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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Divorce and Authority

Flag Cross Quran

God,

You know best the worth of a woman. You know what is timeless, you know what is cultural.

Help Egypt to know as you do, and act accordingly.

Troubled by rising divorce rates, the president pushed for reform. Hoping a standardized process might curb rash decisions, he asked administrative witness and registration be made mandatory.

But the top religious authority ruled against it. Islamic law permits a woman to be divorced orally, with no witnesses. Registration is advisable that the woman might know her rights. But even at the moment of divorce, neither her consent nor presence are required.

God, you know if this ruling accords with Islam as you intend it. But all agree on the importance of family. Preserve and strengthen this core unit of society. Protect and enable the woman within it.

What is her best role, God? What are her firm rights? Where lie her responsibilities?

Likely unrelated but unmistakably poignant, not long thereafter the president appointed Egypt’s first female governor.

God, you know if this authority accords with Islam as you intend it. To date there has been no noticeable religious criticism. But her governorate is known for Muslim interpretation that limits the public leadership of women.

Bless her in her role, her rights, and her responsibilities.

Bless the president as he seeks to honor women and challenge religious conservatism.

Bless religious conservatives, as they seek to honor you and women according to conscience.

Bless Egypt, that she would find your way amid interpretations.

And bless the Egyptian woman, wherever she is to be found.

Amen.

 

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Ballerinas of Cairo

ballarinas-of-cairo
One of the ballerinas participating in the Ballerinas of Cairo project poses, Cairo, Nov. 11, 2016. (photo by Facebook/ballerinaofcairo)

Al-Monitor highlights a new effort to get art to the street. Ballerinas of Cairo has some great pictures, combining cultural physique with iconic cityscape.

By taking to the streets of Cairo, the young artists have succeeded in breaking the stereotype that ballet is an art form for the upper class only. Despite the dangers of performing on the streets and fears of negative reactions from the public, the ballerinas surprise passers-by with their performances.

When asked about the most difficult shows they performed, Taher said, “The performance in downtown [Cairo] was quite difficult given the heavy traffic, which made it harder for us to shoot. Our objective is an image that shows the beauty of ballet as an art as well as Cairo’s sites.”

According to Fathy, the idea of the project is to combine three art forms: architecture, ballet and photography. So far, Ballerinas of Cairo has performed 11 shows on several streets in Cairo, all of which were photographed.

I can’t say I’m very knowledgeable about ‘the arts’, but I admire the efforts of Egypt’s cultural scene to take their passion to the people. Here are some efforts I’ve highlighted in the past.

Perhaps one day an greater cultural appreciation of art will take hold. But without such efforts to sow seeds even along the roadside, it probably never will.

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Cairo Church Attack Kills 25 at Center of Egyptian Christianity

coptic-cathedral-bombing
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

This article was first published by Christianity Today, on December 11, 2016.

At least 25 people were killed and 49 injured when a bomb exploded around 10 a.m. this morning during a worship service at the spiritual center of Christianity in Egypt.

It is the worst terrorist attack on Copts since the New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria in 2011 that killed 23 people.

A worship service of mostly women was targeted in the St. Peter and St. Paul church, adjacent to the St. Mark’s Cathedral and papal residence of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt and worldwide.

Tawadros was traveling in Greece at the time of the attack. He will cut short his visit and lead funeral prayers tomorrow in the Nasr City district of Cairo.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

“This is an unbelievable act against Egypt first and Christians second,” Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told Christianity Today.

Please click here to read the full story at Christianity Today.

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Let My People Build

This article was published in the November print edition of Christianity Today.

let-my-people-build
(via Coptic Solidarity)

Long live the crescent and the cross!” shouted Egypt’s parliament in joy. All 39 Christian members joined the two-thirds majority to vote to end a 160-year practice instituted by the Ottomans requiring Christians to get permission from the country’s leader before building churches. The long-awaited reform was promised by the 2014 constitution after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

The new law shifts authority into the hands of the governor, who must issue a decision within four months of an application and give detailed reasons for refusals. The law also established a process to retroactively license hundreds of churches erected without a presidential permit.

“It is a good step,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, who helped negotiate the draft law with government officials. “If we wanted an agreement to include everything and please everyone, it would have taken 100 years.

“This is the best we can get right now.”

But even as they celebrated, Christians debated if they failed to fully seize a unique opportunity to pursue equal citizenship…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

 

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Martin Luther King’s Legacy Lives On – Among Egypt’s Battered Liberals

MLK Arabic
Translation: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story; how 5000 black men found a way to end racial discrimination

Egypt’s centre-left secularist party has an unlikely mascot: America’s most famous Baptist preacher, Dr Martin Luther King.

