Archbishop of Canterbury Rev. Justin Welby visited the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Cairo and opened his sermon with a surprising comparison. Earlier he visited Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb, and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.
“It has been an interesting and useful day,” the archbishop told the packed cathedral of his high profile itinerary, “but worshipping with you is the most important part.
“Here we meet with Jesus Christ and become his witnesses.”
Welby’s visit was to offer condolences for Egypt’s most recent witnesses, the twenty Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian martyred in Libya in February. The word ‘martyr’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘witness.’
Symbolically, Welby delivered to Pope Tawadros twenty-one letters written by grieving British families. One is believed to have been related to David Haines, the aid worker captured in Syria and beheaded last year.
“Why have the martyrs of Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” Welby asked. “The way these brothers lived and died communicated that their testimony is trustworthy.”
But an unfortunate symbolism coincided his visit with the release of another video from the Islamic State in Libya, this time of Ethiopian Christians. Two groups totaling twenty-eight people were martyred, one beheaded and the other shot in the head.
Welby paid tribute to them, along with others killed for their faith in Kenya and Nigeria.
He noted the certainty of their resurrection, but stated, “We must grieve for them, support their families, and seek to change the circumstances that lead to their deaths.”
Welby’s sermon did not go into specifics, but he has earlier defended military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while urging local governments to exercise their mandated use of force to restore order.
And concerning the flood of refugees to the region, “Europe as a whole must stand up and do what is right,” he told the BBC, and share the burden of accepting them.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, over 125,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt. Refuge Egypt, a social service arm of the Anglican Church in Egypt, extends food and medical care to those the UNHCR designates as of particular concern.
Welby praised the Christians of the Middle East for their trustworthy witness. But in order to be communicated, it must be acted out.
“If the church hears the world’s cries for help, but turns its back,” he said, “they will not believe in the love of Christ.”
Visiting with President Sisi, the archbishop heard him emphasize that Egyptian Christians are not a minority, but enjoy their full rights as all other Egyptian citizens.
Visiting with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, he heard that love and mercy are the two elements that must characterize both international and human relations, and that the true picture of Islam and Christianity must be presented to the world.
“When a community is full of light,” Welby said in his sermon, “people will see through it and perceive God, and know they are loved by Christ.”
During communion, he sought to demonstrate this. Aware the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic bishops present could not share in full fellowship, Welby went to them and knelt down, asking for a blessing. In response, the two reciprocated and each prayed for the other in turn.
So many are having hard times in this region, Welby said, he wanted to come and offer condolences. Finishing his sermon, hepromised the audience that he was praying for them in the Middle East, but closed with a request of his own, for the West.
“Please pray for us, that in our comfort we do not forget to be faithful witnesses.”
Last summer the body of Hisham Rizk turned up in a Cairo morgue. The 19 year old graffiti activist had been missing for a week, and the official autopsy labeled him as having drowned in the Nile River.
No further information was given on the English language Ahram Online. But withholding comment only fuels speculation – rampant among many revolutionary activists – that the security apparatus is coming after them. Orchestrated to begin on Police Day, the January 25 revolution humiliated them but now is the time for payback. So goes the theory.
Rizk was a member of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street Graffiti Union, whose images are among the few to remain prominently displayed in Cairo. They are at the site of terribleclashes in November 2011, between protestors and police on a side-street off Tahrir. They contributed also to the rift between revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, who did not participate in defense of the square.
The Brotherhood has since suffered its own terrible losses at the hand of police. Though these groups share a common enemy, there is little sympathy offered. During their year in power the Brotherhood marred revolutionary icons and dismissed the ongoing struggle with the military and security apparatus, with whom these activists say they readily accommodated.
News of Rizk’s death reminded me of my last visit to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, several weeks earlier. President Sisi was not yet elected, though his victory seemed inevitable. An interview subject postponed our meeting two hours, so I had lunch in McDonalds facing the ubiquitous graffiti.
To pass the time I alternated between reflecting on the images and reading ‘A Theology of Liberation,’ tucked away in by bag to read on the metro. It was written by Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Latin American priest who demanded that Christianity pursue justice for the poor, as reflected in the character of God. For Gutiérrez, the cross of Christ represented the total involvement of God in the suffering of mankind. As such, Jesus identified with all victims, and his resurrection presages their own, toward which his followers must strive.
Consider then the following picture, as seen behind the bars of McDonalds, while eating French fries and a cheeseburger from the Egyptian equivalent of the dollar menu:
Here is the image in question:
The three crucified pairs of legs are covered by a belt bearing the name ‘Central Security,’ the revolutionary activists’ archenemy. What is not clear to me is what the symbolism means. Are these the victims of police, mocked and tagged with state insignia? Or have the police themselves been stripped, hung, and crucified? Does the image commemorate, or anticipate?
If the former, it is a remarkable statement of the power of Christian imagery within a revolutionary struggle of Muslim majority. Islam rejects the cross of Christ, believing instead God saved Jesus from the humiliation of crucifixion at the hands of his enemies. But the clashes and aftermath of Mohamed Mahmoud represent a losing moment for these activists. To depict their suffering they drew a cross.
To my knowledge there is no revolutionary graffiti of an empty tomb. They can hardly be blamed; they have had no victory. Initially pleased with the military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, many now see in President Sisi the restoration of the security state. But some Christian revolutionaries have spoken of how they comforted their Muslim colleagues with tales of Jesus. Struggle involves suffering, they said, and perhaps even death. But victory comes as God resurrects.
This is how most non-revolutionary Egyptian Christians view the emergence of President Sisi. They, with millions of Muslims beside, project upon him the image of savior. He is the answer to their prayers, the remover of the Muslim Brotherhood.
And now it is the Brotherhood which is now being crucified, though this particular image is not found on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Their opponents might cite a different Biblical parallel in the story of Esther. Following the failure of his plot to exterminate the Jews, Haman was hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai.
Instead, the graffiti interpretation is possible that it is security which receives its comeuppance. A triumphant revolutionary movement finally secures the reins of power and holds the police accountable for its crimes. Their execution is in order. Perhaps the picture draws on Islamic imagery: Crucifixion is among the punishments commanded for those who sow discord in the land.
Liberation theology anticipates such a grand reversal. Salvation is not simply from personal sin, but from the corruption of society which binds the poor in their place. Certain strands of this theology call for participation in the necessarily violent struggle to overthrow the powers-that-be.
