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The Blasphemy Law is Here to Stay

This article was first published at Egypt Source.

Naoot Beheiry
Fatima Naaot (L) and Islam Beheiry

Among the many battlegrounds between liberal and conservative visions for Egypt is the blasphemy law, with Islam al-Beheiry and Fatima Naoot its latest victims.

Naoot was recently sentenced to three years and fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,500) for statements critical of the Eid al-Adha ritual of slaughtering animals. Beheiry’s very public spat with Al-Azhar, meanwhile, concerns the right of the citizen to question, research, and promulgate revisionist interpretations of Islamic heritage.

That his one year prison sentence for contempt of religion followed an acquittal from another court on similar charges reveals a society and judiciary not yet settled on the proper balance between freedom of belief and expression and the protection of religion, both demanded by the nation’s constitution.

Public figures criticized both the Beheiry and Naoot verdicts. In Beheiry’s case, one prominent politician penned an op-ed in the national daily, Al-Ahram, calling the blasphemy law “disgraceful to Egypt.” Many have expressed alarm over what appears to be a recent increase in formal accusations. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) noted in a 2014 report that blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 13 in 2013, averaging about one per month since the revolution. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told EgyptSource that another 17 cases were filed last year.

While local and international rights groups have called for the law to be amended or repealed, Ibrahim favors the strategy of referring a case to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). He fears that kind of legislative push might backfire and result in an increase in punishments. There is greater hope, he thinks, that the SCC might rule the blasphemy law to be unconstitutional. This would be on the basis of Articles 64 and 65, which to Ibrahim are clear. They state that freedom of belief is “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion is “guaranteed,” inclusive of the right to express and publish.

But in an interview with EgyptSource one of Egypt’s senior judges described his understanding of the legal context of blasphemy law, more formally known as contempt of religions. He requested anonymity due to the fact that Beheiry’s file is still working its way through the judicial system, and made clear his comments do not refer to any specific case. In principle, he believes the law in current form to be just and in accordance with the constitution.

The SCC, he said, has already settled the issue. Case 44 of 1988 on the organization of political parties confirmed that “freedom of expression is a fundamental right, inherent in the very nature of a democratic regime and essential to the free formation of the public will.” Meanwhile, Case 8 of 1996, which addressed the question of wearing the veil in schools, described the relation of the right of expression to religious belief. “Freedom of belief, in principle, means for the individual not to be forced to adopt a belief he does not believe in,” the judge related from the court brief. But it also prohibited one “to side with one belief in a manner that would be prejudicial to another by denying, belittling, or ridiculing it.”

According to Khaled Hassan, a liberal Muslim researcher with the Center for Arab-West Understanding, this what Beheiry has done. It is not the content of his argument that is inappropriate, but the presentation. Beheiry’s style on television, he says, is provocative, on occasion offensive, and belittles the belief of millions of Muslims.

EIPR’s Ibrahim explains thatin the court verdict that saw Beheiry sentenced, he was found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities, the Sunnah, and the four imams [referring to the founders of the four principle Islamic schools of jurisprudence], considered a tearing down of the constants of Islam.” But the judge who acquitted Beheiry, Ibrahim related, ruled that nothing he said was in violation of the law. The case demonstrates that determining the boundaries of ridicule is left in the hands of the individual judge, who issues a verdict according to his own judgement.

Lawyer Hamdy al-Assyouti has defended many accused on a pro bono basis, and is the author of Blasphemy in Egypt which details 23 cases. He told EgyptSource that he tries to keep the judge’s focus on the law, not religion. Too often, he said, either mob pressure or a judge’s personal conservatism will cause him to ignore legitimate reasons to dismiss a case.

Beheiry was prosecuted on the basis of Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, passed in 1981 following sectarian riots in the Cairo neighborhood of al-Zawiya al-Hamra. Originally meant for protection against sectarian violence, it has become a tool exploited for oppression, Assyouti said. But this article, the judge explained, is not in the blasphemy section at all. Rather, it is included under the section dealing with crimes against the state. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to enflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity.” In the judge’s opinion it only applies when one intends to cause disorder in society.

The formal contempt of religion laws are Articles 160 and 161, which prohibit the disturbance of religious rituals, printing and publishing distorted religious texts, and the public mocking of religious ceremonies. These, along with Article 98(f), do allow prosecution against those who attack religion, such as Abu Islam who was sentenced to five years in prison, after appeal, for tearing a copy of the Bible while protesting the anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims. The judge believes a “sarcastic manner” that attacks the “core of religious belief” is necessary to establish guilt. This, he says, is required to protect society from instability, especially societies like Egypt which show great respect toward religion. He quoted former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, saying, “Freedom of speech is not a license. It does entail exercising responsibility and judgment.”

But he is clear this does not represent a curb on freedom of expression. “The mere propagation of non-belief in the revealed religions or of Islam,” he told EgyptSource, “does not in itself violate the provision of the Penal Code.”

For this reason there is no need to change the legislation, he believes, and in any case such efforts will not be successful. He explained that the legal process is long, involving review by the Ministry of Justice, the State Council, and the High Committee for Legal Reform, and in this case likely also Al-Azhar, which he expects will never accept diminishing the protection of religion. Legislation must also reflect social realities, he added, as necessary public dialogue would reveal non-acceptance by the great majority of a religious society.

So despite the controversies—and perhaps injustices—witnessed in recent cases, the judge’s opinion is firm. “The blasphemy law will never change,” he said. “It secures the faith of Egyptians and is not in conflict with the constitution.” Meanwhile in defense of individuals like Beheiry, Naoot, and many others, activists labor on, fully aware of all the challenges. “I believe in the freedom of belief,” said Assyouti. “But in the climate we are living in, expanding this freedom will be very difficult.”

Please click here for my earlier article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.

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Where the Church Ends and the Citizen Begins

(from Coptic Media Center)
(from Coptic Media Center)

This article was first published at Egypt Source.

Accusations against the Coptic Orthodox Church are many. It is in bed with the regime. It desires a political role. It monopolizes the Coptic voice, keeping the faithful within its walls. It is not difficult to find evidence that can fit the accusations. But as the church talks to its own people, not only is it aware of these perceptions, it is actively working to dispel them.

“The church is a pure spiritual institution,” Pope Tawadros said to the gathered crowd of 700 youth, emphasizing also a societal role. “It is the national church of Egypt, it is ancient. But we must not be closed upon ourselves.” Tawadros was speaking at a conference entitled “Building Consciousness,” organized by the Coptic Media Center (CMC), the media arm of the church. Hosted in Cairo, it followed two gatherings in Upper Egypt, with an upcoming meeting in Alexandria and the Delta. Participants are handpicked as active and influential leaders able to carry the message back to their churches.

