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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Fox News: Were Christians Tortured in a Cairo Mosque?

Fox News

From my recent report on Arab West Report:

On March 28, 2013 Fox News broadcast an incendiary video report entitled, ‘US Silent as Christians are Persecuted in Egypt?’ It is understood that media relies on a level of sensationalism in order to attract the viewer or reader to a story. Yet this report moves beyond sensationalism to distortion, in which elements of truth are stretched to create an impression far removed from reality.

I watched this report after friends and family brought it to my attention. I’m sorry to say it made my blood boil. Several months ago I published a report on AWR examining if the Muslim Brotherhood was crucifying its opponents, but this alleged incident was reported only by fringe and internet-based sources. Here, we’re talking Fox News! Certainly it is known that the station has a conservative bent, but this video makes it seem as if they are pushing an agenda.

Egyptian news coverage is generally of poor quality, un-sourced, and designed to shape opinion rather than inform. Here, Fox News does its best impression. I have heard similar descriptions of US stations MSNBC, and to a lesser degree, CNN, only from the liberal side. I am fearful the American public has entered an era in which news is meant to entertain and confirm opinions, rather than to educate and challenge them.

I am also dreading this aspect of being back in America for an upcoming visit.

Of course, something very terrible appears to have taken place in this mosque in Cairo, and to a Christian in particular. From al-Monitor:

During the clashes that erupted last Friday [March 22] between the Muslim Brotherhood and protesters in Mokattam, the Brotherhood arrested left-wing activist Kamal Khalil and detained him inside a mosque. He saw a number of demonstrators stripped of their clothes and brutally flogged in the mosque, to the point that most of them lost consciousness. Brotherhood members were using a big whip to strike their victims. Khalil asked the flogger [about it], who replied: “It’s a Sudanese whip. I soaked it in oil a while ago. … A single strike can cut through skin.”

Luckily, Khalil recognized his neighbor from among the Brotherhood members, who intervened and prevented him from being tortured. Yet, Khalil posted his testimony about the Brotherhood’s slaughterhouse on the website of Al-Bedaiah newspaper. Soon after, the testimonies from victims published in newspapers confirmed that they had been brutally tortured. Amir Ayad, a demonstrator, revealed that when the Brotherhood found out that he was a Copt, they increased the severity of his torture, pushing him to the brink of death as they called him a “Christian dog.”

But excerpting from my report:

0:50

Broadcaster leads with words, ‘We were not able to independently confirm this reporting by Mideast Christian News’ which claims ‘Islamic hardliners stormed a mosque in suburban Cairo and turned it into a torture chamber for Christians’

If news is not able to be confirmed by a reputable news agency, it should not be repeated, and certainly not the lead story. At least they mention this detail up front.

Mideast Christian News did not report about a torture chamber for Christians, however, as best I could research following their newsfeed. On March 23 they ran an article featuring testimony from Amir Ayad, a Coptic activist. He related how he was ambushed by the Muslim Brotherhood during the clashes and tortured in a mosque in Muqattam.

Muqattam is the suburban Cairo neighborhood mentioned by Fox News. It hosts the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood and as such was the site of an anti-Brotherhood protest. The administration of the mosque in question publically confirmed that Islamist activists took over the facilities and turned it into a detention center.

A similar incident took place during the clashes at the presidential palace in protest of President Mursī’s declaration immunizing his decisions from judicial review during the controversy over the drafting of Egypt’s constitution. Muslim Brotherhood members attacked a small but peaceful sit-in at the palace, which led into large-scale confrontations between the two sides. During the clashes the Muslim Brotherhood also created detention centers in adjacent facilities, though not in a mosque.

Details and testimony about what happened at both events is contradictory, but it appears likely the Brotherhood or supporting Islamists assumed police-like prerogative to apprehend protestors – perhaps rioters – on the opposing side. Furthermore, there is no reason to dismiss the testimony of Ayad that he was tortured; the article includes a picture of him in the hospital suffering from multiple wounds.

The protest at the Brotherhood headquarters, however, was not a Christian protest, it was political. Ayad, as a Christian, was detained, perhaps along with other Christian protesters. The great majority of protestors, and therefore detainees, however, were Muslim, consistent with the makeup of Egyptian society.

For Fox News to report this incident as a mosque transformed into a torture center for Christians – with none of the context of these recent clashes – is an egregious distortion of a story terrible in its own right.

And finally, showing an element of the Fox News report which is absolutely contrary to reality, and would be known by anyone who spent any time in Egypt at all apart from the pyramids:

3:15

Peters continues, saying Miller went to the Coptic quarter where the Christians live. It’s a shabby slum where they are third-class – not second-class – citizens

It is fair to ask what Miller believes is the difference between a second- and third-class citizen. Clearly this is only a rhetorical device. But it is in service either of wanton ignorance or clear distortion. There is no ‘Christian quarter’ in Egypt or any of its cities. Christians are spread everywhere throughout the country.

