day. Having witnessed the Coptic attempt at a sit-in at Maspero five days earlier, which was eventually dispersed by the army, I wished again to get a sense for the manner in which Copts were expressing their grievances. These largely centered on the burning of a purported church in the village of Marinab, in Edfu, in the Aswan governorate on September 30. Many Copts believe the interim government to be lax in protecting their community and securing equality of citizenship; what is certain is that a lack of security throughout the country has led to abuses.

I arrived by metro to Tahrir Square near Maspero at 7pm. Coming up from the underground I received a phone call from a colleague asking if I was on my way, and to be careful, as a protestor had been shot. Stunned by her statement, I immediately noticed the tension in the air as the metro entrance area was surrounded by Egyptians – many of them presumably Copts from lack of head coverings – pale, and in shock. Many had tears in their eyes. Shortly thereafter I did as well.

This group stated with vehemence they had been attacked by the army, emphasizing it was the army, and not simple thugs. People had been shot and armored vehicles had run over protestors as they swerved through the crowd. Some claimed there were snipers. Confusion reigned, and it was hard to know what was happening.

Only a few minutes later a group of protestors marched by where I was standing on their way to Tahrir Square. They were carrying what appeared to be dead body, chanting against Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, head of the ruling military council. I saw no signs of blood, but the body was inert.

I moved northward along the side of the Egyptian Museum toward Abdel Munim Riyadh Square, site of a major bus station. Hundreds of Egyptians were milling about, simply watching events unfold. From a distance I could see clashes between protestors and police taking place on the 6 October Bridge, both sides throwing rocks back and forth.

Ahead of me at an intersection of the Cornish Road along the Nile River several protestors were angrily destroying stop lights and street signs. A scuffle broke out around a taxi – it seemed two people were simply fighting to get in and drive away. Several of those standing around carried planks in their hands. Others carried crosses. The former were presumably informal members of ‘neighborhood committees’ which had been formed after the revolution to combat looting. The latter were presumably remnants of the protest, now scattered about.

One of these latter was an older gentleman from the church I attend in Maadi, Cairo. He was livid, but despondent. ‘Let the whole country get enflamed,’ he said. ‘It will serve them right. Do you see what is happening! They are killing us!’ I tried to comfort, and remind. ‘No, remember your faith. Let love hold in your heart. Copts must now be peacemakers.’ It was of little use, as we stood and watched another clash take place on the bridge. Comfort was better. I put my arm around him and cried. ‘I’m sorry for what is taking place. God protect Egypt.’ A moment later a stranger noticed me and asked if I was a foreigner. ‘Why are you here?’ he demanded. I kept quiet, said I was only watching, and moved away.

It should be noted that although I use the word ‘protestors’ throughout the text, it was impossible to tell Muslim from Christian, protestor from bystander from ‘thug’. Who was committing violence, and who was suffering it, was impossible to say.

This fact makes interpretation of events near impossible as well. A phone call to my wife allowed me to receive updates from the news and Twitter. Reports were conflicting. Wildly different numbers of dead were being reported, from two or three to thirty or fifty. Furthermore, there were reports that army personnel were also killed. Some said that Christians had machine guns. Others reported that State TV announced the army was under attack, and urged Egyptians to come into the streets to defend it. The largely activist and liberal Twitter community understood that official media was blaming the protestors for what happened, saying that they fired first.

I cannot say the truth of what took place, for I arrived no more than fifteen minutes or so late to the scene, and was never in a front line position. Yet before too long an acquaintance from the Maspero Youth Union recognized me and gave me his version of events. He stated there were 10,000 Copts and Muslim supporters in the march from Shubra, which was met with violence when their path was blocked. He blamed thugs sent by the army, but also that people were pelting them with rocks and glass from apartment buildings along the road. Eventually, they were able to proceed again. He insisted the group did not plan for a sit-in, but was ready to disperse freely at 8pm. Upon arrival at Maspero, however, the army began attacking immediately, he maintained. People were shot in the head, and others were run over by military vehicles. I discovered later that one member of the Maspero Youth Union, Michael Mossad, was among those killed.

As he was relating events tear gas was fired on the bridge, and he left to go check in on events. From time to time waves of protestors fell back, and gradually security regained control of the area, pushing everyone back toward the direction of Tahrir Square. Suddenly a fire engine sped through the area and was pelted by rocks as it went by. Whether or not this caused the driver to lose control of the vehicle, it swerved, hopped over the central median, struck one or two people along the way, and crashed into a street light. Waves of protestors then descended upon it, but I could not tell if they were beating the driver or pulling him from the wreck. Several climbed on top and began vandalizing. A car fire raged shortly thereafter on the other side of the street.