King is the inspiration behind a revival of liberalism in a country where prison awaits street protest of almost any kind.

Selma was the surprise choice of film to launch a new cultural moment in post-revolution Egypt.

The 2014 film chronicles King’s march from a backwater hamlet to the statehouse in Alabama.

‘We chose Selma because it shows how civil rights movements can proceed peacefully,’ said Islam Amin, founder of the Egyptian Cinema Club.

‘We also have suffered crackdowns and violence in the streets. The situation of Selma is like Egypt today.’

[Turning to culture: President of the centre-left ESDP AbulGhar (R), with the father of Egyptian cinema’s ‘new realism’ school, Daoud Abdel Sayed. Photo: ESDP]

Leading politicians attended the screening. One – Mohammed Abul Ghar – believes that as in King’s America only the President can make a difference to Egypt’s oppressive politics, as thinkers, writers, and ‘blasphemers’ find themselves facing lengthy prison sentences.

‘We are clearly against these laws, but the situation is very dangerous,’ said Ghar, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP).

‘It must be the president who will take the step to change them; it is the only way.’

Martin Luther King suffered abuse from citizens and police alike, but his efforts mobilized a nation and culminated in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ESDP, which won only four seats in the 596-member parliament, is frustrated with the path politics is taking.

Following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, ESDP members occupied top posts in government, including prime minister.

But now, says Ghar, there is no government, only ministry heads he calls ‘secretaries to the president’.

So instead politicians are turning to culture.

‘It is hard to play politics these days, but we can still play culture,’ Amin, the ECC founder, said. ‘Culture, philosophy, and art spread tolerance and justice, where fascists and Islamists spread only lies and hate.’

[Logo of the Egyptian Cinema Club. Photo: ESDP]

But coming off the back of Egypt’s experience of political Islam, what chance is there for a Baptist preacher’s example?

Bassem Kamel, head of the political training department in the ESDP, drew three lessons from Selma and the life of King: change requires a long and sustained effort; violence is counter-productive, and to win you must win the people.

Selma also highlights King’s deftness with the media – something the new wave of liberals emulates. They invite popular culture-makers to maximize the attention they get, launching the film club cannily on the UN-designated World Day of Social Justice.

‘Culture and politics have a clear influence on each other,’ said Daoud Abdel Sayed, whose 40-year career in Egyptian cinema was honoured at the screening.

His school of ‘new realism’ emphasizes the modern struggles of ordinary Egyptians. ‘But the problem is the state has transformed culture into something only for élites,’ he says.

Translation

The ESDP’s film club is not the only Egyptian effort to use the memory of Dr King. In 2009, activist Dalia Ziada translated the obscure, 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story into Arabic.

Two years later in 2011 she found herself distributing thousands of copies in Tahrir Square.

‘The book was being smuggled like drugs,’ she told Lapido. ‘The real challenge we are facing now is how to keep the momentum going.

‘But there is no Selma in Muslim Egypt.’

The problem has been a 40-year process of importing a foreign Wahhabi ideology, says Ziada. A moderate, Sufi-style Islam had declined as culture and state turned conservative.

Earlier sheikhs had looked to Europe for inspiration, she said, now they looked to Arabia.

[‘No Selma in Muslim Egypt’: Dalia Ziada. Photo: Andres Alonso Photography]

‘God knows how many years we will have to wait until a 2011 revolutionary comes to power,’ said Ziada, now director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt.

‘But even if it takes forty years, I am sure this day will come,’ she adds, recalling the four-decade interlude between Selma and the election of US President Barack Obama.

Comic

Beyond the comic book there are only eight books in Arabic on the life of Martin Luther King, according to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. But in 2012 he added another: a translation of King’s biography, published by the London-Beirut-based company Dar al-Saqi.

Others agree with Ziada that there is no comparable figure to King in contemporary Egypt. American University in Cairo professor of Arab and Islamic Civilization Mohamed Serag cites nineteenth-century Al Azhar scholar Muhammad Abduh as a  possible model.

One of the founding fathers of Islamic Modernism, Abduh’s students pioneered reforms in politics, economy, and gender equality.

But today, Serag said, poor education and state policy combine to keep another Abduh, let alone a King, from emerging. ‘Despotism is the reason,’ he said. ‘Since 1952 our régimes have controlled society and do not let it prosper.’

ESDP president Abul Ghar cannot envision a change until the collapse of Saudi Arabia and its petrodollar sponsorship of religious conservatism.

‘Egypt is completely polarized,’ he added, ‘and with Islam as a religion it is very difficult. Either you become a radical salafi or you separate Islam from politics completely.’