Certainly those who fear God should be involved in the pursuit of justice. The question is how best to interpret justice, and where on the spectrum of participation a red line should be drawn.
But the alternate interpretations of the graffiti – whether identifying the Brotherhood or the security on the cross – should not be tolerated. Neither is consistent with the Jesus who cried out, ‘Father forgive them,’ according to the Biblical account. Jesus intended his crucifiers also to be beneficiaries of the liberation he offered.
For according to Christian theology, his crucifixion was the wisdom of God to put right the universe. This is not the case for Hisham Rizk, even if he drowned a martyr. It is not the case for any of the revolutionaries who have died for their cause. They represent a tragedy, a reminder of a world not yet put right. Whether one fights nobly, foolishly, or not at all, death is still the reality for everyone amid extensive injustice.
But to put it right, God expects his followers to work for justice in the face of death, unafraid. Such is the glory of a martyr, who will receive God’s compensation in reward of uncompromising faith. Many revolutionaries have been motivated by this promise.
The hope of liberation theology is that the promise is greater still. It is that through crucifixion resurrection comes. This is certainly true of personal Christian theology. It is only through death to self and identification with Christ on the cross that God’s life can inhabit an individual, in this world and the next. But is it true for society as well?
Here, liberation theology appears to be of two minds. For one, the answer is yes: We struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed and whether or not we die, we await God who will put right all things through our sacrifices.
For another, the answer is no: It is obvious our idealistic struggles fail, so we must in a sense crucify the other and wrest power from him. Then we can put right all things in view of what God has commanded.
The first is of faith, perhaps naïve. The second is of pragmatism, perhaps ungodly. Where in this analysis is Egypt?
Perhaps Sisi has put all things right. Perhaps he is struggling to do so. Perhaps he only pretends, putting all things wrong.
Let each Egyptian judge, mindful of the following: Faith must be lived in the world, but the ways of the world must not sideline the convictions of faith. Countenance no manipulation, and avoid no crucifixion.
Securing the first assures God’s blessing; enduring the second enables God’s liberation. Such is the hope of faith.
Even as I type I am filled with dread should such hope prove empty. If Hisham Rizk died an inopportune death, where is the liberation to follow? Is it found in his enduring images on Mohamed Mahmoud Street? Is there some collective cosmic tally to which he contributes?
Perhaps. Paul wrote that his sufferings filled up what was lacking in the suffering of Christ. Jesus said his followers would do even greater works than himself. An earlier prophet summed up all requirements: Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.
The world will not be put right until God puts it right. But God desires us to put it right in the meanwhile, flawed and incomplete our efforts will inevitably be.
Wherever Egypt is along the path of progress, she has not yet arrived. Blessings to all Egyptians who seek to move her forward.
A scant eighty feet from St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Port Said, two small bombs exploded last month. Despite the second detonation being delayed until after a crowd had gathered and police were summoned, no one was killed. Even so, it is one more mark of an insurgency aiming to destabilize Egypt.
‘It is a psychological message that terrorism is near you,’ said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas, the local priest.
Fortunately, despite the hundreds killed in the waves of protest and violence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt has not suffered the horrors witnessed in Syria and Iraq. But throughout the region struggles over political power are mixed with sectarian rhetoric that targets religious minorities.
‘Some people try to stoke the flames of hate,’ said Ghattas of his otherwise idyllic Mediterranean city, ‘to turn them against their Christian neighbour and get them to leave their homes.’
But unlike Syria and Iraq, Egypt has an antidote. It is embryonic in development, but carries promise to resist the regional trends. It is the Egyptian Family House, created by Al-Azhar University and Coptic Orthodox Church to resist the sectarian pull and preserve national unity between Muslims and Christians. Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are also included.
Egypt’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Pope Shenouda were distraught after the 2010 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, and worried when extremists declared they were coming for Egypt next. In 2011 the Family House received official approval, though the 25 January revolution delayed much of the work of setting it up.
‘National unity’ has long been a rally cry of the Government, which paraded imams and priests in official ceremonies, exchanging hugs and kisses at the highest levels. But on the street ordinary Egyptians would grumble. Neighbourly relations were ample and interreligious friendships not uncommon, but a sectarian spirit was latent in many and easily exploited.
By contrast, the Family House was authorised to extend national unity in two directions. First, it was given authority to interact directly with cabinet ministers to address policies that result in division. Committees were created to tackle religious discourse, educational curriculum, media coverage, and youth affairs, among others.
But second, the Family House has authority to replicate itself in branches throughout the country at the grassroots level. One of the most dynamic early initiatives aims to supply the raw materials in this effort.
January 2012 witnessed the launching of a three-year programme to bring together imams and priests in common cause. Paired off, they live together for three days, four times a year, while as a group of 70 they receive training in dialogue and practical partnership. The programme takes them to historic religious sites, churches, and mosques, which for many represents the first time to step foot in a house of worship of a religion not their own.
The project was run through Al Azhar. Hailed as a bastion of moderate Islamic thought, it aimed to counter sectarian trends in Egypt and coordinated the supply of imams. The Orthodox offered the largest percentage of priests, and each other denomination chose their multiple participants.
Midway through the first year the Family House received sizeable psychological encouragement from the highest levels. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew President Morsi following widespread demonstrations, began publicly speaking of the need to address sectarianism.
‘I pledge to implement mechanisms that will reform religious discourse,’ said Sisi, ‘so that Egyptians don’t witness any more violence.
‘I personally have lived and grown up in a town where problems between Muslims and Christians were nonexistent, but radical extremism has caused division.’
This division was not easily overcome. One Christian participant accused the Muslims of lack of hospitality – a great insult in the Arab world – as he accused them of hoarding welcoming food and drinks intended for the whole group. Some said that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church.
‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director. ‘They can be very hardheaded, as everyone thinks they are right.’
Slowly attitudes began to change. Bishop Yohanna Gulta of the Coptic Catholic church gave an address on the Trinity, demonstrating its essential monotheism. This message was confirmed by a respected Muslim scholar, after which some of the more sceptical imams began to mellow, Wassef said.
Particularly pleased was Fr. Mikhail Thabit, a Coptic Catholic priest in 6 October City outside of Cairo. Before relocating north he served 23 years in Hegaza, 570 kilometres deep in the often sectarian-laden provinces of Upper Egypt.
‘It was a Judas kiss,’ he said of his previous official gatherings with sheikhs, which he described as playacting. But with participants in this exchange he felt a real warmth develop as they joked together.