Building Consciousness, according to CMC head and church spokesman Fr. Boules Halim, is a multi-year campaign designed to create educated, enlightened Orthodox Christians, able to think for themselves and engage with society. “They should vote and join political parties,” he said. “They should build their society and not be secluded. Connection to [the] church should not encompass their whole life.”

For many Copts this would be a radical departure. During the long era of now-ousted President Hosni Mubarak and the late Pope Shenouda, Egyptian citizens, including Copts, were depoliticized. As the state withdrew from social service provision, the church stepped in to fill the gap for its flock. Spiritual programs also multiplied, but as devotion increased so did the sense of the church as an alternate society, a place safe for Copts away from the trials of the world.

The state presented itself as a bastion of stability and semi-secularism against an Islamist threat. The church received the mantle of Coptic political leadership. The relationship had its ups and downs as it negotiated issues of sectarian violence, family status laws, and Coptic criticism from the diaspora.

The thrust now is to prepare Coptic citizens for leadership, but Building Consciousness is not a new emphasis of the church, according to Halim. It is the renewed application of Christian teaching to replace a reality that was forced upon them. “Society refused us,” he said, citing, for example, discrimination in state youth centers and sport programs. Speaking on the relationship between Mubarak and Shenouda, he said, “This is how the state wanted it, it was the nature of that stage.”

Egypt is now in a new stage, having passed through revolutionary tumult. While a large majority of Copts have strongly endorsed the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Halim is cautious, though encouraged. “Until now we still don’t have a convincing picture of citizenship, but there is hope,” he said. “The early signals say to us, ‘Come and participate,’ and the government is creating a conducive climate.”

Both Tawadros and Halim emphasized that the church will play a national role to encourage electoral participation. Attempting to allay concerns that this initiative opens up the church to similar criticisms made of Egypt’s short-lived Brotherhood government, they say it calls on all citizens to vote for the most qualified candidates and not on the basis of religion. It will use church networks to urge Copts to the polls, but will not endorse candidates, nor filter Coptic politicians through the political parties. This may happen at the local level, Halim conceded, but it is refused. There is no central electoral strategy in the church.

Besides politics, the Coptic citizen should be active also in the development of the country. But this area reveals potential contradictions in the message. The church has an organizing role, said Halim. He envisions a future in which every diocese has both a Coptic hospital and a Coptic school, open to all, without discrimination. As registered private schools, they will follow the national curriculum. The few schools currently operating have only a handful of Muslim students, as Copts have flocked to enroll. But once there is sufficient number, Halim hopes the student body will be distributed equally according to religion.

“If we can have a role in education, it will contribute greatly to better consciousness and open minds,” he said. “When enlightenment reaches the other it is more powerful. It produces coexistence, knowledge, love, and common cause.” During his presentation Tawadros advocated similarly. “We must serve society within the possibilities available,” he said, “completing the government in the provision of services.”

Such plans have provided fodder for Islamist critics accusing the church of proselytizing. While nothing in the conference suggested this aim, it is clear the church preaches a certain conception of society. One of the pillars of Building Consciousness is emphasis on the dual nature of Coptic and Egyptian identity. This, while at peace with Muslims, may be at odds with an Islamist agenda.

Viewed through the lens of the last four years of struggle and polarization, the issues are also quite political. The church insists it is not involved in the micro issues of elections and policies. But its vision is to shape society in the acceptance of macro issues of citizenship and national identity.

Here, the church wants Coptic citizens up to the task, even as it leads the effort. But in their eyes there is little contradiction, as the church with its members is the body of Christ. If it desires Coptic citizens to play an active role in society, it falls upon church leadership to teach them to do so. Where does the church stop, and the Christian begin?

According to Halim, the church as an institution desires strongly to leave these matters aside and return strictly to a spiritual, shepherding role. But too much is at stake in this transitional period. “If one calls for the church to have no role whatsoever, this will be when full citizenship becomes a reality,” he said. “But as long as citizenship is lacking, the country needs us.”

Pope Tawadros Building Consciousness

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When Sectarian Conflict Finds a Local Solution, Copts Lose

EIPR's Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?
EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?

This article was first published at Egypt Source:

What is the value of a presidential visit to the papal cathedral for a seventy-year-old Copt driven from his village? What good are warm relations between Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros if relations remain tense between Youssef Tawfiq and his Muslim neighbors?

A new report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says this problem runs far deeper than Sisi and Tawfiq. Over the past four years, twenty-three other Copts have been forcibly displaced from their homes out of forty-five cases examined by EIPR where community justice—rather than legal procedure—has mediated sectarian clashes.

In Jordan, far from the village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo, Tawfiq’s son Ayman was alleged to have shared insulting pictures of Muhammad on his Facebook page. Upon hearing the rumor, which Ayman denies, a mob gathered and set fire to his family’s homes and fields. An overwhelmed mayor and village officials, with police present, conducted what is known as a ‘customary reconciliation session’ (CRS). Meant to subdue tensions and restore order, village elders debated a just solution.

Ayman’s father, mother, and sixteen other relatives were ordered to leave town.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit at EIPR. Report author Ishak Ibrahim was even more explicit. “If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian conflict, but it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions,” he said.

As EIPR details in its forty-five cases, rarely are individuals from the mob arrested. When they are, many times the reconciliation agreement stipulates the relinquishing of judicial procedure. All of this is contrary to the law. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. While Article 185 of the penal code allows a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

The EIPR report shows two primary controversies: The first is the free practice of religious ritual, including the building, expansion, and renovation of churches. At 31 percent, it is only slightly more frequent than clashes involving romantic relationships between a Muslim and a Christian, at 29 percent. Land and property disputes constitute 16 percent and expressing opinions on religious matters make up 8 percent, as in the case of Ayman.

At times sectarianism is at the heart of the problem; at times normal community problems escalate along sectarian lines. But among the most controversial aspects of CRS is the presence of police.

“Traditional sessions do not conflict with the law at all, they have to do with the prevention of bloody conflict,” former security director for Minya Sayyid Nour el-Din, told OnTV, defending police practice. “The security presence is to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.” But in some cases EIPR studied, the police participated in issuing decisions. In others they randomly arrested people on both sides to exert pressure to accept the CRS process.

EIPR does not condemn CRS entirely, as in non-sectarian cases it has the potential to reach a consensual opinion and avoid lengthy legal processes. For Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani which helped break the story in Kafr Darwish, reaching a fair outcome in sectarian conflict is rare. “Usually it is humiliating, as it forces the will of the stronger party upon the weaker,” he said. “When security officials let this be done under their eyes and blessing, it is a very grave mistake.”

At stake is the sovereignty of the state, he said. But perhaps it is getting better? The report said there were twenty-one cases under transitional military governance after the fall of Mubarak, at a rate of one per month. President Morsi’s year in office witnessed fifteen, at a rate of 1.25 per month. Under Mansour and Sisi, only nine cases were reported over eighteen months through the end of 2014, when the reporting concludes.