But pushing pessimism aside, the secular party highlights a Christian minister and continues the grassroots work.

‘Yes, Martin Luther King was a pastor, and we do not have this type of figure in Egypt,’ said Kamel, the political trainer.

‘But I will not wait until we do.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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What Arab Christians Think of Wheaton-Hawkins ‘Same God’ Debate

This article was published at Christianity Today on January 13, 2016.

Hawkings Wheaton Hijab

(from Chicago Tribune)

Larycia Hawkins has a fan in Egypt.

Theresa, the nine-months-pregnant wife of a Coptic Orthodox juice stand owner, could not hide her admiration when told how a Christian professor had donned a hijab in solidarity with Muslims facing prejudice in America.

“It is a beautiful thing she has done, going beyond the norm to better approach others,” she said.

“But it would not work here.”

Her comment came on the heels of her husband Hani’s discomfort. He called the symbolic act “extreme.”

In doing so, the humble man mixing mango and strawberry mirrored the reactions of most regional evangelical and Orthodox theologians to the core question of the Wheaton College dispute: not Hawkins’s hijab, but her “same God” explanation for it. All commended her intentions, but only one—the Palestinian head of a seminary—praised it as a stand for justice.

One pastor called it “excessive.” A bishop, “unnecessary.” And therein lies the rub. Whether considering donning the hijab in solidarity or debating if Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Arab Christians operate in a vastly different religious context.

Only recently have American Christians had to deal with issues raised by Muslims in their midst. The 9/11 tragedy birthed a political culture that seeks unity through theological terms, said Salim Munayer, head of the lauded Musalaha reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem.

“But among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, the discussion is not over whether we worship the same God,” he said, “but rather Muslims challenging us that we worship one God at all.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, and here for CT’s op-ed on the controversy so far.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Coalition

Flag Cross Quran

God,

After campaigning comes positioning. Perhaps after that will come legislating and querying. But help Egypt’s newly elected representatives to get this interim period right.

An effort is underway to draft members into a grand coalition to support the presidency of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This would be consistent, as many campaigned on this very point. They want the Egyptian state to succeed, and believe unity between the executive and legislative branches is essential.

Others suspect an agenda to recreate the non-ideological party that surrounded former President Mubarak. Some even accuse the effort of imitating the Muslim Brotherhood tendency to exclude other voices.

But to a degree, coalitions are necessary. The constitution gives the parliament the right to approve the president’s cabinet. If not, the leading party or coalition has the right to form the government. There is currently no party with a majority.

Therefore, God, be present in all negotiations.

Weigh the motivations of leading and lesser players. Give them discernment against personal interests. Guard them against partisan manipulation. May they politic truly, but politic well.

Support the state, God. Empower just institutions, promote humble individuals.

Help Egypt’s coalitions to move, in time, from people to policies. But may the policies always be conscious of the people.

And soon, regardless of how coalitions emerge, inspire parliament to accomplish its constitutional mandate. Give wisdom in the reviewing of law. Give courage in the accounting of government.

God, with greater stability comes greater responsibility. Fulfill Egypt’s promise, and the many promises she has made. Position her – and her representatives – to do good to many.

Amen.

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Sisi, ISIS, Tunisia, and Arab Spring Values

Sisi - ISIS

In a recent article at Foreign Policy, Iyad el-Baghdadi described the near-eternal and present dichotomy hoisted upon the Middle East: Support a dictator, or his overthrow via violent Islamism. He finds an ironic symbolism in that the names of Sisi and ISIS are spelled backwards, and describes their evils as parallel.

Near the end of the article he reasserts the hope that motivated many in early 2011:

The Arab Spring is about believing that we don’t have to eternally choose between these two evils, and that we can present a real alternative. Arab Spring activists come from across the political spectrum, but they share a belief in fundamental individual rights, coexistence within one political system, and an open marketplace for ideas. These are the people who represent me — and whom I hope to have successfully, if briefly, represented in a public forum.

These are worthy values, and the author was briefly critical of others beside Sisi and ISIS in his critique:

Both extremes are born out of the same twentieth-century political culture that gave us authoritarian interpretations of just about every ideology: authoritarian Islamism, authoritarian nationalism, authoritarian socialism, and even, yes, authoritarian liberalism. Both view human rights not as inviolable or inherent, but as granted by the state, which can then reduce or suspend them at will. And both envision a state in which some people have less rights than others.

…..

Both sides have a deeply exclusionary, “with us or against us” worldview that manifests itself in a profound refusal to coexist with others. In the run-up to the 2012 elections, we saw the Mubarak-associated figure Shafik hint at banning Islamist parties should he get elected; during Morsi’s term we then watched Islamist discourse squeeze the space for civil society.