‘Just because we are different it is not the end of the world,’ he said. ‘Instead, the differences enrich us if we get to know each other.’
Between official meetings, many participants did. For some this involved only the phone calls offered for religious holidays, though the recognition of Christmas and Easter even as social occasions was often a great challenge. But Sheikh Ali Abdel Rahman of Fayoum welcomed Orthodox priest Fr. Mityas to his home to visit his sick wife. For many conservative Muslims female members of the household are strictly off limits to anyone but relatives.
‘God bless all of your work for the sake of our country and our children,’ lectured the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishak, who welcomed the imams and priests to the cathedral for one of the sessions.
‘But it is very important that this reaches the people so that they can see it, be influenced by it, and be changed.’
One of the most revolutionary acts of the group was simply to walk the streets together. Some priests complained when they walk alone some will curse and even spit upon them. But as they strolled the streets of Cairo in a group, onlookers gaped in astonishment, and seeming admiration. At the Coptic Museum a school group ran up to greet the imams and priests together, and demanded a picture.
‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious Murid, a Coptic Catholic priest in Fayoum, ‘and if they see a priest and an imam together it influences them to work together and overcome fanaticism.
‘These displays of love are like the leaven that spreads through the whole community.’ He hopes a Family House branch will soon be established in his city.
Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican Church in Egypt urged at the close of the second year of Family House sessions that this would not be the last meeting between participants. Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, asked the same.
And if year one is any indication, it is a developing project. Regional branches of the Family House were created in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Luxor, among others, though many cities have yet to show interest.
One city that did, however, is Port Said. There, Fr. Ghattas was able to directly intervene and prevent a Coptic family from being forced from their home.
A neighborhood scuffle between teenagers led to the hurling of insults and broken arms. The Muslim family’s home was full of knives, while the Christians – after fleeing for a week – called on relatives who brought guns.
But the potentially explosive situation was diffused when Ghattas pressed upon both families in the name of the Family House. The Christian family was primarily at fault, he judged, and led both in the acceptance of a reconciliation sacrifice. Two sheep were slaughtered and peace prevailed.
‘Jesus and Mohamed both call [for us] to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim, Ghattas’ close collaborator in Port Said.
In a region torn by strife and religious intolerance, the Family House has accepted this challenge, to keep this harm from Egypt.
This article was originally published in the 13 December, 2014 print edition of The Tablet, but is currently behind an online paywall. It is reproduced here with permission.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not been shy about the need to reform religious discourse and relations. He is concerned about how the image of Islam has been marred by Muslims themselves, and how extremist thought has torn the fabric of Muslim-Christian unity. Visiting the Coptic Orthodox cathedral on Christmas Eve, he told the cheering audience, “We will build Egypt together. We will love each other, so the people can see.”
If these words are to become reality, the president may have a tool in an organization called the Egyptian Family House.
The article then describes the basic structure and activity of the Family House, which is mandated both to advise government ministers and replicate itself at the grassroots level. I have writtenaboutthis before from Cairo, but here is an excerpt from Alexandria:
But examination of the Alexandria branch, established in December 2012 as one of the first regional chapters, shows that these efforts, while promising, are challenged by the precedent of people of different faiths not often working together.
In Alexandria, the governor provided the Family House with a building and four employees from the public payroll. The approximately 100 members meet once a month and work with deputies from the local ministries of culture, health, and social solidarity to plan how to collaboratively serve disadvantaged populations.
But at the same time, the Alexandria branch has been slow to organize activities. One conference on citizenship was held in the presence of the governor, but attracted an audience of only 150. The branch’s family committee has also conducted two visits to lower income neighborhoods, presenting a positive image of religious unity. But little else has been done. Members are encouraged to travel together to each monthly meeting to display their cooperation publicly, but only around half are doing so, according to Father Boulos Awad, co-head of the branch.
Even within the Family House, the culture of separation and ignorance of the religious other has not been easy to overcome. Awad explained that the members have spent much of their time getting to know each other and learning how to communicate. While many imams and priests in the organization have succeeded in forging friendships—calling each other on holidays, for example—they have reported few examples of practical cooperation.
A non-clerical member of the Alexandria branch added that the deliberate pace of the group’s activities reflects the nature of the members in that they are not pragmatic, fast-acting professionals and have the mentality of religious caution. But he and Awad both agree that the participants have good intentions, and they anticipate greater success in the years to come.
Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.
Very important but under-reported news in this article from al-Ahram Weekly:
Recent developments suggest the possibility of a thaw in relations between the state and political Islam. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi recently met with three members of the Dissident Muslim Brothers, a breakaway group from the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is also a reconciliation initiative, proposed by Tarek Al-Bishri, between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The legal scholar, known to be close to the Islamist trend, hopes the initiatives will attract Saudi backing.
After describing recent incidents of terrorism, the article provides perspective from the former Brothers:
Speaking to the press following the meeting between Al-Sisi and Dissident Muslim Brothers, Tharwat Al-Kharbawi said those attending agreed that a reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is unrealistic.
Al-Kharbawi described the three-hour meeting as “an extraordinary meeting with an extraordinary man …You can rest assured that Egypt is in good hands. But we all have to work together to ensure he is not left alone.”
In the background are discussions with Brotherhood members in detention:
Al-Zafrani (ex-MB) told the press that the statements of repentance issued by some detainees was discussed. He said Al-Sisi welcomed the recantations. He quoted the president as saying that the principle of revision, admission of mistakes and repentance is acceptable as long as those issuing the declarations have not committed criminal acts.
Security sources report a growing number of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members are renouncing their membership of the group. Muslim Brotherhood leaders deny there is any such trend.
As for the reconciliation initiative, Bishry revealed it to a Turkish newspaper:
He also spoke of the January revolution, parliamentary elections and the importance of safeguarding the Egyptian state. “The continued existence of the state in Egypt is vital … we must preserve and perpetuate it through the participation of the people,” he said.
Al-Bishri argued that the ongoing conflict in Egypt is between three forces: the state and its backbone the army; Islamists and their grassroots organisations; and liberal elites who control the media. “The state, which is the strongest, should reach out to all,” he said.
Brotherhood dissidents dismiss Al-Bishry, finding him inclined to the Brotherhood above all.