Then again, Ibrahim said there have been six cases in the first half of 2015. The problem is not going away.

After a media outcry, the governor of Beni Suef intervened and security returned Youssef Tawfiq and his family to their homes in Kafr Darwish. Sidhom believes President Sisi acted quietly behind the scenes. “I don’t consider this a happy ending as the law is still not enforced,” he said, noting that to his knowledge, none of the mob are in prison nor have any in the police force been disciplined. “You cannot live under the mercy of the president rather than the rule of the law.”

As with much else in today’s Egypt, the issue falls to Sisi. He has done much to try to change a culture—visiting the cathedral and calling for the reform of religious discourse. But will he follow through to change a reality? Will he be able?

Egyptians have respect for the strong leader. They have less respect for those who ‘talk.’ If Sisi sets the right tone—backed by holding accountable those responsible for undermining state sovereignty—others will walk in step with him and help transform the culture over the long run.

But not if he is weak. The president has shown a strong hand in asserting control over the Egyptian state—despite international criticism over violations of human rights. Similarly, if Sisi is intent on a new relationship with Egypt’s religious minority (as implied by his rhetoric and meetings with Pope Tawadros), he will have to face possible domestic and institutional criticism to assert it further by arresting aggressors and disciplining enablers.

“We put responsibility on the government,” said Ibrahim. “It is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

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Strong Egypt: A Party in the Middle

As party president Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh speaks (2nd from L), the children of Mahmoud Shalan plead for his release from prison.
As party president Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh speaks (2nd from L), the children of Mahmoud Shalan plead for his release from prison.

On an uncontested electoral list at the Strong Egypt Party’s first general conference on February 13, Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh was confirmed as president along with his running mate for general-secretary, Ahmed Fawzi.

But this was the least remarkable event of the day. Their acceptance speeches set the tone for the controversy to follow.

“I have a dream,” said Fawzi, purposefully echoing Martin Luther King, “that Egypt will be a modern nation with a strong economy that exports ideas to the world.”

But no one was paying attention. As he spoke family members gathered in the aisle and silently held up posters of party members still in jail.

When Aboul Fotouh invited them to the front, activists seized the moment.“Yuskut, yuskut, hukm al-‘askar,” they chanted angrily: Down with military rule. Aboul Fotouh stood quietly, allowing the zeal of younger members to buttress his earlier remarks. “This regime is more oppressive than Mubarak’s,” he thundered. “How can we participate in parliamentary elections when people are killed in soccer games and in the streets?”

Strong Egypt had announced its boycott nine days earlier, but the rhetoric at the conference was far stronger than the official statement, which cited “a “lack of adequate democratic standards,” as the reason for the party’s decision.

The chants against the military prompted Zamil Saleh, a photographer for Sawt al-Umma newspaper, to rush forward in criticism, shouting at the offense. Other Strong Egypt members contained him, holding him back and ushering him out the hall. The process was calm, but al-Bawaba News quickly published he was beaten and his equipment smashed.

Shortly after the incident, party spokesman Ahmed Emam noticed the headline, published online before the conference had ended, and told the audience it was just one more piece of evidence of official state and media bias against the party. Twenty-seven locations had declined to host the conference, he said, many citing concern about security displeasure.

The Strong Egypt Party was licensed officially on November 12, 2012, and has roughly 400 voting members in its general conference, around 250 of whom were present for the election. In addition to the confirmation of the president, 87 candidates ran for 49 seats in the high committee, which in one month will vote on the ten-member political office.

A more contentious referendum item concerned integrating leadership with the Egyptian Current, formed in June 2011 by revolutionaries expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood. Their merger was announced October 1, and at the conference a roughly two-thirds majority approved the agreement to add two Egyptian Current members to the political office, and fifteen to the high committee.

Following the conference, former parliamentarian Mustafa Bakry called for the High Committee of Political Parties to ‘erase’ Strong Egypt as a legal entity, accusing Aboul Fotouh of attacking the Egyptian government. Mohamed Moussa of the Conference Party, founded by Amr Moussa, accused Aboul Fotouh of carrying out the instructions of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Conspiracy aside, Strong Egypt does support the return of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to political life. Mamdouh al-Shaib, a member of the political office, told EgyptSource that the FJP should be allowed back into the political playing field, as long as it operates separately and independently of the Brotherhood itself.

Shaib believes social reconciliation must precede political, and be followed by transitional justice and a return of the army to its barracks. “Sisi is the ambassador of the army in the presidential palace, just as Morsi was the ambassador of the Brotherhood,” he said.

Fekry Nabil, also of the political committee, distinguished between legality and legitimacy. Morsi was the legal president, Nabil explained to EgyptSource, but through his performance in office he lost his legitimacy. Strong Egypt called for new presidential elections as early as March 2013, and was part of the June 30 demonstrations to remove him from office.

“But no one has the legality to call for the army to remove him,” Nabil added.

From the beginning, Strong Egypt suspected the July 3 removal of Morsi was a coup d’état, but were quiet about it until their transitional suggestions were ignored. Nabil described how in early negotiations after Morsi’s removal, Aboul Fotouh demanded the FJP not be eliminated from the political scene, and a referendum be submitted to the people to legalize the proposed roadmap. If agreed, Strong Egypt offered to mobilize for a ‘yes’ vote.

But subsequent killings at the Republican Guard and in the dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins confirmed their suspicion, and since then they have tried to balance between support for June 30, and rejection of July 3.

For Strong Egypt, an essential part of this balance is demanding the right to demonstrate, as in the licit protests of June 30, while not calling for them now, in light of the crackdown against them. They would prefer dialogue to resolve the ongoing crisis and return Egypt to democracy, for current protests carry too high a price in incarceration and blood. But Shaib anticipates another revolutionary wave is probably necessary.

So despite Sisi’s overwhelming victory in presidential elections, which Strong Egypt boycotted, the party considers his conduct in office and suppression of the political scene as confirming his lack of legitimacy following the coup. As to the legality of this election and his right to four years in office, it doesn’t much matter to Strong Egypt.

“Sisi was ruling the country after July 3 in actuality,” said Shaib. “We don’t accept his legitimacy, we recognize his reality.”

This article was originally published at Egypt Source on February 17, 2015.

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Searching for Youth to Save Education


Joyce Rafla
Joyce Rafla

Egypt has a youth problem. According to official statistics, 31 percent of the population is under the age of 14, and 24 percent of the population is between 18 and 29. Integrating them into the social and political fabric of society is expected to be challenging, especially given the raised expectations of the revolution.

Egypt also has an education problem. According to official statistics, 25 percent of the population over 10 years old is illiterate. According to UNICEF, student participation is generally not encouraged by teachers, and less than ten percent of schools meet national standards for quality education.