Perhaps he was referring to the district of Shubra in Cairo, which has a large percentage of Coptic residents. Shubra is a lower- to lower-middle-class neighborhood, but it is hardly a slum. If it is, it is equally populated by Christians and Muslims together.

Or perhaps he had in mind Heliopolis, which also has a large percentage of Coptic residents, but is one of the wealthier districts of the city. In either case, these areas are characterized by the best relations between Muslims and Christians, as they grew up together in an integrated community. They are far from second-class citizens. They are neighbors.

Please click here to watch the original video, and here to read the rest of my point-by-enraged-point rebuttal (and occasional agreement).

 

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Police, Protest

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The dynamic is changing in Egypt, but it is happening outside of Cairo. Violence and civil disobedience characterize Delta and Suez Canal cities, while police themselves go on strike throughout the nation. In fact in Port Said they were ordered of the street.

There is little to commend here, God. Surely the grievances are many, and perhaps many are just. But as protestors attack police, the police demand better weapons. Some of the latter protest against ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the police force; others to be allowed to grow their beards.

In much of Egypt life carries on, but it is as if the state is breaking. Why is the presidential palace covered in graffiti? Why are major roads shut down for hours by rowdy youth? Why is the best solution for popular anger against police abuse to stop policing a city entirely?

These are questions for the administration, God, and give them wisdom to handle their many challenges. But the issues are deeper. Egypt was a police state, and the revolution broke it. Perhaps the police are ill equipped to do their job otherwise. Perhaps freedom and human rights have entered the equation, but without experience in balancing with law and order.

If so, God, there are lessons to be learned. May they be learned quickly. Give the Ministry of the Interior a wise and strong figure to reform from within, and facilitate accountability from the outside.

But if not, God, the conspiracies speak. Are the police ignoring the president and working to undermine him? Or have they yielded their old tools to a new regime more than willing to repress? Is the counterrevolution drawing Egypt into more and more chaos to kill revolutionary ideals and garnish popular support for the return of an iron hand? Or is the Islamist idea to secure their project on the ashes of the republican system?

May these be far from the truth, God, however much they are whispered. But fix the country, though only with righteousness. Remove those who retard her, though only with justice.

Give Egypt leaders who can do this; equip the people to ensure it.

God, sponsor their work, and bring it to completion. Keep Egypt safe, secure, and free.

Amen.

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Personal

Harlem Shake in Egypt

The popular dance craze not only reaches Egypt, but targets the Muslim Brotherhood. This version was performed outside their headquarters in Cairo.

It is quite amateur, but expresses a popular urban youth sentiment that Islamist government is out to limit freedom and instill a more religiously conservative society. This dance, including other Western and Arab songs, is a pelvic thrust in their direction.

Is the Harlem Shake a better recourse than debates, seminars, and elections? If nothing else it demonstrates the utter creativity of Egyptians in undermining their leaders.

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Personal

A Family Errand through Tahrir

Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad
Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad

My life in Cairo is spent mostly in our house and the surrounding area of Maadi, which is about half an hour from the famous Tahrir Square.  Friends and family in the states get nervous when they see the violence and flare-ups in Egypt, but the reality for me is generally far removed.  Last week, however, we needed to take a family trip through the heart of the uprising.

Our destination was the American Embassy in Garden City, normally only a five-minute walk from the Square.  Our son, Alexander, was born in Cairo three months ago, and it has taken us this long to secure an appointment with the embassy for his “Certificate of Birth Abroad” (the equivalent of a US birth certificate) and his first passport.  We originally had an appointment at the embassy on the 29th of January, but that was a particularly unstable week around the embassy due to ongoing clashes, and so it closed for several days. All appointments were postponed.  We were hoping for calm now, so we could get this process started.  I didn’t like not having a passport for our baby, as I wasn’t sure what would happen if we were forced to travel.

Since our two oldest girls were still on school break, we ended up taking the whole family downtown for our adventure.  We left our house around 8am with the hopes of arriving in time for our 9am appointment.  Of course, when you are two adults accompanied by three smaller walkers, plus a baby slung snuggly on your chest, it takes a bit longer than normal to get places.  We had an uneventful walk from our house to the closest metro station.

Unfortunately we were traveling during rush hour which meant the metro was packed.  Emma, our oldest, gets a little nervous getting on and off the metro.  She seems to have a fear of our family being split up as some of us get on the train, and others get shut out behind the door.  This has never happened to us, but I understand her fear considering getting on and off the metro can be a real battle due to the sheer number of people.

As we saw the train approach, we noticed that the cars were all quite full.  When the train stopped and the doors opened, we quickly pushed our way in, crowding together with those already in the car.  The trip from our station to downtown is about 20 minutes, and it looked at first, like we would all be standing for that whole time.  But as is common in Egypt, others in the car noticed our small children, and offered me and my baby-in-carrier a seat.  I put Layla on one knee and Hannah on the other until a few minutes later, another seat was offered to Emma and Hannah.