Contrary to media reports, however, I did not witness ‘clashes’ in Abdel Munim Riyadh Square between protestors and others. There was much tension, sounds of occasional gunfire, and tear gas lobbed throughout the area, but I never witnessed actual fighting except at a distance. The area is large, however, so I am hopeful if it took place I was stationed in the safer locations.

Contrary to other media reports, I did not witness large reactionary protests in Tahrir Square. Egyptians were all over, and at times small bands of protestors would march and chant slogans against the military council. Yet when I was present there was certainly not a mass gathering in response to what took place. I wandered a bit more throughout the area, before leaving to go home around 9pm.

As news continues to unfold there will be much to confirm amidst the rumors. There are reports the military entered media offices preventing transmission of live feeds. There are reports of clashes outside the Coptic Hospital where many injured are being treated. There are reports liquor stores – owned by Christians – are being attacked downtown. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has called for an emergency cabinet meeting tomorrow, and has posted on his Facebook page:

What took place was not a confrontation between Muslims and Christians but an attempt to create chaos and ignite sectarian sedition, which is not fitting for the children of the nation who were and will remain ‘one hand’ against the powers of destruction and extremism. Application of the law is the ideal solution for all of Egypt’s problems. I urge all children of the nation who are keen for its future not to answer those who call for sectarian sedition. This is a fire which will consume us all, without distinction.

These are wise words. May they prove true especially now and in the days to come. God protect Egypt.

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Published on Aslan Media: An American Perspective on the Culture of Conspiracy through the Lens of Sinai

The Sinai peninsula and the present day Israel...
The Sinai Peninsula

In the last day or two I had my first text published by a source outside of Arab West Report. Aslan Media is a new media project from Reza Aslan, an author of several books on Islam such as ‘No God but God’ (read and enjoyed) and ‘How to Win a Cosmic War’ (hope to read soon). The following text was featured on the front page, but has now moved to the sidebar. Click here for the direct link.


As an American, I am used to politics being partisan and even at times vitriolic, but all agree on the rules of the game and the validity of the constitutional system. Moreover, though political opponents criticize their adversaries as being servants of particular agendas, these cries generally do not descend into the realm of conspiracy. Yes, some on the Left believe there is a theocratic effort to take over government, and some on the Right find liberal secular humanism on the prowl to destroy traditional values. Yet on the whole the mantra proves true: Politics is the art of compromise. Following their vitriol, most American politicians do just that, and Americans appreciate it.

In contrast, the American resident in Egypt – if he or she pays attention to local politics – finds the culture awash in conspiracies. Worse, many of them are directed at his or her home shores. The tendency is to be dismissive; it is the response of a paralyzed people seeking to blame others for their problems, and a government actively encouraging the paranoia. Yet as a respected Egyptian journalist friend has said, with experience on both sides of the Mediterranean, foreign hands have been playing in Egypt for centuries. A palpable paranoia is fueled by reality.

The odd thing as an American is that the longer you live here with an open heart to the people, the more the culture of conspiracy can take hold. There are a thousand applications to choose from, but of particular recent concern is the development of threats in the Sinai. Here is found a regional Holy Grail of conspiracy, at the intersection of Israel, Camp David, the ruling Egyptian military council, and Islamic terrorism.

The story in brief is that Palestinian terrorists crossed into southern Israel from Gaza through the demilitarized Sinai, and killed a number of Israeli citizens during an attack on the port city of Eliat. Israel quickly targeted those it accused of responsibility with military retribution, for which Hamas unleashed heretofore largely suspended rocket fire into Israel, until a ceasefire was brokered. Meanwhile Israel also pursued fleeing Palestinians into Sinai, and several Egyptian officers were killed in the process.

Prior to this tragedy Islamist forces in Egypt conducted a massive rally in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to demand an Islamic government. In the Sinai city of Arish that evening armed bandits purporting to be Islamists attacked the local police stations, engaging in a several hour long firefight with authorities. They allegedly identified themselves as al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, seeking the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the territory. The presence of al-Qaeda in Egypt had been long denied by the government, and was rejected once more. Yet the armed forces in the days to come cooperated with Israel to allow the movement of military personnel into the peninsula – as required by the Camp David Accords – in an effort to clamp down on armed groups. This mission was pursued more urgently following the terrorist attack on Eliat.