Egypt, of course, is well aware of these problems. Twenty-eight year old Joyce Rafla is part of the government’s answer for both. Last May, presidential media advisor Ahmed al-Muslimani handed the ‘White Book’ to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It represented the completion of a project started under interim president Adly Mansour, tajdid al-nukhba, seeking to find new talent to eventually replace the old guard.

The White Book contained the names of 152 Egyptian graduates of top notch universities worldwide. Joyce Rafla was included among ten from Columbia University, alongside Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Moscow, Tokyo, and the Sorbonne, among others.

A year earlier as the government was conducting its search, Rafla was invited with around twenty other graduates from the education field to produce a practical vision for the nation’s education system by 2030. The two month effort was part of an objective to design strategies to place Egypt within the top ten nations by 2050.

Rafla’s work in the committee must have caught the attention of important people. In August 2014 she received a phone call from the president’s office, asking her to be an advisor to Sisi. Three specialized councils have since been formed, all by presidential appointment, seeking balanced age and gender composition. Rafla is one of six females on the Education and Scientific Research Council, and lowers the average age of the eleven members to 40.

Rafla is a pedagogy and assessment officer at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and also a consultant for the Education Support Program funded by USAID. Her international connections may have been a factor in her selection, as with other AUC professors on the council. Tarek Shawki, the council head, has long experience with UNESCO. Malak Zaalouk is associated with UNICEF. And Amal Essawi worked as a researcher in the UK for ten years.

Other council members come from the universities of Cairo, Alexandria, and Ain Shams. Represented also are experts from the National Research Center and the ministries of Education, Higher Education, and Communications. All members on the council are volunteers. Twice weekly meetings and preparation requires nearly two extra days of work on top of their normal responsibilities.

The overall diversity of membership represents a new advisory approach in the Sisi administration. Rafla explained that traditionally the Egyptian president had one advisor in each specialized field, but by contrast, Sisi desires a multiplicity of perspectives coming to consensus. The council stands outside the cabinet ministries, but must seek buy-in from these and other relevant institutions before they present ideas to the president.

And within this body of advice, Rafla speaks for the youth. “I am there to disrupt the normal order of things,” she told EgyptSource, adding that she has never felt overlooked due to her age. “Sometimes there are suggestions that won’t resonate well with a young person, that’s when I jump in.”

But quickly the council faced the accumulated frustrations of previous educational reform efforts. AUC held a panel discussion in November with five members of the council, four of which, including Rafla, are among its staff. The poorly chosen title, ‘Three Immediate Solutions to Egypt’s Education Crisis’ attracted a large crowd, but then their ire.

“I went to an event about education in Cairo this week hoping to hear about solutions,” wrote Amal Abou-Setta in al-Fanar Media. “Instead I felt like, yet again, I only listened to an elaborate description of the problems.”

Rafla admitted the divergence between presentation and title, but clarified the three initiatives. Better investment in teacher training, a licensing system with ongoing testing for university graduates, and merit-based university education providing full scholarship primarily to students who continue to meet minimum benchmarks of success.

These are among 31 short, medium, and long-term projects the council submitted to Sisi on December 2. The meeting lasted two hours, during which the president gave extensive feedback and demonstrated genuine concern, Rafla said. It was their second meeting with Sisi, and they are scheduled to meet with him once every one to two months.

Rafla’s current role is to make an overview of all previous international education projects in Egypt, to recognize patterns of success and failure. She is also conducting field visits outside of Cairo and with relevant civil society organizations to strengthen the necessary cooperative environment.

But will it work? Rafla is optimistic, though fully aware of the challenges. The president has insisted that reform is needed urgently. But amid the criticism of some in her own generation, she sees one of her main tasks as encouragement. She can do so as long as she herself believes.

“If we have a good project, the president has the political will to reform education,” Rafla said. “The minute I feel it is not so, I will lose hope.”


This article was originally published on Egypt Source.

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Where is the Maspero Youth Union Now?

Egyptian Coptic Christian holds cross during a demonstration outside Egyptian embassy in Athens

Twenty-three Egyptian liberal activists were sentenced to three years in prison for demonstrating against the protest law on Sunday. Amid the ongoing clampdown on dissent, the common observer can sigh, but be forgiven for asking: Whatever happened to those Coptic youth activists? Did that massacre at Maspero all but end their influence? Or like most Copts do they support the current regime and its policies?

On October 9, 2011, twenty-seven Coptic Christians were killed during a protest against ongoing attacks on churches, the majority underneath the wheels of military vehicles, which plowed through their demonstration. The Maspero Youth Union, born in the spring of that year, was the most vocal and organized of an emerging Coptic activism that was considerably quieter thereafter.

Close observers of Egyptian politics will recall hearing their name here and there amid the tumults of the revolutionary struggle. They most recently appeared in a small candlelight vigil, commemorating the three year anniversary of the Maspero massacre and calling for justice against former top military brass.

But it is not true they have been silent, insisted Mina Magdy, general coordinator of the MYU. They have issued statements to the media, mobilized for elections without endorsing a candidate, and participated in government-sponsored youth outreach. They appeared before the constitutional committee to advocate for favorable clauses and communicated with thousands of Copts through social media.

Andrawus Ewida, head of the committee responsible for MYU work in the governorates, went further. MYU activists, he explained, were a prominent contributing force behind the Tamarrod protests against then-President Mohamed Morsi. But this mobilization was not advertised out of fear that their participation would allow labeling it as a Coptic movement. Affiliated members also carried out documentation of the subsequent August 14 attacks on churches across the nation, he said.

But even granting their continuing activity, the question is fair: What influence do they maintain on the Coptic street? What relevance do they have in the political process? For many Coptic observers, the answer is nil.

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, lauded the MYU for its role in mobilizing Copts into the political process through their protests. But after June 30, he said, the power and place of demonstrations has declined, and the MYU has not evolved sufficiently into a viable organization.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, agreed. He finds them genuine and positive in demanding justice for the incident of the Maspero massacre. But their composition as a religious-identity based group is not helping the Coptic cause, which is best addressed under Muslim leadership with great intermixing. And in the chief issue of the day—the shaping of liberal alliances in the coming parliamentary elections—the MYU has been absent, he finds.

Save for assertions of their influence among Coptic youth, the MYU largely agrees with these critiques. But the group is currently in a period of reorganization to set themselves right.

On October 17, Magdy won internal MYU elections against a challenge from Ewida, for a one year renewal of his position as general coordinator. He is tasked with reformulating the statutes and bylaws, while parsing the membership list and defining its criteria. He hopes to officially register the MYU with the government, and prepare for formal election of the group’s political office and six other standing committees.

