Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Musad Abul Fagr: The Bedouin in Egypt’s Constitutional Committee

Musad Abu Fagr

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

By self-description, Mus’ad Abū al-Fajr really wasn’t that important. In almost every categorization he was in the minority. But he also counts himself a ‘son of the revolution’ and fully worthy. And as a Bedouin, his participation in Egypt’s constitutional Committee of Fifty was itself one of its greatest accomplishments.

Selected as a ‘general personality’ independent of any institution, Abū al-Fajr isn’t sure why he was chosen. But he is confident it is linked to his status as a revolutionary from Sinai, active in protest in public squares since 2004. From 2007-2010 he was jailed on charges of ‘inciting riots’, and was released only a few months before the January 25 revolution. He immediately joined in on the National Movement for Change, found himself active in Tahrir Square, eventually became part of the National Salvation Front, and then worked on behalf of Tamarod to depose Muhammad Mursī.

But there were many revolutionary candidates to choose from for inclusion in the Committee of Fifty, so it was his status as a Bedouin that stood out. Therefore from the moment of his inclusion Abū al-Fajr considered that the region of Sinai was going to win at least a minimum of its rights. He knew that if he would withdraw from the committee – along with Hajāj Udūl of Nubia, with whom he cooperated extensively – it would cost the project much credibility and the symbolic vote of their regions. The task, then, was to achieve more, not just for the Sinai but for the people, for whom Abū Fajr described himself as continually defending.

Here is the gain:

His primary achievement, Article 236, represented the minimum. Treating Sinai along with the underdeveloped border areas of Nubia, Matrouh, and Upper Egypt, it promises a ‘comprehensive economic and urban development’ with ‘participation of the residents’. These are promised the ‘priority in benefiting from them’ in a manner that takes into account ‘the cultural and environmental patterns’ of each area. Ten years is given as the limit, with the law to spell out the particulars.

And here is why it wasn’t more:

But in fact, Sinai was to be mentioned more frequently. It was to be in the preamble, in the articles on cultural diversity, and those preventing discrimination based on geography. It was not the writing committee that played the chief role in removing it, he says, but direct pressure from the military seeking support for its own controversial article.

Abū al-Fajr described this as Article 204 on the military trial of civilians. He says he could have achieved more for Sinai had he simply agreed to it. He judges this from his experience in the work and discussions of the committee, but stood against it nonetheless. Besides himself, only five others voted to reject the article in the end.

Most of those interviewed described a few setbacks here and there, but were very positive about the document as a whole. Abul Fagr’s reaction is unique:

And the end result is a constitution he is happy with, recognizes a few flaws, but yet does not consider a revolutionary document, and is ultimately not worthy of Egypt. He does not even believe it will last.

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


The Burning Bush is Closed

St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai
St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai

From al-Monitor, reporting from Mt. Sinai, where a Greek Orthodox Monastery houses what it claims is the original burning bush:

In the Sinai city of St. Catherine, a few thousand people and around 800 camels have been left struggling since the first week of August, when Egyptian security authorities ordered the total shutdown of the town’s 1,500-year-old monastery. Bedouin residents of the mountainous area were forced to sell their camels, which they cannot feed, to feed their families.

Over the past 50 years, St. Catherine’s Monastery closed its gates twice, in 1977 when former President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, and in 1982 when the Egyptian military entered Sinai after the withdrawal of Israeli forces. This time, the shutdown, which wasn’t explained by any official statements from either the Defense or Interior Ministry, was allegedly ordered after a failed attempt to kidnap a monk traveling in South Sinai in June and rising suspicions of a possible attack on the monastery.

“Despite having more time to pray and practice, our priests live without crowds of visitors, we are suffering a major financial crisis, and we cannot cover the monastery’s expenses and dozens of families that we constantly support,” said Paolos, who wore his farming clothes covered in mud.

St. Catherine’s Monastery employs 400 workers from the surrounding community at its olive groves, grape farms, honey bee farms and several processing facilities including an olive oil press. As of the beginning of September, the monastery reserves decreased to a level that is barely enough to cover two months of expenditure.

“We respect the Egyptian government, and we will continue to close if they require the closure,” said Paolos, “But we will have to drastically cut down salaries and other expenditures. We are saddened to lose the income we shared with the Bedouin community.”

Monasteries making income? Located at the foot of what is purported to be the Biblical Mt. Sinai, streams of tourists come, climbing the mountain at night for a spectacular view of the desert at sunrise. The pious/superstitious/relic-ly-inclined religious tourists also pick leaves from the burning bush – now a towering hedge that drops its branches down just high enough to be reached by tippy-toe.
The Burning Bush at St. Catherine's Monastery
The Burning Bush at St. Catherine’s Monastery
We visited once, several years ago when we could climb without children. We were impressed, even though disappointed that our tour bus whisked us away right afterwards, without much chance to explore the ‘real’ monastery. And of course, being a tourist trap, there was a steady flow of income to match the steady flow of tourists.
The Ascent to Mt. Sinai
The Ascent to Mt. Sinai
We made our trek in the winter; it would be hard to imagine doing now with our children
We made our trek in the winter; it would be hard to imagine doing now with our children. One day…
... but this was our reward.
… but this was our reward.