During the Egyptian revolution it is said that several prisons were opened, and jailbreaks took place in others. A large number of these escapees remain at large, and it is reasonable to assume many have sought refuge in Sinai. With Camp David regulations limiting military presence, as well as a restive Bedouin population long frustrated with government neglect and resistant to government authority, Sinai has a reputation as a lawless frontier. Furthermore, when police stations were attacked during the revolution the weapons cache was opened. Unrest in Libya has also reportedly contributed to a dramatic increase in arms availability in Egypt. Many neighborhoods have witnessed violence in family feuds, gang activity, or attacks on police. While still small in scale, these incidents forebode what may be an emerging crisis in the Sinai, especially as the doctor of Osama bin Laden, also an explosives expert, has been allegedly identified in the territory.

Or, it is a crisis at all? This is where the power of conspiracy threatens to take over. From the Israeli side the benefits of a crisis are many. Israel has suffered widespread social protests over housing costs this summer. Israel faces a dramatic challenge to its Palestinian policy as the issue of statehood is prepared for submission to the United Nations. One can wonder also if Israel was not averse to testing the nascent Egyptian military authority, to see which way its domestic winds might influence commitment to its international agreements. More wildly, might preparations be underway to retake the Sinai to establish security, or dump responsibility for Gaza onto Egypt, or expand Gaza at Sinai’s expense, or else craft Sinai anew as an independent buffer state?

Conspiracy can take aim at the ruling military council as well. While still overwhelmingly popular with average Egyptians, it has come under severe criticism by revolutionary forces for its handling of the transition to democracy. Reuniting the people against the common enemy of Israel could diffuse attention to these complaints. Moreover, could the specter of terrorism in the Sinai lead to restoration of full Egyptian sovereignty over the territory, through amending the Camp David Accords with Israel? More wildly, might greater Egyptian control of the Sinai pave the way for the threatened million man marches from Cairo to Jerusalem, in support of Palestinian independence, or even eventual Islamist government hostility against Israel?

This is the nature of conspiracy, to delve further and further into the extreme. Conspiracy is built on explanation without information, striving to make sense of confusing events in an absence of transparency. Yet who can deny that the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others exercise influence over Egypt’s affairs? Do recent events represent an attempt to escape from this influence, or a confirmation thereof?

Whether or not Israel intended this as a test for the military council, it has quickly become one. Popular protests quickly surrounded the Israeli Embassy, and were allowed to continue several days. Mixed messages have been sent about recalling the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv. Calls for a joint investigation into the incident have been issued, may have been rebuffed, but are still open. Meanwhile the government is erecting a wall around the building housing the Israeli Embassy, to provide further protection in case of need. Many Egyptian parties and politicians are calling for a harsher response, especially following the example of Turkey. Is the military council treading nimbly between the niceties of diplomatic language and the fury of popular demands? It is too early to tell. After all, it was a full year between the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, and the now enacted diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey. The test is still underway, and its results may be long in coming.

For the American living here such conspiracy musings may be entertaining, but they can summon great passion from involved Egyptians. To make clear, the label of ‘conspiracy’ is dismissive and degrading, reflecting a subtle superiority of ethnocentric origin. Of greater concern, to both Americans resident and Egyptians permanent, is the direction of the story toward greater instability. Al-Qaeda or not, weapons are proliferating, and extremist movements are (likely) in the Sinai. Increased tension between Israel and Egypt can as easily lead to war as to greater mutual respect and sovereignty. Conspiracies of invention and play acting for the benefit of domestic distraction are possible, but could also become self-fulfilling prophecies. Egypt is a peaceful nation; it is likely to remain so. These trends, however, are worrisome.

As to the culture of conspiracy, orientalist bias or not, the world is not the same as it was at America’s independence. George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and succeeding presidencies set the nation on a path of isolation from European politics keeping the colonial powers from interfering in the Americas. It is questionable if this is even a possibility for Egypt today. To hint back at conspiracy, is it even possible in America?

If hope can be found, it is in the establishment of transparent institutions of democratic governance. People must rule, and be able to hold their elected representation accountable. The military council has promised to hand over authority to a civilian government, and this process is still underway. Though a million conspiracies posit why this will not happen, it is yet within the power of Egyptians to see the process through. As one American who still believes in the reality of our independence, I wish the same for Egypt. May she win for her people such an honorable right.