Magdy realizes the MYU is not well connected to political or revolutionary groups, though he forswears participation with the April 6 Movement or the Revolutionary Socialists, due to their ongoing issues with the regime. However, he lends the MYU’s voice to calls to rescind the protest law and free imprisoned activists who protested against it. Ewida adds there is not enough transparency to distinguish between regular protestors and the terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, the two candidates for leadership of the MYU had similar perspectives on almost all matters, administrative and political. Besides their stance on the protest law, they argue for full freedom of expression and the regular litany of Coptic issues: building and rebuilding churches and a law against discrimination. Rather boldly, they also advocate rescinding the blasphemy law and regulating conversion both to and from Islam. They insist they do not want to be a sectarian organization, but rather a pressure group on any government.

But even within the election are signs they have a long way to go. Early on during the height of their street demonstrations, the MYU claimed 10,000 members. Now they measure their active members in the hundreds. Only those most active were given the right to vote—twenty-three.

This number included six representatives from the governorates, where MYU representatives operate in Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia. But Ewida contested the election vote, saying procedural issues prevented six others from casting ballots and that members in other governorates were not sufficiently recognized. The official tally was 16-6 for Magdy (with one unable to vote), and the MYU legal committee ruled against Ewida’s appeal.

Ewida described his candidacy, though, as an exercise in educational democracy. He did not plan to win, but wished to have the group experience a true election and witness an opposition. He hopes the results push Magdy to recognize minority questioning of his leadership, to seek group consensus for his decisions, and to be held accountable for efficient MYU reorganization.

For his part, Magdy is eager to see the elections demonstrate something more—a Coptic political group experiencing a peaceful election cycle. This experience, he hopes, will compare positively with so many other post-January 25 entities which have suffered splits and divisions. Perhaps this, above all, is what may win the Maspero Youth Union relevance. Now it is up to Magdy, Ewida, and their activist colleagues to demonstrate the utility of a democratic order.

This article was originally published at Egypt Source.

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Christians Question Obama’s ISIS Strategy

Participants in the FMEEC conference in Cairo
Participants in the FMEEC conference in Cairo

From my recent article in MENA Source:

In his efforts to build a coalition to strike militarily Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama has been careful to avoid an overly religious discourse. Part of his appeal, however, is for the protection of Christians and other religious minorities. In his speech on September 10, Obama promised “humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced,” mentioning specifically tens of thousands of Christians. But his concern pushed far beyond relief: “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.” It is a noble sentiment. Obama would do well to consider, however, the many Middle Eastern Christian voices who see beyond these words something ignoble.

“In the American culture you need an evil, to fight an evil,” said Fr. Michel Jalakh, the newly appointed Lebanese Catholic general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. “ISIS did not come from nothing, they have lots of money and a large army, who is giving this to them? How did they emerge in one year?” If there must be a military response, Jalakh desires it come from within the Muslim world itself. Still, he sees a much simpler solution. “It is enough to shut off the water faucet,” he said. “Many of America’s allies are helping ISIS.”

Jalakh was a participant in the September 8-10 conference of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), held in Cairo. FMEEC president Reverend Andrea Zaki, also general director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, did not express conspiratorial origins to ISIS, but feared a similar practical outcome. “Who will define the moderate groups?” he stated in response to arming Syria’s rebels. “I’m afraid that any militarization will go again to the radicals.”

Please click here to read the full article at MENA Source, including more quotes, both con- and somewhat pro-, sprinkled with a brief analysis.

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Egypt, the Election, and Sectarian Analysis

Uncovered, presumably Coptic women stand in line to vote
Uncovered, presumably Coptic women stand in line to vote

From my latest article at Egypt Source, exploring the controversial presidential election turnout:

One day before the beginning of presidential elections, the Egyptian Center for Media Studies and Public Opinion (ECMSPO) published the results of a counterintuitive poll. Based on personal interviews with 10,524 citizens throughout Egypt’s governorates, they predicted a turnout of only 10 percent.

More shocking, and controversial, was their estimate that 48 percent of presumed winner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s votes would come from Christians.

On the first day of voting the webpage of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, seized on this survey. Publishing pictures of old men, smiling ladies, and assortments of priests and nuns, they featured the sectarian-laden headline: “Elderly, Women, Christians … the Trinity of Election Theater Today.”

But as reports streamed in of otherwise empty polling stations, this headline gained credibility. As the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) decided to make the second day a public holiday, and then extend voting to a third, it cemented the impression even more.

The article takes a closer look at the polling organization, which doesn’t seem quite right. But the official totals of 47 percent turnout don’t quite seem right either. A closer look is given to the size of the Coptic electorate, but also, like Saturday’s post on Pope Tawadros, wonders about their behavior too. From the conclusion:

But cynical also is Muslim Brotherhood use of this demographic reality. To call the elderly, women, and Christians part of a ‘Trinity’ is to use theological language instinctively repulsive to Muslim sensibilities. That they call elections a ‘theater’ is reasonable given their organizational viewpoint; that they play games with religious minorities, gender, and age – as if these did not have the rights of citizenship to choose freely – is not.

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only group making sectarian usage of the Copts. Lamis al-Hadidi, a pro-government media personality on the private CBC channel, urged them to vote reminding of their sixty churches burnt by terrorists. She, like the FJP, has crossed a line.

Perhaps individuals within the church are privately backing Sisi behind the scenes, and directing Copts to vote for him through internal discourse. If so, they too are crossing a line. But the church has had good sense to avoid this distinction publicly, officially instructing priests not to directly support a candidate.

Whether turnout is high or low, it may well prove that together, this Trinity elected Sisi. The Brotherhood may be right to fume, but they are wrong to do so with such sectarian language. Unfortunately, it is only one more example of the morass into which Egyptian politics has descended, and the mud slung by many.

But mud is slung in advanced democracies as well, and generally speaking it does not hinder straightforward readings of electoral results. The election of Sisi was supposed to be simple, though Egypt’s democracy is far from mature. Contested turnout figures are just one more bump in a very long road.

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.

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Ideological Distinction in the Coming Parliament

Kharrat (L) and Abadir (R), which is ideologically appropriate if currently politically muddled in their parties.
Kharrat (L) and Abadir (R), which is ideologically appropriate though politically muddled in their current party rivalry.

From my latest article in Egypt Source:

Many have argued that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s likely election as Egypt’s next president is an indication of a return to Hosni Mubarak-era policies. However apt the comparison may or may not be, the analysis overlooks one key advantage Sisi lacks. There is no longer a National Democratic Party (NDP), the party faithful to ousted president Mubarak, through which the presumed President Sisi can enact policy. He is on the record to neither form nor join a party through which to govern.

In its place exist a large number of smaller parties, which are in one sense a result of the revolution and its aim to diffuse presidential power. Sisi will need to work closely with these elected representatives; according to Article 146 of the constitution his choice of prime minister and the cabinet he is tasked to form must meet with legislative approval. Otherwise, the majority party will form the government.