As we rode along, I looked around me and realized there were no other women that I could see in this particular car.  In fact, I was totally surrounded by men.  I was really glad my husband was among them.  Not only was I surrounded, though, but the men had made a barrier of space between me with my kids and everyone on the train.  That was much appreciated considering that where we were standing earlier, there was no space around anyone.  My thoughts went to the many articles I have been reading of violent attacks on women in Tahrir Square.  They sound awful, and the men involved sound like barbarians.  This, on the other hand, was an example of what my family usually experiences: considerate people who look out for the sick, elderly, and moms with young children.

When we arrived at Sadat station, the metro stop under Tahrir Square, I was glad to notice the absence of tear gas.  I have never actually experienced tear gas, but Jayson has on several occasions, and so have some other family members when he has taken them to visit the Square.  I had heard that over the last week, the tear gas was quite palatable in the station, and I was most concerned for our three-month old son if there were any lingering fumes.  I was glad not to notice any.

We exited the metro, Jayson carrying Hannah and Layla, Alexander strapped to me, and Emma holding tightly to my hand.  We quickly escaped the traffic that was exiting with us, regrouped in an open space, and walked toward the turnstiles.  We then followed the crowd through the narrow door, up the steps, and into the open air.

I looked around and saw the white tents covering the center of the traffic circle.  We considered taking a family picture, but, being that we were an American couple with three blonde daughters and a new baby, we didn’t want to linger and attract any more attention than we naturally do wherever we go in Cairo.  We headed toward the embassy.

Embassy Plea
Photo from a few months ago; no cars dare park in the area now.

Normally this walk would take us only 5 minutes, even with the little ones in tow.  However, due to the recent fighting, several walls have been constructed over the last few weeks.  These walls are made of large concrete blocks, each one is probably 3 feet by 3 feet.  The blocks are then stacked 3 or 4 high, and they cover the entrance to streets, blocking the thoroughfares to cars and people.  This meant we had to walk out to the road which runs along the Nile, past the Semiramsis Hotel, which was sadly boarded up at every door and window due to the attacks from last week.

We walked two more blocks until we finally came to a road without a wall.  Turning left, we walked another block to the road the embassy is on.  People were milling about normally, and we noticed several police trucks and tens of riot police walking around, perhaps preparing for coming protests.  The line at the embassy, on the non-American services side, was perhaps slightly shorter than normal, but long, as always.  On the American services side, however, we got right inside once we showed the guard our appointment paper.

The embassy is a comfortable place to sit as you first wait for your number to be called, and then for the staff to get your paperwork started once you’ve submitted it.  The girls enjoyed playing various games in the spacious waiting area.  It is one of the few places in Cairo that I have seen a water fountain … the kind you drink from.  The embassy also had done a good job preparing us for exactly what forms we would need to get the birth certificate and passport.  We were able to submit the papers without any trouble, and look forward to seeing Alexander’s passport in a couple weeks.

Once the work was done, we headed back outside after grabbing our cell phones from security, and decided to walk back to a different metro stop since the Tahrir stop wasn’t as close as it used to be.  Jayson is much more familiar with downtown than I am, so he led the way and eventually we found the stop were looking for.

The ride back home on the metro was a lot less-crowded.  The whole family got a seat and we were glad to have accomplished what we set out to do.  It even included a glimpse of the downtown scene.

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Presidential Palace Clashes

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Protect Egypt. Protect her from descending into social and political polarization. Protect her from leaders who risk mixing the good of the nation with particular agendas. Protect her from her own people, who have turned violently against each other. Protect her from apathy, as many look on from afar.

Perhaps above all, God, protect Egypt from manipulation. Following the deaths of several and the injury of scores, each side blames the other as the propaganda multiplies. Establish the truth of the recent clashes and expose all wrongdoers and opportunists. No free state of liberty can be built on anything but transparency.

Draw back each party from their entrenched positions, without compromising any notion of conviction. There are values and virtues on all sides, surely mixed with the blinders of partisanship. Liberate their minds from prejudice and generalization; replace rejection with a will to dialogue and consensus.

But where there is evil, God, stamp it out. Raise men who will act from simplicity of heart and humility of spirit, but with the power of discernment between right and wrong. Spare the rod from striking the guilty too harshly, that they in their remaining good intentions may be redeemed.

May there be no winner in this standoff, but rather a renewed commitment to work together for the good of all. The goal is a constitution that honors all Egyptians. As difficult as this task may be, it must not be impossible.

God, their conflicting non-negotiable principles appear irreconcilable by human standards. Even if all are called to seek your wisdom, they seek it differently. If as a lowest common denominator in finding your will jointly, may they seek you in each other. May they not cease from wrestling until they secure a blessing from their opponent.

Heal the divisions of the people, God. Bring leaders to discussion even as they rebuke one another. Bless the president and give him wisdom. Bless those who stand in opposition. May these men advance the cause of Egypt and not retard it. May the people do likewise.

Forgive the nation her sins, God. Lead her to repentance. Lead her to peace.