After describing the long prison sentences given to many Brotherhood leaders, the article concludes with its analysis. The two sides are simply positioning:
In the confrontation between the state and political Islam, pressure is being sustained, on the one side, by long prison terms for Muslim Brotherhood leaders. On the other, there are bombings and violence being carried out by anti-state, pro-Islamist forces, considered by the state to be linked to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
It is a game of nerves in which each side is seeking to strengthen its hand for whatever negotiations eventually ensue.
Certainly, Al-Sisi’s meetings with leaders from breakaway Muslim Brothers and reports that the new Saudi monarch is eager to settle the situation in Egypt suggest some form of social, if not political, reconciliation is increasingly likely.
Right or wrong in this conclusion, the article is worthy of consideration.
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.
As Egypt mourns the victims killed by the so-called Islamic State branch in Libya, the Coptic Orthodox cathedral has been a center of attention. Every day the official spokesman has issued press releases and pictures updating the situation; all photos that follow are credited to the Coptic Media Center.
The link given above is to the Facebook page of the official spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which contains pictures of many other visits.
Christians in Egypt have taken great comfort in the expressions of sympathy from state and Muslim citizens alike. It is a difficult time for the church, but the tragedy is serving to unite the nation.
‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’
Four years have passed since Egypt’s revolution began in 2011. They have been inspiring years; they have been difficult years. Some say they have resulted in much good; some say they have resulted in a restoration of the bad.
But millions of Egyptians simply a desire a restoration of the normal. The state is striving to deliver, as stability will cement the current political reality. Those opposed are trying to disrupt it, and herein lies the clash.
The news is full of evidence on both sides. Jihadist groups are waging a war against the state, killing policemen and soldiers with unfortunate regularity. And a day before the revolution anniversary a peaceful leftist march to Tahrir square was met with the violence of the state, in which one female activist died.
Between these two is the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers. They claim no relation to violence, but are actively seeking to prevent stability. Their principle tool is demonstration.
The state has left them to conduct small demonstrations in local neighborhoods. But whenever they seek a sizable gathering they are met with the resistance of the police, often with arrest, and sometimes with casualties. It is worthy to note their marches are illegal, as a law exists to regulate them which requires prior announcement to the authorities. Many across the Egyptian political spectrum find this law to be repressive, but it is the law all the same. Brotherhood protests ignore it, not wishing to acknowledge the authority of the state after the removal of President Morsi. Even if they did, would they receive a permit?
But it is in this context that the quiet struggle to return to normal is being waged.
In our local neighborhood of Maadi there is a foot bridge over the Metro tracks. One one side it is located between upper- and lower-class areas, and on the other is a relatively middle-class area stretching to the Nile River. Ever since the revolution began and police enforcement deteriorated, small tuk-tuks have traversed all economic sectors, and barely squeeze into the foot bridge as they complicate passage for all pedestrians.
A tuk-tuk is a three wheel vehicle like a rickshaw. It is very useful in poorer neighborhoods where taxis cannot navigate the narrow streets. But drivers are often underage, reckless, and a hazard for driving everywhere else. The state has not yet shut them down in our neighborhood, though there have been some threats to do so.
In recent days the local government has repaired the foot bridge, and placed a large cement block at the entrance. Pedestrians can easily pass by, but tuk-tuks are barred. Motorcycles can still make it, but at least it is an improvement.
So far, this discussion has nothing to do with national politics. But the effort of the state to bring the neighborhood back to normal, however slowly, is clear. They even covered the foot bridge with a fresh coat of paint.
But not a few days later was it covered with graffiti. ‘Man up and hit the streets on January 25,’ it urges. ‘Sisi is a pimp,’ is written in blue. It is ugly, crass, and defaces public property. It is also one of the few methods they have to get their message out.
This is the quiet struggle, not covered in the news. It shows why so many people dislike the Brotherhood and revolutionaries in general these days. They want life to go back to normal, they want stability for their country, and they want to walk over a nice bridge.
Of course, in its efforts, the local government didn’t even do that great a job. A few baseboards are not laid quite right, threatening to trip the pedestrian if his foot lands falsely. It is this lack of commitment to quality that contributed to revolutionary conditions in the first place, and may lend some sympathy to the protesters. In recent days it appears the bridge is under repair again.
As the outside world watches the larger struggle, sympathy is asked for the normal citizen. If in the end this revolution yields a transparent and accountable system of liberty and democracy, they stand as the passive beneficiaries. But in the process of getting there, excuse them for saying a pox on all your houses.
The Washington Post recently published an excellent article detailing the escalation of violent rhetoric between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian state. Language is shocking on both sides, but the government crackdown on the Brotherhood is well-known and admitted, even as accusations of terrorism in the Sinai remain unproven in the eyes of many.
But the Brotherhood actively presents itself in English as committed to a path of non-violent resistance. Consider then this extended excerpt:
In a broadcast from Istanbul, for example, a slick haired television presenter on the Muslim Brotherhood funded and managed Masr al-An (Egypt Now) channel recently delivered an ominous message, “I say to the wife of every officer…your husband will die, your children will be orphaned…these kids [“revolutionaries”] will kill the officers in Egypt.”
This was not an isolated incident of open incitement on Masr al-An. Three other Turkey-based pro-Brotherhood channels (al-Sharq, Mukammilin and Rabaa) echo similar incendiary rhetoric and cheer on the “popular resistance,” hunkering down for confrontation with the regime.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, there is a similar level of vitriol, with the regime-driven media linking the Muslim Brotherhood with the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – which refers to itself as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. The regime has labeled the Brotherhood as an enemy of the Egyptian state, which must be combated, and blames it for various plots against Egyptian interests.
The Islamist and Brotherhood embrace of confrontational rhetoric was evident in a recent “Message to the Ranks of Revolutionaries: ‘and Prepare’” uploaded to an official Web site of the Brotherhood. After a helpful reminder that the group’s logo of two swords and “Prepare” are all “synonyms of strength,” the message continued to remind, “Imam [Hasan] al-Banna [Brotherhood founder] equipped jihad brigades he sent to Palestine to fight the Zionist usurpers. And the second Guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi, restored the ‘secret apparatus’ [paramilitary] formations to attrit the British occupiers.”
It concluded, “We are at the beginning of a new phase where we summon our strength and evoke the meaning of jihad, and prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons and daughters and whoever follows our path for relentless jihad where we ask for martyrdom.” While this controversial essay did not directly call for violence, many Egyptians interpreted it as a departure.