The old NDP did not threaten Mubarak’s choices, for it was less an ideological vehicle than a means of access to executive favor. The coming parliament stands to be different, for most parties have already staked out distinct positions in electoral competition. But the phenomenal pull of Sisi is exposing fault-lines within these parties, blurring the lines of ideological distinction.

This is the joint explanation of the recent defection of thirty-one members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) to the Free Egyptians Party (FEP). Both parties were created after the 2011 revolution. They ran together as the Egyptian Bloc in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, and were equal partners in the National Salvation Front to overthrow former President Mohamed Morsi.

The article continues to analyze why the defection occurred and what it means for political life and the coming parliament. It quotes extensively from a founding member in each party, and touches also on the Salafi challenge.

From the conclusion:

But until the political situation stabilizes, there is little likelihood of ideology coming to the forefront of campaigns. With the Brotherhood sidelined, the question of religion is largely replaced by the question of Sisi, and his discourse of security and stability. Should he win, the interplay between him parliament may determine whether or not the decay of ideological distinction continues.

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.

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Anti-Coup Terrorism: License and Reluctance

Street Terrorism

From my recent article on Egypt Source. Here is the license:

Recently on the Istanbul-based pro-Brotherhood channel named Raba’a Sheikh Afifi called on Muslims to resist the coup, but not with weapons. “This will enable them to commit their crimes against us with full freedom,” he said.

It is not that the use of weapons is wrong, however. Afifi quotes the 10th Century jurist Ibn Hazm to say that such fighting is prohibited if it will not prove victorious. Since the security forces are better armed, this strategy will backfire, he explains.

“All we can try to do is terrorize them,” Afifi continues, “by burning their cars, threatening them, burning their homes, and other such efforts.” He says this is consistent with peaceful resistance and alleges it is legitimate under sharia law.

And here is the reluctance:

Even so, the idea is uncertain to at least one of the sheikh’s followers. “It is a way among many ways to resist the coup,” said Hani Fawzi, general-secretary of the Asala Party, very hesitantly. “But maybe it will work only five or ten percent.”

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.

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The Face of Egypt’s Educational Flaws

Egypt Swine Flu School

From my recent article on Egypt Source:

Education in Egypt has long been criticized, a fact recognized by the authors of the new constitution. Articles 19, 21, and 23 oblige the government to spend four percent of its gross national product on public education, two percent on higher education, and one percent on scientific research. These targets must be met, according to Article 228, by the school budget of 2016 and gradually increase thereafter until meeting international norms.

The constitutional referendum was approved on January 15, as high school students were readying to complete their exams before winter break. Their return to school was scheduled for February 9 but has now been postponed twice. The official reason is due to the 38 deaths from the H1N1 virus, though some suspect political instability plays a role. Regardless, students are now due to return on March 9, creating a near month-and-a-half long vacation. Elementary students, meanwhile, have been out of school since early January.

Constitutional solutions, if implemented, will take time to fix the system. But to see the extent to which Egyptian education is broken requires a first-hand profile. Ibrahim Awad is a 22-year-old resident of Helwan, though he prefers not to use his real name. He illustrates the degree to which a culture of education is lacking both in many schools and many citizens.

Ibrahim is delightful, though depressing. One small illustrative excerpt:

“I would go to school, but do nothing. Students smoked in class, and the teacher wouldn’t even show up,” Ibrahim said. He was similarly truant, and no one held him accountable. “Teachers considered that we were failing students and not worth their effort.”

The only reason he graduated was the culture of bribing the teacher with Pepsi and cigarettes. More than eager to shuffle the students through, the teacher looked the other way when Ibrahim helped his illiterate colleague by writing answers on both their tests.

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.

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Christians, Mostly, Embracing Sisi

Sisi Demonstration

From my recent article in Egypt Source:

Ultimately, the formation of a new government in Egypt should be about one word: Competency. But the current nature of politics substitutes another word entirely: Sisi. Local analysis revolves around the question of what the development means in terms of the defense minister’s anticipated candidacy for president, and when he will take off his uniform to announce it.

Egyptians have been waiting for some time to know the answer, and Coptic Christians are among the most expectant.

“If Sisi is a candidate I will definitely support him,” said Naguib Abadir, a Coptic founding member of the secular Free Egyptians Party. “Egypt needs a president with charisma and who commands the respect of the people.”

But not all as are enthusiastic:

This endorsement extended to the person of Sisi, celebrated in posters plastered everywhere on Egyptian streets. “They come to the streets and make a festival, carrying Sisi pictures and saying to him, ‘Come and rule Egypt.’” But while Madgy admitted many Coptic civil society leaders will likely vote for Sisi, some in the Maspero Youth Union are offended at the billing of Sisi as a revolutionary candidate. The goals of the revolution – bread, freedom, and social justice – have not yet been achieved, he explained, so how can we celebrate?

And a segment is outright opposed:

Samaan also supported the removal of Morsi, but finds the actions of the military amount to a coup. Sisi is not to be trusted, he believes. The constitution is good, but Samaan questions whether or not it will be applied. The military establishment poised to run the country once again is the same body that served under Mubarak, he said, and that regime was no friend of Copts, nor honored the constitution.

From the conclusion:

But these are worries for another day. Copts, like most Egyptians, long for stability and have placed their hope in the military to see the country through these troubled times. If initial signs are worrisome to those in the West, Egyptians plead for patience. The nation has changed after January 25, they say, and cannot go back to the status quo.

In the meanwhile, yet another post-revolutionary government is asked to prove it. A Sisi presidency will likely settle the question either way, but for the most part, Copts have embraced the optimism.

Please click here to discover the rationale behind each opinion, and read the whole article at Egypt Source.

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The Quest for Minority Rights in Egypt

Minority RightsFrom my recent article on Egypt Source:

Coptic Christians have reason to celebrate… alone. While they and many others rejoice at the removal of the overall Islamist tinge of the 2012 constitution, this largely liberal-produced draft leaves other religious minorities out in the cold.

“One of the main concerns we have is that freedom of religion is limited to the heavenly religions,” said Chris Chapman, noting the non-recognition of Egyptian Baha’is in particular. “Freedom of religion is absolute and there should be no exclusion.”

The current draft of the constitution, slated for referendum on January 14, makes absolute the freedom of belief. Practicing religious rites and building houses of worship, however, is limited to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

But the article is not an analysis of the constitution but a description of why the largely liberal drafting committee did not secure greater rights for all, and what might be necessary for Egypt to fall in line with the international agreements it has signed. The interview is with Chris Chapman of Minority Rights Group, who recently presented his findings in Cairo.

Chris Chapman
Chris Chapman

From the conclusion:

If this constitution, however, does not fully satisfy liberal activists, a long term focus is necessary to transform a repressive environment to one respectful of human rights. “It happens gradually,” Chapman assured, “as a process of consultation and negotiation. I see Egypt as moving in the right direction, but it hasn’t got there 100 percent yet.”