Amen.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

In Memoriam: Dr. Baha Bakry

Dr. Baha Bakry

With Egypt possibly on the brink of a new uprising tomorrow, I have not written much having had other projects. Among them, though, is this worthy one – honoring the memory of a good man who passed away recently. Here is the introduction:

With the passing of Dr. Baha Bakri, the world has lost a friend. Among those mourning are the universities of Cairo and Sinai, the Moral Rearmament Association, the Egyptian Green Party, and Arab West Report.

Dr. Baha Bakri was an environmental architect and a professor of urban ecology whose passion for uplifting the human condition was matched only by his devotion to his students. They loved him as a father, receiving even his rebuke as if from a familial hand. He encouraged without distinction, caring little for appearances, personal glory, or financial gain.

Nagwa Raouf, one of his former students, related the following anecdote. When asked one why he did not write to preserve his wisdom for future generations, he replied, ‘If anyone desires this let them proceed. As for me I don’t have time.’

Indeed, he did not.

Please click here to read the rest of the eulogy at Arab West Report.

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Personal

Little Pink Chicks

We had not noticed it in years past, somehow, but apparently it is the season for pink chicks in Egypt. Really, they are hard to miss.

Mixed among the cutlery, shoes, and fruit offered by illegal street vendors up and down the road leading to the local Maadi metro station are tiny little chicks crowded into plastic boxes. They sell for a pound apiece, the equivalent of eighteen US pennies. They fit snuggly into the palm of a hand.

Many are also painted pink. Demonstrated by the interest taken by our children, this serves to attract customers.

Street vendors have proliferated since the revolution as police have stopped enforcing whatever codes prevented them from being there. They crowd the sidewalk, spill over into the street, and generally increase pedestrian and vehicular traffic. It is practically bedlam in front of the metro station, as taxis congregate as well, awaiting customers.

The vendors are nice enough and do not impose or shout out prices. Elsewhere, tourist market peddlers are notorious for calling out their wares, hoping to prey on naïve foreigners and help separate them from their money. Most seek to be funny, but the economic situation forces the hand of both groups of aspiring entrepreneurs. It is hard not to be sympathetic when the poverty rate exceeds 40%.

A friend tells us, though, that chicks-as-gifts have been popular since she was a girl. The pink seems to be a recent novelty, but Egyptian kids have always loved having an alive toy. Most die after a few days; lack of proper care is certainly a contributing factor.

Laugh, cry, or shrug it off? How would you respond?

Update: My friend tells me that sometimes street vendors will place the chicks on a heated surface, then market them as dancing chicks from Tanzania. But she also tells me that many Egyptians will raise these chicks, and eventually benefit from either a mature rotisserie or egg-laying hen.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Misunderstanding Plagues the US Embassy Protest over anti-Muhammad Film: A First-Hand Account

As clashes continue in the areas surrounding the US Embassy, I have had opportunity to publish my account and analysis from the original incident on EgyptSource. Please click here for the article in full, and excerpts follow below:

The sad spectacle on display at the US Embassy in Cairo on September 11 shows nearly everyone in a poor light. Sadder still is that most parties involved acted from a sense of virtue, but misunderstanding and prejudice corroded the good intentions.

I next proceed to describe some of the background events as well as the misunderstandings on the part of the US Embassy and US media. Next follows perhaps the most crucial observation I gained:

The stranger inference is that the embassy was not surrounded from the beginning. The protest was announced in advance, and yet Egyptian riot police were present throughout the demonstration. Yet it was the army, absent the entire time, which secured the premises.

The US Embassy complex is surrounded by a high wall lining almost entirely the adjacent street. The entrance is located in the center of the wall. Black clad police with helmets and shields lined the wall to the right of the entrance, but yielded the left side to protesters. Essam, an older Salafi protester, told me the police deferred to the ‘Islamists’ to keep the youth under control.

Next follows viewpoints expressed by some of the participants, including these:

Consistently the crowd shouted, ‘With our lives and blood we will redeem you, oh Islam.’ Muhammad, another son of the Blind Sheikh, explained, “For any offense against Islam, the Muslim has the right to defend himself against the one who says it, and this slogan displays his love of his religion.

“Everything has its time and place. It makes no sense to issue simple good preaching during jihad. If someone is attacking you, you resist and fight back, you do not just say a good word.”

Another participant in the protests, Mustafa, who had returned to Egypt after living fifteen years in Brooklyn, commented further. “Those Copts making this film should be killed.”

The sad fact is that so few involved in this episode, whether gathered at surrounding the embassy or abroad, exhibit a will to understand and appreciate the other. For his part, Muhammad Abdel Rahman acknowledged the legitimacy of debate. “A Copt in Egypt may stand publically and state he does not believe in Muhammad. But there is a difference between discussion and insult.”

Yet where is the line to be drawn? What Muhammad might allow Mustafa might murder. Both act from the virtue of principle, yet each is open to the condemnation of fellow Muslims. Such difference in interpretation is witnessed in all actors.