This is exacerbated in that the Brotherhood, in its bid to make its cause a pan-Islamist one, has allowed radical former Brothers and other Islamists to join it on the platform. Inflammatory preachers like Wagdy Ghoneim – who virtually beat everyone else to the punch by deeming Sissi an apostate even before the Rabaa massacre – are hosted on the new pro-Brotherhood channels.
Following Sissi’s January speech on revolutionizing Islam, charges of apostasy are now standard fare on pro-Brotherhood channels. A Brotherhood-tied cleric who served in the Ministry of Religious Endowments under Morsi, Sheikh Salamah Abd al-Qawi, even gave a fatwa that Sissi’s death is permissible and that whoever kills him and dies in the act is a martyr; he received applause from the studio audience.
In another segment, viewers were urged to come out to protest for the “sake of their religion,” a not too surprising refrain after the Brotherhood’s endorsement of the radical call for a “Muslim Youth Intifada” in November 2014. The attempt to make the current conflict one about Islam was casually explained only months following the coup as part of a strategy to rile up quietist Salafis.
Pro-Brotherhood channels also help increase the profile of radical conspiracy theorists like journalist Sabir Mashhur who labels the army as “occupiers” and “crusaders” fighting the “Egyptian Muslims.” He offers such violent advice to the “revolutionaries” that if they hit the first and last tank in the column with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) the division will melt away. Furthermore, he echoes other increasing calls to follow the path of the Iranian revolution.
Over the past year groups calling themselves “Popular Resistance,” “Execution Movement,” and recently a group called “Revolutionary Punishment,” have carried out everything from drive-by shootings of police officers, sabotage of public utilities and private businesses, to planting small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are increasingly deadlier and more sophisticated.
In the weeks leading up to January 25, the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the pro-Brotherhood channels fully embraced these groups and even called on them to execute pro-regime media figures.
The article goes to great lengths to show the context of this escalation, as each side blames the other. It also suggests the Brotherhood is trying to straddle the fence between a long-standing policy of de-emphasizing their violent source material, while giving space to enraged youth bent on revenge for slain colleagues.
Perhaps. But as the excerpt above indicates, the Brotherhood is licensing far more than space for troubled youth. It is filling the space with incitement, at least by proxy. They must clearly condemn, and quickly.
With decent regularity pro-Morsi supporters have conducted small protest marches around our Maadi neighborhood since his removal from office in July 2013. They do not tend to be violent but usually result in ugly graffiti insulting now-President Sisi.
Recently, new graffiti has emerged, calling the people to ‘man up’ and protest on January 25, the anniversary of the original revolution. And this past week I noticed posters – on the ground – calling for a new uprising.
The translation reads: Together for liberation and purging; The people want the fall of the regime; and 25 January, Egypt speaks revolution.
I do not yet have a good feel for whether or not people will respond. A recent effort to rally an Islamic revolution failed dramatically to attract numbers.
But what is significant to me about this poster is that it is printed in color. This means there is money behind the effort. Another version was even more colorful, but was in poorer condition.
Also significant is that it was on the ground, stomped upon. I did not see any such posters anywhere on the walls. Were they torn down? Did residents or police prevent their hanging?
January 25 is a week away. It will be interesting to monitor developments.
If you are the light, the good, and the pure, then it stands to reason that the closer one approaches you the more imperfections are visible. Furthermore, the accumulated wisdom in the approach to you – religion – is prone to the same exposure. Great virtue lies along your path, great vice looms a step awry.
And therefore man is a poor judge. Sometimes the deed seems obvious. Gunmen fire randomly into a newspaper office, or kill policemen guarding a church. Sometimes the act is contested. Religious leaders comment on politics, or political leaders comment on religion. And sometimes the symbol seems worthy. A president visits holiday mass, or a policeman is killed guarding a newspaper.
But in each one, God, man can find both honor or fault. Some difference stems from the choice of religion, some from the different visions of each. The path is important, God, as is the heart. Judge mercifully, but justly. May man imitate you as closely as possible.
For those who kill in your name, offended by the offense given to the revered, instill in them your own humility. For those who kill in your name, seeking retribution and reversal denied them in this world, instill in them a faith in your ordering of affairs.
For a pope who comments on politics, give him wisdom to discern reality, to speak judiciously, and to lead as a servant. For a president who comments on religion, give him wisdom to seek knowledge, to judge his limits, and to lead as a visionary.
For the symbol of state to recognize Christmas, bless intentions of unity amid accusations of politics. For the symbol of sacrifice in defense of another’s religious or irreligious voice, bless the faithfulness of duty amid uncertainties of criticism.
Should human freedom permit religious mocking? Should religious freedom permit divergence in the community?
Should Christianity stand with the powers-that-be, or simply pray for them? Does Islam need a renewal of religious discourse, or a better imitation of its origins?
God for so many the answers are obvious; for others these answers are obviously different. We are poor judges, especially in religion. Show us the light, the good, and the pure. Help us hold to conviction where our vision is true, but in our certainty show us our darkness, our bad, and our impurity.
Bless Egypt in these questions, God, as a nation may she draw closer to you. Reveal her imperfections. Give her the best wisdom in religion. Guide her on the right path. Keep her foot from slipping.
Last night on Christmas Eve according to the Coptic Orthodox calendar, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became the first ever Egyptian head-of-state to attend the holiday mass.
His appearance lasted for about ten minutes, during which he gave a short speech. The video selection and translation is provided kindly by Paul Attallah.
It was necessary to come and congratulate you for the feast
I hope that I did not interrupt your prayers
Egypt for years taught the civilization to the whole world
and taught the civilization to the whole world
I want to tell you that the world is now waiting from Egypt
in these circumstances…
The people: We love you
Sisi: We love you too!
I thank you because frankly the Holy Pope will be upset!
It’s important that the whole world watch us: the Egyptians.
You noticed that I am not using another word than Egyptians
It could not be something different
We are the Egyptians
Nobody says: what (type of) Egyptian are you?
We are saying things
We are writing to the world a meaning
and we are opening a window of real hope and light to the people
I am saying that Egypt taught to the world all over the years civilization and humanity
Today we are present to confirm that we are able another time
to teach the humanity
and to teach the civilization once again.
Starting from here
For this reason, we cannot say but: we the Egyptians
We must be only Egyptians
The people: One hand
Yes one hand
I want just to tell you
that with God’s will
we will build Egypt together
we will contain one another
We will love each other
We will love each other in a good way
we will love each other really
so the people can watch
I want to tell again
Happy New Year
and for all Egyptians
and for all Egyptians: greetings for the feast
Holy Pope: Greetings for the feast
Thanks and I will not take from you more time
It is certainly a historic occasion. Merry Christmas to all Egyptians.