It would be worthy to dialogue with Baghdadi (the author, not the caliph!) about his opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, for his criticism of them is far less severe, at least in this article. Indeed, he has tweeted and written prolifically, so his analysis is available.

But within the opening quote and listing of values comes a very poignant highlight: the open marketplace of ideas. Egypt did experience this open marketplace during its revolutionary period. With full respect to the diverse forces influencing public opinion, Egyptians overwhelmingly chose the Brotherhood and Salafis over the vision Baghdadi presents. Then, perhaps over and against his vision again, they overwhelming rejected Morsi.

The system that could tolerate this pendulum was never established, and perhaps this is Baghdadi’s lament. If left alone, would the Brotherhood have helped its establishment? Or are they just a milder version of ISIS, focused on a long term Islamization inconsistent with Baghdadi’s vision?

One problem is that the system the Brotherhood helped establish through their 2012 constitution enshrined an illiberalism antithetical to this vision. Shadi Hamid has explored this theme in his writing. Islamist organizations tend to moderate while in opposition, but then revert to their extremes when in power. But if such an illiberalism is what people vote for, if it wins the marketplace of ideas, how does it square with Baghdadi’s desire for fundamental individual rights?

He does not want to be forced back into a dichotomy, and this is noble. But would his vision have been able to triumph over time, allowing the people to reject Morsi four years later? Or eight? Or…

Perhaps, though the argument of urgency on the part of anti-Islamists is well known. To summarize, the Brotherhood would do all it could to sink its teeth into the existing system, to gain control of its levers and use it to their own advantage.

Fair or unfair, there is a distinction between the two current camps in the Egyptian struggle. The ideology of the Brotherhood — at its end goal, not necessarily through its stages or current rhetoric — does not support Baghdadi’s vision.

  • Fundamental individual rights: These are curbed by sharia, however variously defined.
  • Open marketplace of ideas: There are religious norms not allowed to be touched.
  • Coexistence within one political system: …

Here is the rub, and am I trying to find a comparison. A socialist versus capitalist vision of the economy can be very divergent. But European nations have navigated a path that has allowed various governments to traverse the path in different directions.

But how much allowance can there be for a democratic versus communistic approach to the state? Should the open marketplace of ideas, ostensibly welcomed in a democracy, allow momentum to build that would overthrow the system that enshrines it?

This later comparison seems closer to the struggle in Egypt. Liberal forces in Egypt have enshrined liberal values (to a degree) in the constitution, however much they recognize the violations used in putting down pro-Morsi protests, understanding also the violations on the part of certain protestors.

The question for this camp is if it will tolerate, or be able to resist, the continual violation. That is, will they accept reversion to Baghdadi’s dichotomy? The Mubarak regime held forward liberal values for thirty years — and all the while implemented a state of emergency that made it easy to circumvent them.

In all this, perhaps Baghdadi, like many, will find hope in Tunisia. The United States, two centuries ago, began a political experiment that removed religion from the sphere of the state, setting up a system meant to guard liberty and freedom. It has endured numerous contradictions along the years, but has been largely successful.

Now, Tunisia is beginning a political experiment that is seeking to integrate a religious, Islamist element. Will it be successful? Many Tunisians are worried, for in creating a system that allowed coexistence they had to beat back Islamist efforts to encode religion into the constitution. Efforts to do so in 2012 with the Brotherhood were not successful – the Brotherhood chose even more conservative Salafis as their partner. But the Brotherhood and the Tunisian Nahda come from the same family tree.

Is Nahda simply postponing a greater Islamizing goal? But more to the point, perhaps, of Baghdadi’s hope: Will the system created allow for the emergence and entrenchment of his Arab Spring values?

Consider the recent anti-liberal political moves of Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan, after an extended period of winning democratic elections. Will Tunisian Islamists consistently nudge and needle against values they have temporarily accepted? Will fear of a similar Islamist agenda lead to preemptive crackdown against them? Time will tell.

But the experiment is on, and perhaps Baghdadi and other activists frustrated with the dichotomy have a fledgling example of a third way.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Tidying House

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Egypt is trying to redecorate. But beware the house swept clean if it is left unoccupied.

The police force had long been closed to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the revolution opened the door. This week forty students were expelled, for family ties to Brotherhood members. The state had always been wary of infiltration; after a year in public power, it is now easier to find them.

The Azhar was harder to close off to Islamists; conservative Islam can be similar but is not the same. This week 71 students were expelled, for participation in campus protests. The state is seeking calm and a reformed religious discourse; many in disagreement have self-identified.