The transition to conclusion involves weighing each actor on the basis of their motivation from virtue, only to be spoiled by misunderstanding. Of course, the virtue of each may be completely false, which is also considered. I end looking ahead to tomorrow, a day seeming increasingly ominous:

The test will come on Friday, when Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have called for more demonstrations against the film. Meanwhile, their political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, described the film as “a failed attempt to stir strife between Muslims and Copts.”

These rallies will only cement the ill image many Arabs and Westerners have of one another. The former see the latter as irreligious libertines, while Muslims get labeled as oversensitive fanatics. It is a sad exchange, overcome only through awareness, acceptance, understanding, and respect. Will wiser heads prevail? Humankind is capable of great virtue, but it is easily marred.

Perhaps nothing of significance will take place, but the fear is that there is significant political capital to play with. Demonizing America has long been a feature of Egyptian domestic policy, even while official relations are maintained, even strengthened. President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood again face the choice to imitate Mubarak, or change the political culture of Egypt.

But if they change, in what direction? Better, or worse?

Please click here for the full text.

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Personal

Reflections on Egypt and Libya: The Body as Bloody Canvas

As noted yesterday, I was at the protest at the US Embassy in Cairo. Really, it struck me very much as a non-event. Similar to when the Israeli Embassy was stormed last year, it seems like the work of a small few, looking to make trouble, perhaps even allowed to do so. It fits in with the manipulations all around this country, and hard to tie to any one party.

I am not pleased it happened, of course, but I can accept it. The burning of the American flag is simply a political statement. I have long learned to live with diatribes against American foreign policy, and watching a flag burn is in several ways easier to digest than someone arguing with you over why America hates Muslims, or something of the like.

But when I learned this afternoon that the American ambassador to Libya was killed in a vicious attack on the consulate there, it was a different matter entirely. My stomach sank and my day was placed on hold, as the facts settled in. Burn the flag, curse my nation, do as you wish. Many times, there is a semblance of legitimacy, if not justification, behind their frustration.

But do not kill.

Yesterday I stated I was somewhat uncomfortable among the protestors. It was mostly in the beginning, when their chants were most vociferous and individuals melted into a collective whole. After a while, it was fine, as I realized they were more summoning the will to protest than driven by rage. I always feel somewhat ashamed when I take note of my reticence; these are people who must be engaged as people. In 99% of the cases, simple human decency wins the day and creates a relationship, however temporary. It is my job and joy to serve them, to help their perspectives become understandable.

But in that 1% humanity is lost and the person becomes a canvas to paint a political message in blood.

That is Libya, and it is a reminder of what is at stake, of the depths of human depravity. Yet the blood for that canvas flows from the heart, which must bleed differently if misunderstandings and antipathies are to be overcome. This is Egypt, at least for now.

But it is Libya also, and every corner of the globe. If the heart does not bleed differently life-as-existence will continue but life-as-abundance will stagnate and die.

Unless the seed falls to the ground and dies it will produce no fruit; but if it dies it will bring forth a harvest. The heart may in the 1% bleed on a canvas, but it must bleed differently in the 99%.

It is said this is true of the American ambassador. May he rest in peace.

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Dahshur and Cabinet

God,

It is good there is now a cabinet in place, because they have work to do.

After a long delay, presumably over negotiations, President Morsy has now sworn in his new government. Public reaction is mostly blah. Most members are technocrats, there are few Muslim Brothers, and no Salafis. Some complain over the number of old regime figures included; others that the cabinet is not at all revolutionary.

If anything, the cabinet is like much in Egypt these days – even the marks of stability seem temporary and transitional.

Yet they are men (and two women out of 35) with responsibility to their country. They bear burdens and must work the wheels of government bureaucracy. Much is on their shoulders, while little has been working the past year and a half.

Give them grace, God, to work as unto you. May their diligence, creativity, and determination be first of all present, and then afterwards rewarded. They have much to do.

Let alone reviving the mechanics of government, there are urgent bubbles bursting. In downtown Cairo there were deaths in classist clashes. In Upper Egypt there were deaths over sexual harassment. Yet the biggest challenge is in Giza – Dahshur – where Muslims and Christians exchanged Molotov cocktails.

A stray bottle killed an innocent Muslim passerby following a simple consumer complaint that spiraled out of control. Security forces intervened when Muslim residents sought revenge for the death of their neighbor. Many were injured protecting the church and Christian homes, but several were burned along with their shops. Police then evacuated 120 Christian families from the village.

It is hard to understand Egypt sometimes, God. Yes, a tribal mentality and culture of revenge is prevalent among many. But how could the masses rally so quickly against an offense? Is it a problem of culture, education, religion?

Forgive the culprits, God, on all sides. Yet hold them accountable. Be merciful in the next world, but may perpetrators and observers see the hand of law in this one. Change the hearts of these men; change the culture in which they live. May grace be valued more than retribution.