Two fronts are brewing, and both received a push. Egypt is trying to stabilize through its economy and elections.
For the first, President Sisi traveled to China and signed a number of trade agreements. For the second, just before leaving he signed into law the mechanisms for parliamentary elections.
In March is scheduled a major investment summit; around then the polls are expected as well. If both are clean and well supported it will be a sign the nation is moving forward.
God, move Egypt forward, but with more than money and ballots.
Bring investment, but distribute it well. Clean the centers of corruption and ensure fair return for both capital and labor. Egypt recently mandated electronic tax payments for corporations; help the state to receive – and use – its fair share, wisely.
Bring voters, but prepare them well. Give them worthy candidates who will represent their constituencies. Spread a culture of democracy that gives no one a blank check; help the state to facilitate its own accountability.
But God, others are not comfortable with Egypt becoming stable in its current shape. Some are looking to sabotage and disrupt, keep them from causing harm. But others wish for deeper or different justice. Honor the sentiment, God, and weigh the demands.
May Egypt more forward in that which is good.
Seek knowledge as far afield as China, says the hadith. Help the president find one source, but forsake the other. Not all stability is honorable.
The debate is valid: What is the proper role of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the nation’s politics?
It is also an unavoidable debate. Once Pope Tawadros appeared with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar to back the popularly-backed military overthrow of President Morsi, he reasserted the church into the political scene.
The decision of the pope can be criticized, but in a recent article for the Carnegie Middle East Center, Georges Fahmi goes much too far. He writes:
With the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in June 2014, the Church has attempted to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community. But that role, too, carries risks. Rather than trying to unify Egypt’s Christians under its leadership, the Church should withdraw from the political sphere and allow Copts to defend their interests themselves by joining political parties and movements. The Church should focus on being an institution of civil society that defends universal ideals such as human rights and social justice, and on supporting developmental projects for both Muslims and Christians.
In the essay which follows, Fahmi does an admirable job of summarizing the recent history of the Coptic Church in politics. Within a limited political sphere, President Mubarak allowed Pope Shenouda to represent the Coptic community outside the realm of law. After the revolution Pope Tawadros spoke against a political role for the church, but increasingly found himself drawn in during the Morsi administration. Famhi helps the reader track with an often neglected sub-theme in the Egyptian transition.
But in his summary critique, he makes statements that do not completely gel with my understanding of the situation.
Though the church does invest much charity in Christian focused projects, it also benefits local Muslims. Surely it could do more, of course.
He recommends the church defend universal ideals, but would this not also be a form of political engagement?
Perhaps his wording is poor, but is the church doing anything to disallow Christians from joining political parties and movements?
The church has always presented its participation in the overthrow of Morsi and the backing of the roadmap as a national decision, not a political one. It backed the constitution and the presidential election, but did not back a specific candidate. Again, its decision to speak at all can be criticized, but the nature of its speaking does not represent an attempt “to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community,” as the author accuses.
Here is his evidence:
The Church’s support for the military’s 2013 intervention has given it a privileged position in the new regime, prompting the Church to try to revive the old pact it had with the Mubarak regime. And changes carried out by the state have helped the Church regain its position as the only representative of the Coptic community.
As the new political authority has tightened its control over the public sphere, youth movements, including the Maspero Youth Union, have lost their ability to mobilize. Coptic politicians have also lost their influence, as the new regime seems to see little role for parties; President Sisi has not held any meetings with political parties.
What sort of privilege does the author intend? Is the church any more privileged than the judiciary, or the police, or the administration, or other institutional bodies that backed the overthrow? And where is the evidence of the church’s intention to “revive the old pact”? One can guess at their internal desire, but the author confuses the conduct of the state with the approval of the church.
The Maspero Youth Union lost its ability to mobilize long before the overthrow of Morsi. But it says that despite initial uncertainty it has a good relationship with the church. And within the political parties, Coptic politicians are still quite numerous and influential. Yes, the public sphere has shrunk, and political parties appear marginalized. Yes, the church has not spoken out against this, but few have. This is a national issue, and not one to lay at the foot of the church.
So should the church take a stand? Fahmi argues in his conclusion:
In terms of discourse, the Church needs to differentiate between defending universal values in the public sphere and engagement in deals with the state or political parties. While the first is needed and would improve the Church’s public image among Egyptians, the latter could have drastic consequences because it makes the Church a part of the political regime. The ideals of human dignity, social justice, and human rights need to be integrated into Church discourse. Only by struggling for a political regime that respects these principles will the Copts, together with all Egyptians, receive their full social and political rights.
In this and Fahmi’s other recommendations are found much wisdom. But where he wants to differentiate, I see simply a different involvement. To hold out a discourse for these values would be to very obviously criticize the current regime. Perhaps this prophetic voice is the burden of the gospel, but it is also very political. If the author wishes to accuse the church of hypocrisy for criticizing Morsi and not criticizing Sisi, let him do so. But the stakes for Christians were different, and as mentioned above, the church presented its approach in a national context, not one of religion or politics.
The consequence of its decision, however, is to put the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters outside the national context. Indeed, Egypt’s Christians are convinced of the terrorist designation with which the government labels them. And Christians suffered much terrorism, as their churches were attacked by Morsi supporters across the nation.
This is a high price to pay for the church, but the author comes very close to blaming the victim.
This leads to a situation in which Church decisions can put the lives and property of any individual Copt at risk, even if he or she did not actually participate in making a political choice.
Earlier he wrote:
The strategies of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Church in this period have increased the level of religious polarization between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. The result has been a cycle of sectarian violence, with each side accusing the other of attacks on its followers.
Unfortunately, this critique is partially true, but is it a cycle? The Brotherhood has certainly accused the church of a conspiracy, but their manner is deeply sectarian and propagandist. If the church had stayed silent, if Christians were not among the many, mostly Muslim activists who campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps they would not have been targeted.
But did the church stand against Morsi for political gain only, to reset the Mubarak-Shenouda relationship? Or, did they place themselves in jeopardy because they thought it was right – for Coptic liberty, yes, but also for human rights and the good of the nation?