Until it does, Chapman has the advantage of calling from the outside for both the rule of law and proper legislation. He urges activists and citizens alike to lobby for the rights of Copts, Baha’is, Shia, and others, but the ultimate onus falls on the government.

“This is international human rights law,” Chapman said. “If Egypt is going to live up to its obligations it must respect freedom of religion and belief.”

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.

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Ebram Louis and the Contested Nature of Coptic Disappearances

Ebram Louis
Ebram Louis

From my recent article on Egypt Source:

Maryam Milad disappeared in 2012. Last seen in the church of St. Anthony in Shubra, her father believes his now eighteen year old daughter has been kidnapped and perhaps married off to a Salafi Muslim somewhere. Police, he says, have been uncooperative.

“I plead with all the authorities in Egypt,” he said at a prayer meeting highlighting more than a dozen similar cases. “Put yourselves in the place of us parents.”

According to Ebram Louis, founder of the Association for the Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), this is just the tip of the iceberg. He has documented 500 such cases since the revolution.

The article describes his process of documentation, and reveals interesting statistics from AVAED’s findings:

But according to AVAED chief field researcher George Nushi, up to 60 percent of all cases are [stemming from initial love relations]. Most of these, he said, involve Muslims of bad intention. The girl becomes infatuated, but then she is told she cannot go home again.

There are violent cases, but they are limited in number. Even so, AVAED sees religious extremism involved prominently:

“We do not say ‘kidnapping’ in the beginning,” he said, “We say ‘disappearance.’” Nushi says only 5 percent of girls suffered violent kidnappings in the traditional sense.

How does he then have such certainty that malevolent, organized Salafi groups are involved? Of their 500 cases, ten have escaped to tell their story. These stories reveal patterns which indicate similar activity, locations, and even phone numbers.

This issue requires deep research and understanding of the Egyptian social and cultural settings, far deeper than the scope of this article. But please click here to read the rest at Egypt Source.

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Amr Darrag on the Brotherhood’s Mistakes, Sort of

Amr Darrag
Amr Darrag

From my recent article at Egypt Source:

During the lead-up to the June 30 protests demanding early elections through the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins, several Brotherhood members spoke in vague terms of their ‘mistakes.’ It was a conciliatory gesture of sorts, admitting Morsi’s less than stellar performance but arguing this was not enough to undo his democratic legitimacy.

It is a fair enough logic, but it was never accompanied by any details concerning these mistakes. The closest to an admission came from Salah Sultan, who apologized for the Brotherhood’s negotiating with Omar Suleiman, opening channels with the military, not being honest enough about the efforts of corrupt regime figures to sabotage the revolution, and failing to absorb youth and women in their project. His statement was posted on the webpage of the Freedom and Justice Party, but later removed and described as only a ‘personal’ viewpoint.

This has been one of my frustrations in listening to the Brotherhood post-Morsi. They speak of mistakes, but are rarely specific. I understand the political logic, but wish for greater transparency. So I was thankful for an opportunity to press the issue directly:

But Darrag, instead, is put off by the question. “I don’t actually agree on the prescription that there are mistakes that the Brotherhood has to acknowledge and apologize for,” he said. “Of course there are mistakes, I am not saying that we don’t make mistakes. But this has to come through a process that all political forces, if they want to learn from past experiences, acknowledge their mistakes.”

Rather, he anticipates this process eventually coming from those who sided with the removal of Morsi:

“It doesn’t make sense to ask one side to keep apologizing and apologizing and apologizing. I mean, this is not helping.”

Perhaps it is not helping the Brotherhood, but if they tried apologizing even once, it might help the original revolutionary cause. But consistent with his position, Darrag anticipates the reflection coming from the other side. “People think and reconsider,” he said. “I am sure that one day the majority will join us in the same way that happened on January 25th.

“But when, I don’t know.”

Please click here to read the full article on Egypt Source.

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Another Coup, A Salafi Hope

Hani Fawzi casting his ballot in Asala Party internal elections (photo: Clara Pak)
Hani Fawzi casting his ballot in Asala Party internal elections (photo: Clara Pak)

From my recent article in Egypt Source:

In order to reverse a coup d’état, Egypt needs a coup d’état. This, in brief, is the solution to Egypt’s crisis offered by Hani Fawzi, general secretary of the Cairo-based Salafi Asala Party. It must be prompted, however, by massive protests. No longer simply the domain of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, the anti-coup movement is attracting both professionals and Christians – or so he believes.

Rather, this is what he prays for. A few days prior to the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya, Fawzi suffered a massive heart attack while sleeping in the near-by offices of the Asala Party in Nasr City. Found and hospitalized the next morning, unlike some of his colleagues he avoided the violence and mass arrests, but in his recovery has been reduced mostly to seeking divine intercession.

This, according to Fawzi, can come only through the army, as they are the only ones with the power to bring down Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Minister of Defense, and Mohamed Ibrahim, the Minister of the Interior. There have been indications, he hears, that not all generals have been pleased with Sisi’s leadership. The rumor mill has churned with such stories; a bearded taxi driver told me the other day that Sisi had three opposing generals killed.

Fawzi doesn’t want to put stock in rumors, but does notice that several generals have been very quiet. Should one of them undo the coup, it should set in motion what Morsi should have done upon his election. On this he admittedly draws on the rhetoric of Salafi firebrand Hazem Abu Ismail, who argued for a radical cleansing of the state apparatus. Fawzi finds him too divisive a figure, but Morsi could have made it work.

The rest of the article explains how, explains why he discounts Morsi’s opposition, and exculpates Islamists from the attacks on churches. Please click here to continue reading at Egypt Source.

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The People Chose Us: Inside the Mind of the Muslim Brotherhood

Ahmed Kamal
Ahmed Kamal

From my recent article at Egypt Source:

It is a simple matter, really. No matter how many people poured into the streets on June 30 to demand early presidential elections, Mohamed Morsi had a mandate to govern for four years. “We cannot accept the loss of legitimacy because this is not our demand to compromise,” said Ahmed Kamal, youth secretary for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan. “It is the will of Egyptians who chose Morsi in the democratic process.”

Fair enough. But in the mind of his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, he had a mandate for far more. “The people chose us,” he continued. “The Islamic ideology is to apply to the whole of life, and this is the view of our party.” Kamal’s words are punctuated by one of the key issues Morsi’s supporters grasp at: legitimacy. “When Egyptians chose it – and we do not wish to impose it – we cannot accept the idea of jumping over its legitimacy.”

Many commentators over the past year have criticized the Brotherhood for a majoritarian view of democracy. Kamal’s comments appear to bear this out. Morsi’s narrow win in the presidential elections, perhaps coupled with the sizeable Islamist win in parliamentary elections, was enough to confirm and empower the triumph of Islam. In their view, opposing their political project, therefore, is opposing Islam itself.