Since we moved to Egypt, we have learned a great deal more about monasteries. They are wonderfully spiritual places where monks abstain from the world and devote themselves to prayer. But they are also the favorite destination for Copts who frequent them as a weekend get-a-way. The monks’ residences are kept separate from publicly accessible areas, and a handful of monks are assigned the role of facilitation. Some visitors seek spiritual counseling, some seek the blessing of praying in a historic location, and others simply enjoy the time away from the bustle of Cairo.

St. Catherine’s monastery is located deep in the Sinai desert, so it is not a favored location for most Copts. But it is only an hour or two drive from the popular Red Sea resorts drawing thousands of tourists every year. Even so, it has evolved in a similar function to many of the monasteries a mile or so into the deserts surrounding the Nile Valley.

They are a hub of economic activity.

The monasteries have turned desert into farmland and cultivate agriculture and livestock. They cooperate with local villagers – usually Muslims – and employ some. They also attract unemployed Copts from throughout the country to live on or near the premises – but not with the monks – and provide labor while receiving training. Many monks will spend half the day in prayer, and the other half supervising a commercial task.

Monks have no worldly possessions, so I am not sure where the money goes. Certainly some is for the upkeep of the monastery, most of which have undergone substantial renovations. Other is for the pay of the labor, which in brief conversations I found to be better than the going rate in the village of origin. I imagine their charitable expenditures are also extensive. But I have not yet discovered the whole story.

Some more extreme Muslims accuse Copts of storing weapons in their monasteries and operating a state within a state. The first claim is baseless by all appearances, but the second has some merit. The monasteries own huge tracts of land and many Copts flock to them not only for blessing but also to purchase internally produced goods. These are also shipped to churches in the cities and sold on their premises. Muslims are welcome in the monasteries and they generally have good relations with their neighbors. But the vast majority of visitors, dare we say customers, are Copts. Their money circulates within their community.

By no means do I wish to overstate the idea of a state within a state or impinge the spiritual reputation of Egyptian monasticism. In my experience most Copts are part of their local communities, interacting with Muslims in employment and commerce, part and parcel of the national fabric. In my experience most Copts visit their monasteries out of a deep respect for their spiritual heritage and in order to take blessing from association with these historic sites and the saints associated with them. In my experience most monks are somewhat annoyed by their inundation with visitors, and wish to spend time with God in both prayer and labor.

But the ‘worldly’ aspects of monastic life exist. At St. Catherine’s, the accrued dependence upon them is threatening the monastic community. The monks, likely, will be able to retreat into their asceticism as in centuries before. The monastic enterprise, however, along with all its local relations, is subject to the whims of economic cycles and security concerns.

Perhaps Egypt’s current troubles are reminding Copts of their necessary dependence on God. Even for monks, this is an ongoing lesson easily forgotten.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Release

Flag Cross Quran


With great relief and little wrangling, the abducted security personnel in Sinai were released this week. The president, political parties, and military all celebrated their peaceful transfer through the intervention of tribal chiefs in the area. No negotiation, no bloodshed – all celebrated a successful resolution.

Successful, that is, with two lingering uncertainties: No justice, no information. Officials declared the identities of the kidnappers are known but will not be released until a more appropriate time. And of the details in the media leading up to the release, officials admitted they used misinformation in order to confuse the criminals.

All this is fair enough, God. Thanks are to you for their release, accomplished through men and their necessary wiles. But amid the many accusations and conspiracies which surround Sinai, God, Egyptians long for clarity in all public affairs.

Are the president’s Islamist allies linked with extremists in the Sinai? Did they engineer the kidnapping and subsequent release to boost the president’s popularity or embarrass the army? Did the military and intelligence apparatus play the same role in order to create a crisis for the president and demonstrate their own indispensability? Are the two in cahoots to forge a new reality in the Sinai away from the old heavy hand of the police state and tribal manipulations? Or, was it just a random act of disaffected individuals? All these questions circulate.

They are a product of Egypt’s polarization and instability, God. Ease these issues and perhaps clarity can come.

But both now and then, God, give Egypt a new culture of transparency. Make public officials accountable to the people. Secure the release of information. Protect national security and the public order, but keep the limitations of freedom to the absolute minimum.

A little while ago a draft law for freedom of information was prepared, meeting with contradictory responses. Some hailed it as a new dawn for society; others claimed it couched draconian measures in liberal pronouncements.