Downtown Cairo reflected the ethos of the country. Unregulated but entrepreneurial, numerous street cafés catered to fun loving Egyptian. This week many were shut down, pursuant to the law but surely jeopardizing to livelihoods. One café in particular was targeted for its congregating atheists.

And the undercurrent of society had long been left there, undisturbed. But this week the Azhar conducted a ‘count’ of Egypt’s atheists, while the police raided a bathhouse and arrested alleged homosexuals. Politically, commercially, and morally, the nation is housecleaning.

Perhaps. Some say the problems are so entrenched these are only a minor dusting. Others say it misses structural problems altogether.

But even opponents of the state are looking to tidy. Rumors say the Brotherhood is trying to restructure, while Sinai jihadists split over Islamic State affiliation.

God, wash Egypt of all its stains. Repair what is necessary. Gut what is rotten.

Help the police to be of one vision, to serve the law while serving the people. Protect the expelled from unjust accusation, but uncover also if their intentions were ill.

Help the Azhar to be of pure vision, to serve you while serving society. May it navigate well between justice and peace.

Help the economy to stimulate growth, to serve the investor while serving the client. Protect the tax base, but also those of lesser means.

Help the society to stimulate freedom, to serve human rights while it serves cultural norms. May it navigate well between liberty and taboo.

And help state opponents to weigh well their struggle. May they submit to you while submitting to authority, knowing the sometimes difficult balance.

God, you warn when an evil spirit leaves a dwelling, it can come back with seven far worse than itself. No amount of tidying will do, if you do not inhabit it.

Dwell in Egypt, God, and in her people. Dwell in her government, laws, and institutions. Dwell in her culture and commerce. Dwell in her marginalized, and her opponents.

And transform them all. Redeem them. Make Egypt clean.

Amen.

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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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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Travel Bans and Protest Law

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Who is free to come and go? Who is free to stay and protest? Who is authorized to define these rights? Who is permitted to defend them?

This week Asmaa Mahfouz, an original January 25 activist, was prevented from boarding a plane leaving Egypt. But Amr Hamzawi, an original liberal intellectual voice, had his travel ban lifted.

As recognizable names and faces, each has been accused of various offenses against the state in the effort of some to discredit the original revolution. Or, each has committed various offenses in the effort of some revolutionaries to discredit the original state.

Do Asmaa and Amr fall on different sides of this question? Both have certainly called for the right to protest, and engaged in the same.

And as pressure mounts on the government to amend the protest law – six political parties lent their weight – pressure mounts on the government despite it – pro-Morsi protests have ticked somewhat higher.

And within the mix, at least 26 army conscripts were killed as a car bomb hit their checkpoint in Sinai.

God, bring peace to Egypt. Establish a nation in which the right to protest exists with little reason to do so.

Establish a nation in which people are free to come and go, but far more want to come.

Establish a nation in which institutionalized authorities establish liberty, held accountable by a civil society with little to need to defend it.

God, bring Egypt through this phase of struggle and doubt, violence and conspiracy.

Weigh the cases of Asmaa, Amr, and all beside. Judge justly between them and the state.

But give vigilance and integrity to those on both sides of inverse principles. Order and stability, rights and freedoms – for both are social necessities.

Resolve the current conflicts, God. May the struggle be beneficial and all be worthy of respect.

May Egypt prove similarly worthy, God. Honor her among the nations. Honor her among her people.

Amen.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: New Government, Again

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Amid continuing demonstrations by Islamists and supporters of President Morsi, the new Egyptian government is trying to get down to business. What that business should be is another matter.

They must rerun the election process. The country needs a constitution, parliament, and president, laws to set them in motion, and a campaign to convince the public it is worth their while to vote. Many are understandably skeptical.

They must solve the quandary of the economy. Newly received monies from the Gulf will buy some time, but the challenges Morsi could not solve will not go away. Maintain mountains of inefficient subsidies and the nation will go broke; eliminate them and the nation will buckle under.

They must achieve national reconciliation with a divided population. Most obvious are Islamists horrified by the turn of events, but in the background are old regime supporters demonized the past two years, and revolutionaries horrified by the reentry of the military. How can all these find common cause?

And within these three, God, they must prioritize. Perhaps it can also be said they must truly pursue each one – many doubt the rhetoric.

God, Egypt has been spinning its wheels, and a new set of men – some recycled – get at chance of getting things right. Help them, even as many argue over their legitimacy to be there in the first place.

Help them to amend the constitution to the approval of all, setting the rules of the game with fairness and equity. Encourage the people; help them to grasp the reins of government and not cede it idly through frustration.

Help them to make the hard decisions to put Egypt’s economy on solid footing. Give them wisdom for how that can be done, and wisdom on how to communicate it to the people. If sacrifices must be made, may they result in the betterment of the poor, the industrious, and the average man.