The interview continues to include Kamal’s views on Christians, martyrdom, and the Brotherhood conception of peaceful protest. Please click here to read the rest of the article at Egypt Source.

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Emigration at Easter: Fight, Flight, and Resignation

From my latest article in Egypt Source, culling attitudes on emigration from a recent trip to Upper Egypt:

Sara Shuhdi
Sara Shuhdi

“I have nightmares every couple of days,” said Sara Shuhdi, a 23 year old assistant professor of analytical chemistry at the German University of Cairo. “I don’t see a bright future for Egypt; maybe it would be better for me if I left.”

Fifty-five days of fasting concluded on Coptic Easter, celebrated this year on May 5 according to the eastern calendar. Always a period of reflection and joy for Egyptian Christians, this year the community is deeper in the former and subdued in the latter.

Here are the photos of each person sharing, with a quote from each:

Fr. Seraphim, an Orthodox priest in Dayrut
Fr. Seraphim, an Orthodox priest in Dayrut

“Of course we must stay here,” he said. “Our history, family, and churches are here – we cannot leave Egypt.”

Emad Awny, a businessman in Asyut
Emad Awny, a businessman in Asyut

“The civil current – Muslims and Christians together – must provide a different way of thought and raise consciousness through business,” he said, “especially in poorer areas susceptible to extremism and ignorance.”

Fr. Kyrillos, an Orthodox priest in Saragna
Fr. Kyrillos, an Orthodox priest in Saragna

“Twenty years ago, I tried to convince Copts not to emigrate, but now because of the bad economy I bless them if they want to go.”

Bishop Thomas of Qussia
Bishop Thomas of Qussia

“I raised people here, trained them, and watched them grow and become productive members of society,” he said. “And then they leave? It is sad.

“I can’t prevent them but I encourage them to stay. I try to speak to their conscience to make their land a better place. Why would someone leave their home and become a foreigner forever?”

The article concludes with a stinging quote by Bishop Thomas for the conscience of humanity; please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.

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Doublespeak beyond Boston: Revealing the Brotherhood’s Arabic Rhetoric

Essam Erian Facebook

From my new article in Egypt Source:

As the world community condemned the recent bombings in Boston, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm joined the chorus.

“The Freedom and Justice Party categorically rejects as intolerable the bombings committed in the US city of Boston,” reported Ikhwanweb, the official English website of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The FJP offers heartfelt sympathies and solemn condolences to the American people and the families of the victims and wishes a speedy recovery to the injured.”

But, as many have complained, in Arabic the thought was different, expressed by a prominent leader on Facebook:

Erian proceeds to establish a timeline of suspicious violence, from Mali to Syria to Somalia to Kurdistan. No further mention is made of Boston, and he is led to questioning.

“Who disturbed democratic transformations, despite the difficult transition from despotism, corruption, poverty, hatred, and intolerance to freedom, justice tolerance, development, human dignity, and social justice?

“Who planted Islamophobia through research, the press, and the media?

“Who funded the violence?”

Erian’s musings on conspiracy are nowhere to be found on the Brotherhood’s English language websites.

But the focus of the article is to highlight a new blog which is translating questionable material on Brotherhood websites, both current and from their archive. It turns up gems like this one:

For example, an FJP article described “a growing case of hatred of the majority of Copts towards Islamists in general,” and “the Coptic spirit of hatred for everything Islamic.” The article concerned anti-Brotherhood chants during the funeral, but failed to condemn the subsequent attacks on the mourners exiting the cathedral.

From the conclusion, describing the blog’s grand goals, but subtle methods:

“Part of our appeal is that we make it very neutral – not in selection, but in translation,” said Carr. “We’re challenging the Muslim Brotherhood, but in an indirect way, we want it to be subtle.”

It is both subtle and a challenge, but Dabh and Carr are committed, expecting either the best – or the worst.

“We’ll continue until the Brotherhood falls or we fall,” said Carr. With a laugh she continued, “Or get shot.”

Please click here to read the full article on Egypt Source, and here to visit the mbinenglish website.

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Women’s Rights through the Printed Word: Extending Liberal Values to Ordinary Women

Tahani al-Gibali
Tahani al-Gibali

From my recent article on Egypt Source:

If liberal values are going to spread in Egyptian society, politics is not the answer. Women are.

“The normal woman has a job, goes to market, and raises her family, but she is not part of a political party,” said Youssef Habib, editor-in-chief of the newly launched women’s magazine Lu’lu’a, or Pearl.

“Most Egyptian women think they are simply a servant in the home,” he continued. “We say no, you are a partner, and you are very important.”

Part of the research for this article included attending a festive gala with prominent Egyptian female personalities, and included the stinging quip below:

The name Lu’lu’a is drawn in comparison with the Egyptian woman. Like the sand in the shell which endures great pressure, she emerges beautiful. This point was made by Fatima Naout, the social and political commentator and self-described godmother of the magazine who is a hero of the liberal cause.

Naout headlined a gala affair hosted by Lu’lu’a to celebrate the launch of the magazine’s first bimonthly edition. Honored guests included luminaries such as Tahani al-Gibali, Lamis Gaber, and Farida al-Shobashi, in addition to Samira Qilada, mother of a January 25 martyred daughter.

Angham al-Gammal, a female co-founder of the magazine with Habib and Latif, also insists the magazine is non-political and does not belong to any particular trend. However true in intention, as Naout spoke of Maryam, Qilada’s daughter, she betrayed the sympathies of almost all in attendance.

“The martyrs have already taken their reward. They have gone to the place of beauty, justice, truth, and light,” she said, “a place where there are no Muslim Brothers.”

But the magazine is also a social initiative with a strong, though controversial message:

Latif hopes to take the subjects of the magazine directly to marginalized communities in at least one meeting per month. As such, he described Lu’lu’a as an initiative more than a simple business venture. Their team recently held an awareness meeting with over 150 teachers and 500 students from four private girls-only high schools. They discussed the importance of self-esteem and education, and the dangers of sexual harassment and early marriage.

Early marriage, in fact, is the cover story for issue one, and received the condemnation of Gaber, whose journalistic commentary includes calling the hijab a devaluation of women.

“If you want to silence a people,” she addressed the gathering, “silence the women, marry them early, and a whole generation will emerge ignorant.”

But lest a conservative public receive this message as godless, the editors assert they have a religious vision as well:

The magazine also seeks to accord with Egyptian religiosity, unwilling to cede the discourse on women to Islamists.

“Our core vision,” said Latif, “is that God created the woman and her value comes from him.”

From the conclusion, holding up the magazine as an example of Egyptian liberals trying to touch the people, whereas political leaders are often seen as elite:

Indeed, the revolution changed Egypt, but more is needed to transform the people. If liberal politics falter here, liberal Egyptians must extend the message themselves – socially.

Please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.