The parliament’s upper house has dispatched a committee to seek reconciliation. May they find favor in the eyes of men. May they listen, confront, rebuke, and restore. May they be humble; may they act from purity. Give them the words to say and the hearts to incline. Bring good from this tragedy and knit the hearts of those torn asunder.

Give wisdom to the president, God. His words so far have been wise; may his actions confirm them. He has promised the harsh application of law. He has esteemed Muslims and Christians as brothers. He has pronounced that no citizen must live in fear.

Ah, but may his cabinet apply these sentiments. May the president not rest until his words are enacted. A just settlement will prove so much for his presidency. Fairness may well win over the Copts. It is a new era in Egypt; may sectarian tension not be dealt with in the old ways.

God, may Egypt have peace in all its spheres. May the revolution reach to the hearts and consciences of men. Have mercy, God. Forgive. Above all, redeem and set straight. Continue and complete all the goodness Egypt has won. May the old wineskins be replaced.

Amen.

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Personal

Syrian Rebel Bribes Way Out of Prison, Runs Revolutionary Cairo Tent

Amin Kazkaz

A few days ago I posted an update about Syria, adding a few reflections. A few days after that, I met a Syrian.

Amin Kazkaz is a lawyer from the city of Hama, one of the flashpoints of the uprising. He had been working in the United Arab Emirates but returned to participate in Syria’s revolution.

Participation for Kazkaz meant armed revolt. On the eve of Ramadan 2011, one year ago, he was arrested in his city – with weapons. This information was volunteered and there was no hesitation in his voice.

Hama, reminded Kazkaz, was not the lead city in the revolution. Residents remembered the crackdown by Syrian authorities in 1982 during an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet when other cities such as Deraa began meeting resistance for their peaceful protest the people of Hama felt compelled to join in as well.

Kazkaz spent twenty-five days in jail before his wealthy grandfather was able to intercede. A landowner, he bribed prison officials with 1.5 million Syrian pounds ($23,000 US) to free his grandson and erase his name from the national database. The warden opened Kazkaz’s cell and told him he had six hours to leave the country or risk re-arrest.

Immediately, with only the clothes on his back and items confiscated by the prison, he hired a taxi to take him to Damascus. From there he hired another taxi to cross the border into Amman, Jordan. Once settled, he arranged for his family to send him his private belongings.

In Jordan Kazkaz sought medical treatment for injuries suffered during combat and imprisonment, but then returned to the United Arab Emirates where he maintained residency. By this time, however, the UAE was rejecting Syrians within its borders and his residency was denied.

On a formal level the UAE and several nations of the Gulf condemned the Syrian regime for its crackdown and broke off all relations. This included agreements allowing freedom of movement between its citizens. On an informal level, however, Kazkaz stated that a major pro-regime Syrian businessman was active in the UAE and worked behind the scenes to keep Syrian dissidents out as well.

Kazkaz was forced to return to Jordan, but finding it too expensive he transferred to Egypt. This was five months ago; Egypt continues its policy of easy entry for Arab nationals. No visa is required but his passport is stamped with three month validity.

Egyptian policemen, he notes, are very sympathetic to the Syrian cause. At times he, like other Syrians, is questioned now that his residency has expired. Police look at the passport, note the nationality, hear the story, wish him well, and send him on his way.

For the last two months in Egypt Kazkaz has assumed responsibility to oversee the ‘Syrian tent’. The tent was erected at the Qasr al-Nile entrance to Tahrir Square during the ongoing revolutionary activity following the resignation of Mubarak. It serves as a point of awareness and support for cross-pollination in the Arab Spring. Syrians in Egypt visit regularly.

So do Egyptians; though I wondered for what purpose. A day or two earlier Syrian television announced the death of two Egyptians in a suburb of Damascus, where fighting had been intense. What were they doing there?

That evening the family of the Blind Sheikh was hosting a press conference at their open sit-in outside the US Embassy. My article on this event is here. In previous visits to his family I witnessed their fierce prayers against the Assad regime of Syria. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya – the Blind Sheikh’s organization – has forsworn violence as a tool of Egyptian political change. Yet I wondered if they would encourage, or at least be aware of, Egyptians to go to Syria to join the jihad.

‘Of course there are’, said Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son. ‘But al-Gama’a has nothing to do with them, though it supports the Syrian cause morally. They are individual Muslims – Islamists – only.’

As the sit-in location is only five minutes from the Syrian tent I paid them a short visit first, meeting Kazkaz and hearing his story above. Upon mentioning the names of the two Egyptians, which he didn’t know, his response was quick.

‘I have met 200-300 Egyptians at this tent who have inquired how to join our fight in Syria,’ he said. ‘But we do not allow any foreign fighters in our revolution.’

Kazkaz explained the Syrian revolution was a Syrian cause, but furthermore, involving foreigners would be counterproductive. Not only would it damage their legitimacy but also foreigners do not know the lay of the land. They would be killed in their ignorance and perhaps take Syrians with them.

The only foreigners he has seen are five Iranian snipers he helped capture in Hama.