Help them to be humble with critics from all angles. What is reconciliation, God? Why should the Muslim Brotherhood engage again, except perhaps to win again and govern even more exclusively? Surely reconciliation is not this, nor is it their exclusion from the process. Help the Brotherhood, also, to be humble and recognize their mistakes and ambition. But whatever reconciliation is, it cannot be without all parties involved. For two years, God, they failed to come together; help them all to do so now.

Otherwise, God, we may soon see another government attempt all the above, again.

Whether them, this one, or any to come, God, give Egypt success.

Amen.

 

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Textbook Study Debunks Myth of Palestinian Incitement

From the Monitor, exposing a oft-unquestioned assumption that Palestinian students are educated with hatred toward Jews:

Three years in the making at a cost of $500,000, the U.S. State Department–funded report explores textbooks issued by the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and religious bodies. The research, overseen by Sami Adwan from Bethlehem University and Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University and designed by Yale psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler, examined 94 Palestinian and 74 Israeli schoolbooks published between 2009 and 2011.

The study was carried out under the auspices of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, a Jerusalem-based body representing Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders. A team of Palestinians and Israelis trained by Adwan and Bar-Tal conducted the research, which involved going through books used in West Bank and Gaza Strip schools run by the PA, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and religious bodies. On the Israeli side, the research examined books used in secular and religious schools run by the state and others catering to the needs of ultra-Orthodox students.

 
First, the objection:

Despite the report’s evenhandedness, it was boycotted by Israel’s Ministry of Education, which slammed it as “biased, unprofessional, and significantly lacking in objectivity.” The ministry issued a statement that said, in part, “The clear impression formed is that it is a ‘study’ with findings that were predetermined even before it was carried out professionally, and it certainly does not reliably reflect reality.” 

Speaking at the Jerusalem press conference where the study was released, Professor Wexler described the ministry’s statement as “false at every level,” adding, “The Israeli government would rather hold on to a propaganda claim [it] know[s] to be false than to get change in Palestinian books.”

 
Negative portrayals of the other do exist, but exist on both sides:

The report rebutted claims that Palestinian schoolbooks used highly negative depictions, noting that these were extremely rare. For example, the researchers flatly denied allegations that Palestinian books contained “calls to go murder Jews” or “praise of those who murder Jews.” In fact, the study only found six examples in the textbooks “that were rated as portraying the other in extreme negative ways other than as the enemy, and none of these six were general dehumanizing characterizations of personal traits of Jews or Israelis.” Twenty extremely negative depictions were found in the Israeli state books and 7 in the ultra-Orthodox books.

 
Here is their conclusion about the problem:

The research concluded that both sides’ books were “guilty” of using a selective narrative that undermined the story of the other, which the researchers said is not unusual in conflict areas.

 
There lies the rub. Neither side will acknowledge the legitimacy of the other frame of reference, which is generally proper, as they are contradictory. Achieving peace will ask both sides to lessen their grip on the ‘rightness’ of their cause, but will certainly ask them both to give up demonizing the other.
 
If this report is to be trusted, Palestinian schools have largely done so; Israeli propaganda has not.
 
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Albert Saber: The Brotherhood will Drive the People to Secularism

From Daily News Egypt:

Albert Saber recently fled Egypt on the eve of his conviction to a three year prison sentence for blasphemy. He is of Christian background, but is a public atheist. The following are quotes from the article, do read the whole thing.

How did you decide to become an atheist?

My journey towards this decision was in the period between 2001 and 2005. I had decided that I would not simply inherit religion. Faith here is hereditary; if your parents are Christian, you’re Christian. You have it written on your birth certificate before you can even think. And it is the same for Muslims.

In 2001 I decided to read about other religions. My thinking at the time was that I was born a Christian but I had not actually decided that for myself nor had I considered other religions. I felt like there could be a chance that my religion is the wrong one and that God would punish me for it since I did not seek out all the options first.

I spoke to a lot of people, including religious leaders and clerics from several faiths, I read a lot of books, and eventually I realised that religion was merely a way to find God, but that there were so many different religions, and even inside each religion there were many sects, so why did each claim a monopoly on God? Why did they all claim they were going to heaven and everyone else was not?

The circle then started to get wider. When I first started this journey I felt that religion could be easily disputed but I still believed in the existence of a god, so I had a limit, which was the existence of a creator deity. After reading and researching the issue I started to break out of this limit and think that there might not even be a god at all. I eventually decided that it did not make sense to me and I became an atheist.

Did you face any difficulties in the decision to go public with it?