If their intentions were true, which can be debated, then this is exactly the situation Fahmi calls for now, with the church defending universal values as part of its discourse. Many Muslims have spoken positively of the church, for what it has suffered, and many Copts appreciate that the bulk of ‘moderate Muslims’, as they call them, now see Christians in a different and better light.
Like Fahmi, I can read into recent actions of the church a pattern of political engagement and representation of Copts as a community. I lean toward his perspective, wishing Copts as citizens would be in the forefront. But I try to watch carefully for evidence of this being the intention of the church, and I have not yet seen it. Fahmi links considerably to articles which trace history, but he can only interpret on this issue, and not link to any quotes.
Certainly I have not seen the church discourage its people from their own participation in politics. If movements are faltering and parties are weak, is this not their own fault? They have had three years since the revolution to assert themselves, to build apparatus and win support on the street. They have not done so. If Sisi ignores them, as mentioned above, is it because they do not yet have sufficient weight to force their hand.
The church does have weight. Fahmi’s correct question concerns how the church should wield it. The weight of the gospel does call for a prophetic voice, for self-limitation, and the promotion of the common good. Within the sharp political polarization and challenge to state authority, the church has a very difficult line to walk.
It is right to call the church to sublime ideals, but Fahmi’s article misrepresents in its critique. His opening sentence stated:
The Coptic Church’s recent involvement in politics in Egypt has harmed both the Church and the country’s Christian community.
If so, were he in Egypt, he would be one of the very few Christians to say so. Nearly everyone else is overwhelmingly positive about the status quo.
Perhaps this is why his own prophetic voice, even in overstatement, is needed. May his readers in Egypt bristle, but also consider.
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.
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.”
Three years after Maspero and Regla Gamal is still wearing black.
On 9 October 2011 her 26-year-old brother, Subhi, was shot dead during a mostly Coptic demonstration in what became known as the Maspero massacre.
Twenty seven Egyptian Christians were killed by the army as thousands protested against attacks on their churches, the majority crushed under the wheels of swerving military vehicles.
To date only three lower ranking soldiers have been convicted, each being sentenced to between two to three years in prison. Despite the best efforts at justice by Coptic activists and relatives of the victims, their differences have led to infighting that is hindering their cause.
‘These are clothes of mourning,’ Gamal, 39, told Lapido Media. ‘I will not stop wearing black until justice comes and those responsible are judged.’
Egyptian tradition dictates female relatives of the deceased wear black for a period of 40 days, up to a maximum of one year. But at the memorial service held in the Cairo church where their remains are interred, most of the women among those now known as ‘the families of the martyrs’ were similarly dressed.
The night of the massacre Wael Saber, one of three official spokespeople for the Union of the Families of Maspero Martyrs (UFMM), watched horrified as his brother Ayman was hit by an army personnel carrier.
‘The state has dragged its feet,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We demand transparency and justice, and will not be silent in front of their blood.’
Purposefully silent, however, were the mostly Coptic activists of the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). Formed in solidarity with Egypt’s revolution, they called for the march that ended in tragedy. To mark the anniversary the MYU braved Egypt’s current security crackdown with a candlelight vigil.
Dozens of sympathisers gathered, but included only two relatives of those slain.
This is because the UFMM was formed in response to the MYU and other activists speaking in the name of the victims’ families and soliciting donations on their behalf, Saber explained.
Fady Yousef, president of the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts called the MYU a ‘corrupt entity’.
‘They are not loved because they have made profit off their blood,’ he said, referring to money raised by MYU that didn’t reach families of the victims.
Mina Magdy, a spokesman for MYU, denied any wrongdoing, stating they have spent countless hours with Saber and the families to demonstrate their innocence.
One of the founding members of MYU, Mina Thabet, attributes the discord to the corrupt media. ‘The regime depends on people repeating the same accusations [against activists] over and over until they believe it, and this is what is happening,’ he said.
But the bickering between activists and families carried over into the memorial service, attended by busloads of relatives. The hubbub and media show offended many.
‘Ninety per cent of those here today have come to be seen and to have their picture taken,’ complained Wagdi Gamal, Regla’s brother.
Veteran Coptic activist Hany el-Gezery was there and also criticized the MYU. ‘They want to be a hero and to show they exist,’ he said. ‘But in this case the only voice that counts is of the families of the martyrs.’
Political father to many of the activists, Gezery recently dissolved his own Coptic movement to merge more fully into the national effort to support the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But he wants the former top brass held accountable.
‘I saw General Hamdy Badeen [Egypt’s former head of military police] with my own eyes, standing there as it began,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I accuse him directly.’
During the candlelight vigil, some protestors held a banner with Badeen’s picture, along with former leaders of the military council Generals Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan, quietly calling for justice. President Sisi, though director of military intelligence at the time, was not mentioned.
That is, until unaffiliated youth arrived and began chanting against him, calling for the end of military rule. The MYU got them to quickly quiet down and shortly afterwards ended the protest.
Saber, Gezery, and Magdy are all critical of the government for delaying attention to Coptic issues, but so far do not hold Sisi personally responsible.
Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the leading Coptic newspaper Watani, notes that most Copts are still being patient with the new president, and believes it is a ‘sentimental’ accusation that activists accuse the former top officials without sufficient evidence.
The MYU did solicit donations, he recognizes, but knows of no lawsuit leveled against them for fraud.
Similar to both activists and families, however, he wants the Maspero case to reopen.
Until then, Regla Gamal will continue to wear black.
‘We have no hostility toward the army, but we want the case to reopen and if the military leaders are guilty they must be judged,’ she said.
‘Why this hasn’t happened yet we don’t know.’
This article was originally published at Lapido Media on October 15, 2014.
Even into late September Cairo temperatures reached 100 degrees. Statistics show that 40 percent of energy demand comes from home consumption, and increased air conditioner use contributed to overloading the system.
The one complaint about a recent article at the Middle East Institute on the energy crisis is that it does not describe the ‘how’ of this overloading. That is, why does the power grid shut down in certain neighborhoods, at certain times, and for certain durations? Cairo residents complained of several outages a day over the summer, often lasting an hour at a time.
Were these planned and distributed? Was suffering experienced equally by neighborhood? These are fascinating questions for which I have not yet heard an answer.
But the article does a good job at giving the background to the energy crisis. If one is to be inconvenienced, it helps at the very least to understand why. Here is a brief summary of the main points:
1. From long before the revolution, the government estimated yearly increases at 10 percent, but the actual increases averaged 12 percent.