Yet Kazkaz’s final words, though not at all contradictory, suggest there may be ways for foreign fighters to infiltrate. There are for foreign media.

He offered me personal escort across the border to take a first-hand look at the fighting and to meet the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. All I would have to do is get a visa to Turkey, and he would coordinate everything. He plans to return to Syria within a few weeks.

The time with Kazkaz was insufficient to ask him the following questions:

  • How did you obtain your weapon? How long was peaceful protest underway before you started to use it?
  • To what degree is sectarianism a part of the Syrian revolution? What do you think should become of the Alawite community?
  • To what degree are Christians participating actively on either side?
  • What role do you wish for Islam in a free Syria if you are successful?
  • Are foreign powers equipping you with weapons and support?
  • Do you desire intervention from NATO or an Arab transnational force?
  • What did you do with the Iranians you captured?

As I have mentioned before, it is too difficult to understand Syria through the media alone. Kazkaz’s experience is partisan and that of only one man, but it is first-hand. As such, it is the first I have received.

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Fatimid Egypt, Built on Tolerance

The Azhar Mosque, built by the Fatimids

Note: This is an article from two years ago, never posted on the blog but presented now in memory of Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih, the primary subject. Last week was the year anniversary of his death. He was a good man.

On February 18, 2010 the Jaffa Center hosted a forum entitled, “The Fatimid State: Protecting the Holy Places of Mecca and Jerusalem”. The Jaffa Center is directed by Dr. Rifaat Ahmad, who was previously interviewed concerning the practice of reconciliation sessions in Egyptian society. He is concerned with combating the spread of Wahhabi thought in Egypt, as is one of the main contributors to the forum, Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayih, who was previously interviewed about Nag Hamadi. Upon receiving kind invitations from both gentlemen to attend the forum, I accepted in hope of strengthening relationships and seeing each in a natural environment.

Ten presenters participated in the forum, each one associated with the Jaffa Center, which aids in their research. The Libyan owned, Egyptian based satellite television channel, al-Sa’a, broadcast the proceedings. Dr. Ahmad served as moderator, and each researcher had ten minutes to present his study. Though topics varied, most presentations focused on the political relations at the time, both internal and external. Fatimid Egypt was described as a strong military and economic state, founded upon scientific inquiry, and welcoming of other religious viewpoints. The leadership of the state was composed of Shi’a Muslims originally from Tunisia, but ruled over a predominantly Sunni Muslim majority. They created al-Azhar University as a tool to promote Shi’a thought, but made little effort, it was claimed, to transform the religious loyalties of the people. Most senior military officials, in fact, were Sunni Muslims loyal to the Shi’a state. Together, they resisted the Crusader’s efforts to reclaim the Holy Land.

Sheikh Ahmad developed this line of thought in his presentation, celebrating the Fatimids for opposing the spirit of denominationalism. Instead, they promoted humanist thinking of the highest degree, espousing tolerance, dialogue, and moral consciousness throughout their territory. They combined respect for scripture with an open minded commitment to reason, welcoming Christian participation in their cause. Sheikh Ahmad highlighted that the Fatimids constructed five churches for the Christian community in Cairo, churches which remain standing to this day. These are in the area of Zuwaila bil-Jamaliyya, near the mosque of al-Hussain.

Sheikh Ahmad proceeded from the historical model to extend pronouncements about the needs of Muslims in the contemporary world. Modern Islamic thought and practice, he declared, are in great need of rediscovery of these sublime principles from the Fatimid era. The denominational spirit is alive today, dividing Muslims and other religious adherents alike. This fanaticism kills both religious and humanistic values, as well as a closed mind which is not fitting for Islamic civilization. It leads some, in fact, to imagine that Islamic civilization built itself upon religious values alone. This is nonsense, Sheikh Ahmad declared, there is no civilization but that which has taken and developed ideas and structure from that which existed before it. This is why, he concluded, modern civilizations must respect and cooperate together. None stands independent; all and mutually benefit through the exchange of culture, ideas, and viewpoints.

I am not a scholar of the period, but the presentations surprised me in two directions. First, my limited knowledge of the Fatimid period was built upon the impression that it was a Shi’a enterprise. Though I had known the population remained loyal throughout its rule to Sunni principles, I had previously only heard negative words spoken of this state. Perhaps this is not unexpected given my residences in Sunni nations alone, but most Muslims with whom I conversed dismissed the Fatimids as a historical exception, finally put right by the Sunni champion Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, known as Saladin in the West. It was strangely disorientating to hear such positive words uttered on their behalf.

The second surprise was the depth of such thoughts, compared to a particular feature of history which I have heard, but do not know well. The researchers were unanimous in proclaiming the tolerance of the Fatimid state, but it had been my impression that this was the period in which the Copts of Egypt were treated most harshly. While this requires more and thorough research on my part, I had heard this was the era in which the then still majority Christian population, along with the Jews, were forced to wear their distinctive clothing and mount only inferior donkeys for their transport. Many have understood these developments not to be intrinsic to Islam itself but reactions to Crusading Christian pressures which unbalanced internal religious relationships. It seemed, however, from the testimony that these persecutions took place under the reign of Caliph Hakim bil Amr Allah, who described as being an oddity having a personality which constantly changed his opinions and policies. It was said he later succumbed to insanity. As mentioned, these surprises came only from impressions, and impressions are unstable ground for the study of history. I was glad to have received another dimension to my understanding.