The Islamists in university subjected me to three assassination attempts.

Their leader and I had a political discussion once on the train and we became friends, I did not know who he was but my friends told me later.

After that I started to gain a reputation for my views that are critical of religion, mostly because of what I said in comparative religion classes. The Islamist youth leader decided that I was too dangerous.

He started sending members of his group after me, they constantly tried to start fights with me so that they could beat me up but I would not rise to their taunts and my friends were also looking out for me.

How, realistically, can Egypt become a secular state, especially in light of Islamist domination of the public sphere?

We have a movement here in Egypt called “secularists” for example and they take to the streets and raise awareness about the issue. I believe in confrontation. I used to debate Muslim Brotherhood members on secularism before the presidential elections.

However, the way to achieve state secularism is through raising awareness. It is the same way we were able to revolt. We raised awareness amongst the people that we are not just silly youth and that our demands were for their benefit. Eventually they joined us or at least stopped opposing us.

Everyone in Egypt is talking politics right now. We should start political campaigns explaining what the word “secularism” actually means. We need to explain separation of religion and state and how the state is an institution and cannot adopt a specific religion. We need to explain things like dictatorship of the majority and how democracy also means protecting the rights of minorities.

Will Muslim Brotherhood rule lead to a religious state, or will it backfire and lead the people to reject religious rule and form a secular state?

I think this has already started. As soon as the Brotherhood appeared openly on the political scene they needed allies such as the Salafis, Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya, and jihadist groups. They all allied because they speak in the name of religion.

These allies started making a lot of mistakes due to their political inexperience. The people started to reject their domination and move towards secularism. The people are now much more critical of religious leaders and feel that they no longer have a monopoly on religion.

This will lead to a secular state without the people even calling it that.

 

 

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Two Years of a Shrunken State

From the Arabist:

This is a useful follow-up to the previous post on diplomacy:

Perhaps the only viable way to get the state to function is for the Brothers to offer the opposition enough reassurance that major political forces together could reach consensus on the illegitimacy of violent protest. If Egypt’s political forces acted in unison — a general appeal for order, or for justice to take its course, or for disputes to be resolved in parliament rather than in the street — these have a powerful calming effect. The Interior Ministry, for example, has called for such an appeal to “patriotic forces” to calm Port Said.

The opposition would probably not try to coax protesters out of Tahrir, nor would it be necessary — the square can probably remain an open-air museum of the revolution as the state rebuilds itself elsewhere. But a joint appeal for order would at least contain street violence and push Egypt’s flare-ups of violence to become less frequent and bloody.

The opposition knows however that to stand alongside the Brothers would be handing Morsi a major concession. The National Salvation Front has demanded as the price for its cooperation that a committee be empowered to amend the constitution. If Morsi’s objective in pushing through the constitution in December was to provide some security for his administration — ie, to prevent the Supreme Court’s from topping off its dissolution of parliament by pushing Morsi out of office, as Brothers said they suspected might happen — then perhaps he would take that risk.

But the first articles targeted would be ones that circumscribe civil rights with religion. The Brothers have in theory agreed to revisiting the constitution. If the Brothers are committed to aggressively Islamicizing society, or if they are worried about having their Islamic credentials challenged by the Salafis, they aren’t going to give the opposition what it wants.

This is an excellent analysis of why the opposition is being somewhat mum on all the street violence. Conspiracy will say they started it, but they are not standing in the way. In fact, rightly in a sense, they lay the burden of responsibility on the state. Ongoing violence is a function of state ineptitude and political intransigence.

So after sidelining the opposition to get what they wanted (i.e. the constitution), Morsi now calls them back for dialogue – but as above – will he be willing to pay the price? It is as if the opposition is saying: You cheated to get your constitution, we’ll cheat to take it back.

Islamists may say the opposition has been cheating from the beginning, but this only opens up the conspiracies even further, which most liberals are happy to slap back at the Brotherhood. It gets Egypt nowhere.

The only thing that will, as the author suggests, is consensus. Can it be found? If not, what is the price?

 

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Christian Center Opens in Iraq

From Ahram Online:

Authorities on Sunday opened what they billed as the first Christian cultural centre in Iraq in a decade, despite a dramatic decline in the country’s once significant Christian population.

The building was inaugurated in the northern city of Kirkuk, home to a diverse population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, and is to host conferences and meetings to promote inter-faith communications between the city’s Muslim and Christian communities.

“This centre is the first of its kind in Iraq since 2003, it sends a message of peace, and promotes the language of dialogue,” said Louis Sakho, Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk. “The communities of Kirkuk are one family,” he added.

Construction of the cultural centre, which lies next to Kirkuk’s Chaldean church, began in early 2012 and was completed at a cost of around $305,000, officials said.

Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest of its kind in the world, but they suffered persecution, forced flight and killings in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.

Before 2003 there were more than a million Christians living in Iraq. Now they number around 450,000.

Half a community lost in a decade, a nation ruined during the same period (and before). All from a demagogue’s pride, a superpower’s dismantling, and a divided people’s sectarianism.

Perhaps this small step will represent an effort to rebuild from anew, inclusively.

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Witnesses, Survivors Recount Egypt’s Deadly Badrashin Train Crash

On the horrible accident near Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, from Ahram Online:

Hours after the tragic train crash that killed at least 19 passengers and injured scores of others in the Giza suburb of Badrashin, victims’ relatives and police officials remained gathered at the scene and a military helicopter hovered overhead.

The 12-carriage train, which was carrying 1,328 Central Security Forces (CSF) conscripts, mostly around 20 years old, had been travelling en route to Cairo from Upper Egypt. The conscripts had been preparing for their first military training, when two railway cars – each carrying over 200 soldiers – derailed, hitting a cargo train sitting outside a storage depot.

According to one, the overcrowding may have saved his life, though it surely killed others:

“On the truck I was in, one injured passenger had a broken leg; his leg hung by the skin only. Another had his nose broken, while a third had suffered broken ribs. I’m one of the lucky ones who had been sitting with five others in seats fit for two. Others were crammed into the upper shelves usually reserved for baggage. Those are the ones who died.”

We have traveled by train several times to Upper Egypt, but always in first or second class. Even there, some passengers are allowed to enter and stand in the aisles and open spaces near the door. In other cars we see how people are crowded together, though never this severely.

But on the whole, we have always found train travel in Egypt to be smooth and economical, even when someone in the aisle has his elbow in your ear leaning on the back of the chair. Usually they are kind enough to adjust. I wonder what sort of ticket they bought, if any, and why the attendant allows them to stay.

On the other hand, there is weird and uncomfortable sense of entitlement when we see them crammed in, yet my six year old daughter has a seat. We did pay for it, right?

I remember my days in university, when I would sit in the corner of the train on a huge bag of laundry, traveling from Washington, DC back home to New Jersey. I wonder how many passengers I annoyed.

May God rest the souls of those who died and comfort the many injured. May he guide the government in fixing Egypt’s many problems. Mercy.

 

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My Jihad: This Video will Restore your Faith in Humanity

The title is a little bit much (to be explained below), but it is a nice scene. The video is taken from a Christmas celebration in Kasr el-Dobara Church in downtown Cairo, right behind Tahrir Square. The imam of Tahrir’s mosque pays a visit to wish his Christmas greetings to a congregation that shared with him the trials and courage of the revolution. The video is 15 minutes long, and subtitled, but you don’t have to watch the whole thing to get the gist.

Please click here to go to YouTube.

The gesture is very important in contemporary Egypt, as the Salafi current of Islam has forbidden Muslims to wish Christians a merry Christmas. On one hand this is fine – why should they honor a supposed incarnation they reject?

On the other hand it is horrible – it strikes at the fabric of national unity which has been nurtured in Egypt over generations, amid instances of sectarian tension. Every Egyptian knows their religions are not the same, but they greet each other warmly nonetheless.

But if there is one comment against the video, its production (not its content) strikes too much as propaganda in the other direction. ‘My Jihad’ is an English language campaign designed to redefine the American understanding of jihad.

Again, this is well and good. Jihad does encompass the meaning of warfare for the cause of Islam. But it also, and for most Muslims around the world who are at war with no one, signifies the struggle to improve one’s soul and the world around them. It would serve many Americans well to be more aware of this.

But using Egypt as an example to restore faith in humanity? Directly after a campaign for their constitution laden with religious rhetoric, much of which labeled their opponents – and sometimes Christians – as unbelievers and the enemy? As the war cry ‘Allahu Akbar’ rang out from podiums urging the triumph of God’s religion?

Do not make these worrisome developments out to be more than they are, but do not make this appearance of a sheikh in a church out to be more than it is, either. Yes, it is a necessary and valuable gesture, received to great applause by the Christian audience.

But if one wishes to be cynical, after Islamists used religion to divide Egypt and get their constitution, may they now want to use religion (and religious unity) to govern from the center amid expected economic difficulties? Even if not, forgive the nation’s Christians and non-Islamist Muslims for feeling rather jaded.

These events are far removed from the American consciousness, which is generally ready to move on from Egypt after being consumed with its transition for the past two years. It is hoped the My Jihad campaign, as necessary as it must be, is not painting a purposefully imprecise picture to take advantage.