2. The government did increase its power generation capacity in response, so that by the end of 2013 it equaled 30,000 megawatts. But for near 90 million people this is still inadequate, especially when compared to the near 50 million populations of South Africa and South Korea, which produce 44,000 mw and 80,000 mw respectively.
3. The government anticipated energy growth would coincide with increased production of natural gas. Contracts were signed with international companies, but the 2011 revolution interrupted the ability to pay. Work stopped and production lagged.
4. The existing power grid was forced to work at full capacity to meet local demand, canceling scheduled periods of shutdown for regular maintenance. This contributed to a loss of efficiency and times of irregular shutdown.
5. The Ministry of Electricity has counted 300 acts of terrorism against electricity towers since the June 30, 2013 deposing of President Morsi. Similar accusations of sabotage were issued by the Morsi administration during its year in office.
The end result is that by the summer of 2014, Egypt’s power generation industry is operating at only 70 percent of capacity.
This information will help no one feel cooler in Egypt. Nor will it help anyone feel better about Egypt. The article also described current steps the Sisi government is taking to relieve the crisis; depending on your point of view this information may or may not be helpful either.
But at the least, we can be thankful it is now October.
Many Christian religious leaders in the Middle East expressed great reserve against the US plan to strike at ISIS in Syria. But one particular Egyptian politician, a Christian, argues forcefully for it—including Egyptian participation. Now that the bombs have begun to fall, his words are also worthy of consideration.
“We should go, if only symbolically with a few planes,” said Ehab el-Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “We must not give a message to our local terrorists that we are backing off.”
Egyptian President Sisi has promised coordination with the US-led coalition, but has not contributed any forces. He recently stated Egypt is neither for Assad nor the opposition, though it does maintain membership in the Friends of Syria group organized early against the regime. Sisi has, however, compared the Islamist forces fighting in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood, accused of coordinating ongoing attacks in Egypt.
Kharrat believes Egypt, and the international community in particular, should have been much more forceful, from an earlier date, but narrowly focused. He says many in his party agree, though it has taken no official stand.
“The decision not to arm the Free Syrian Army was a serious mistake and we must do so now as soon as possible,” he said. “Assad is not the answer, he is a cruel dictator, worse than Mubarak, similar to Saddam.”
Kharrat criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis for understanding the procedures of democracy, but not its philosophy – unless they reject it to begin with. But leaning on Assad, like some Christians are at least reluctantly willing to do, does not work either. It has produced the ills Christians are currently suffering.
“Autocratic regimes give ground to breed Muslim extremists like bacteria,” he said.
Bishop Muhib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land agrees. “We have relied on secular autocrats who oppress others,” he said, “but must recognize also that democracy is a damaged concept.”
The trouble is that many Middle Eastern Christians, and certainly Egyptian Copts, feel trapped. Their experience with Islamists leads them to mistrust open democratic procedures that may bring them to power. But the secular states they have relied upon do not necessarily protect them beyond rhetoric.
Some in Egypt, such as Mina Fayek, a Cairo based blogger and activist, complain the Egyptian state has not yet rebuilt the churches attacked by Islamist mobs following the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in. The army promised it would be done; over a year later little work has progressed.
Others, such as Rami Kamel, a veteran Coptic activist, see both state and church inaction over the recent Gabl al-Tayr incident, where 22 Copts and three policemen were injured dispersing a sit-in protest over a missing woman believed to be kidnapped. “Sisi and the state will never go to the church,” he said, “because the church’s role has ended.”
But to imagine these sentiments as indicative of Coptic opinion would be greatly misconstrued. Christians are among Sisi’s greatest supporters.
If he follows through with his rhetoric, perhaps they should be. Commenting on the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to the AP, Sisi said much more was necessary.
“The comprehensive strategy we’re talking about — part of it would be the security and military confrontation, correct, but it would also include fighting poverty,” he said. “We are also talking about improving education, which is important, as well as changes in the Islamic religious discourse.”
This coincides exactly with Kharrat’s opinion, though the second part awaits a demonstration of Sisi’s commitment.
“In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and all our states, the question of religion and politics must be resolved,” he said. “The only solution is a democratic and liberal system.”
As for Syria, Kharrat believes the practical only solution is to strike a deal with Assad to remove him from power, but assure him of non-prosecution, and the Allawites of non-persecution. Both Allawites and Christians must be incorporated into the new government, but only from outside the Baathist regime.
But the immediate task is to fight the Islamist rebels: ISIS, Nusra, and whoever else. Whether or not anyone else is left standing to take on Assad is a fair question, but not a few Christians, at least for now and however much they distrust America, are glad that ISIS is being hit.
It is not as if this is the first time. Mutual acrimony between Israel and Hamas leads to the exchange of rockets, with deeply disproportional suffering. Now a land invasion is poised to begin.
Egypt has been the historic mediator, but this time – so far – unsuccessfully. Two years ago President Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has ties with Hamas, brokered a ceasefire and relative lull in hostilities. This time the violence continues despite Egypt’s efforts, and peace is as far away as ever.
Meanwhile Egyptian society is torn. The people of Gaza lack their standard sympathy due to widespread sentiment Hamas has been destabilizing Egypt through the Sinai. But an anti-Zionism is always present, and as the Palestinian casualties mount the Egyptian frustration mounts with it.
God, is there an answer? Must Hamas be destroyed? Must so many people of Gaza die? Must rockets rain down on Israel? Must the Zionists be driven back to where they came from?
God, there must be a better answer. Help Egypt have a share in finding it. Help world sympathy for all not falter. But help Palestinians and Israelis to reconcile. Help justice to be done.
For justice is a sticking point. The terms are not equal. Palestine is under occupation. Stand with all who suffer, give them relief, and help them to honor moral convictions and call out to you.
Feeling triumphant, too many rejoice in the suffering of others. Feeling aggrieved, too many strike out at innocents. Feeling in need of world opinion, too many manufacture propaganda. Feeling in need of domestic support, too many dehumanize their enemy.
But if they call out, God, answer them and give repentance and forgiveness. Answer them and give initiative and creativity. Answer them and give a just political solution. Answer them and give social peace and mutuality.
Help them find the way, God, first through their own hearts, and then through the hearts of their enemy.
This is not the first time these prayers have been necessary; in man’s estimation it is unlikely to be the last. Remove acrimony and exchange love, God, however impossible it may seem. The sins of all are infinitely disproportionate to your grace, so have mercy.