God, deal with the text of any new law and the hearts of those who will implement it. May Egyptians know what goes on behind the scenes of their government, and may these scenes become clean and transparent.

God, deal with the Sinai in justice and development. Bring criminals to trial, extremists to repentance, and Bedouins to citizenship. May those responsible for the kidnapping be prosecuted openly, but may the region not suffer their crimes. Rather, integrate Egypt’s peoples together, and may the prosperity of your blessing be shared by all.

As you released the abducted from captivity, God, release Egypt from its captivity of unknowing. Perhaps you are enveloped in this cloud by nature of your being, but free the people and nation from the bonds of its yoke.

May they know both themselves and their maker. Release them, and in this knowledge make them free.



Christians in the Sinai

The Sinai Region

Bishop Cosman is the presiding bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the diocese of North Sinai, consisting of an area 200km long and 127km deep. This roughly stretches from Port Said to Suez along the west (though these cities do not belong his bishopric).

Bishop Cosman states that the population of his bishopric is roughly 400,000-500,000 people, of whom about 3,000 are Christians, represented by 740 families. By contrast, over 2,000 Christian families live in the urban Cairo district of Hadayak al-Maadi. The bishop relates that the low population density makes for a quiet life, and that Christians have good relations, by and large, with their neighbors.

There are two principle cities in North Sinai, Rafah and Arish, each of which has been in the news recently with regularity. Rafah is the site of the crossing into Gaza, which was reopened following the reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. As the reconciliation has sputtered, however, so has the crossing of goods through the border, as many restrictions remain. Illegal tunnels in the area compensate in black market trade, and near here Gaza Palestinians stand accused of crossing the border to infiltrate through Sinai to Eliat, where several Israelis were murdered in a terrorist attack.

Arish, meanwhile, has been the site of internal Egyptian unrest. On Jan. 29 following a massive, peaceful Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi demonstration in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, including Arish, masked gunmen attacked the city police station in a shootout lasting several hours. Flyers were distributed calling for an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, linked to a supposed local al-Qaeda branch. This event that prompted the entry of the Egyptian military, though special agreement had to be secured first with Israel, as much of the area is demilitarized as mandated by the Camp David Accords.

Each of these two cities hosts a Coptic Orthodox Church. Arish is the seat of the bishopric, which was built in 1939 in the neighborhood of Dahya. Rafah, however, hosts the only licensed church, which was built in 1996. This church, however, was destroyed during the lawless initial days of the Egyptian revolution, and has not yet been rebuilt despite promises by the state, according to Bishop Cosman. He states the Christians are waiting patiently to take their rights to pray in Rafah Church. He does not know who committed this crime, as the sixty-plus attackers covered their faces while wielding automatic weapons.

In addition to the two churches the diocese owns three additional ‘service buildings’ that resemble ordinary structures but host regular masses and provide social outlets for the Christian community. Two of these buildings are in Arish itself, with the other in Masa’id, a smaller town roughly 12km to the east. A community of five priests, in addition to Bishop Cosman, serves the Christians of the area.

Only two of these priests, however, stem originally from the diocese of North Sinai. Neither does Bishop Cosman, who hails from Beheira in the Delta region, and was appointed ten years ago from the St. Mina Monastery to the west of Alexandria. That even two priests are local is quite an accomplishment, however, as nearly all of the area Christians originally emigrated from other quarters.

The original inhabitants of the territory of the diocese are native Arishis, some Palestinians, and large Bedouin families which historically roamed the desert. To this number came significant Nile Valley transplants seeking work, beginning in the 19th Century. The Christians of North Sinai belong to this last group, and live mainly in the cities of Arish and Rafah, though some are in the smaller, inland villages of Hassana and Nikhl, and some in temporary worker outposts connected to projects. Like the inhabitants of the area, Christians tend to be poor. They are employed primarily as teachers, employees of government ministries, or in construction.

As stated earlier, Bishop Cosman emphasized the Christians of North Sinai enjoy good relations with all their neighbors, as well as the Bedouins, which is one reason he does not suspect them of involvement in the Rafah church attack. These relations are cemented through mutual visits during holidays and funerals, though the small number of Christians stipulates their reach in the community is not that far.

Yet the real danger in the area comes neither from the Salafis nor the Bedouin, but the lawless and criminal elements hiding in the desert. Even so, the bishop seemed mostly unconcerned. “We trust in God,” was his simple reply.

The region of Sinai is mysterious, beyond the experience of either urban or rural Egyptians. It exists in the nexus of struggle between Egypt and Israel, state and Bedouin, and civilization and tribe. Within this flashpoint is a small community of Christians, mostly imperceptible in each of these conflicts. Yet their faith maintains they are salt and light nonetheless. Further research, including hopeful visits to the area, is necessary to determine if it is true.