Though the study and discussion of history is enjoyable, it was not the purpose for which I attended the forum. Instead I had hoped to develop the relationship with two gentlemen with whom we have been growing in dialogue and cooperation. I had also wished to witness if the call to peace and tolerance from our private meetings would be given with the same enthusiasm in a public setting. Though I did not doubt the sincerity of the earlier testimony of either, I was pleased to see the same enthusiasm expressed amidst a group of their peers. May we all with such consistency both speak and live our convictions.

 

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What Egyptian Christians Think about their New Islamist President

Morsy celebrating victory

My article on Morsy’s victory was originally published at Christianity Today on June 25, 2012.

In the most democratic elections since 1952, the people of Egypt have freely chosen their leader. And for the first time in history, that leader is a native-born Islamist.

Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood captured 51 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating his rival Ahmed Shafik (widely perceived as the candidate of the former regime) who gathered 48 percent. Jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated into the night, though for diverse reasons.

Many rejoiced at the triumph of the candidate of Islam, one who had pledged to implement Shari’ah law. Others, nervous at the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood rule, nevertheless exulted in the triumph of the revolution, first deposing Mubarak and then defeating his former minister.

Some, though not likely in Tahrir, quietly exhaled at a democratic election and rotation of power, hopeful these gains will not be reversed.

Meanwhile, at a Christian retreat center outside of Cairo, a number of Coptic women shed tears of despair over their community’s future, as they huddled around a television and watched Morsy be proclaimed the winner.

Some of the men tried to find the positive…

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today

 

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Brotherhood Faces Both Ways as Egypt Votes for President

Mohamed Morsy

The Islamist front-runner in today’s historic presidential election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy, has ‘clarified’ the Islamic position on conversion, in what could be seen as an appeal to liberal election watchers.

He said on the popular al-Nahar satellite TV station, on 17 May, in Arabic: ‘There is a wrong concept widely misunderstood, that the apostate [convert] is subject to Islamic punishment. This needs clarification,’ he said on the eve of the first free elections in Egypt’s history.

The man described by the Times today as an ‘uncharismatic party bureaucrat’ was not the Brotherhood’s original candidate, but emerged after the interim authorities banned Khairat al-Shater, who had spent time in jail under the Mubarak regime.

His pronouncement is startling since apostasy – renouncing Islam – carries the death penalty in much of the Muslim world.  It is not proscribed by the constitutional law in Egypt, although citizens can bring cases against those suspected of contravening any aspect of the sharia which is still the primary source of law.

Opportune

Morsy’s own conversion has come at an opportune time, on the eve of the second day of polling.  He believes he has found a new perspective on what is widely seen as the root cause of oppression in the Islamic world:  ‘The Egyptian citizen, between himself and God, if he wants to change his faith or his doctrine, he has complete freedom.’

Morsy, like all candidates, in appealing to as many voters as possible, speaks the language of Islam, with competition fierce between him, other Islamist candidates such as Abdul Moneim Abou El Fotouh and secular figures like former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

Current polls show Morsy trailing in as low as third or fourth position, but few people doubt the organizational capabilities of the Brotherhood to get out the vote.

For his part, Morsy predicted he would capture 60 per cent of the vote in first round elections which began yesterday (23 May) but there would be a run-off if any candidate failed to win 50 per cent-plus-one of the electorate, between the top two, on 16/17June.

He has clearly chosen this issue due to its high symbolic value among human rights advocates, with two cases of Muslims converting to Christianity currently going through the courts, according to the 2011 US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report.

A third case concerns around 100 Coptic applicants seeking re-conversion to Christianity, having previously adopted Islam.

Countries where conversion is treasonable are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Qatar, UAE, according to the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies’ 5th annual report in 2010, and this has a chilling effect on Egyptian religious freedom.

A case can be made against any Egyptian citizen for any crime against Islam and a judge has the ability to accept or deny that case.

In the past decade, a number of judges have taken it upon themselves to rule according to Islamic law regardless of what the constitutional law says, and have imposed draconian punishment ranging from imprisonment and torture to enforced divorce and loss of position.

The apparent arbitrariness of this as a system – since Sharia is so widely interpreted in the Muslim world – accounts for the insecurity felt by many.

Revd Fayez Isack is a pastor at the evangelical church of Kasr el-Dobara in Cairo, the largest Protestant church in the Arab world. He maintains these legal cases are only the tip of the iceberg, but there is no sound research on precise numbers.

He finds little comfort in Morsy’s statement.

‘This is typical of the way they talk. The apostate has all the rights until he becomes a threat to the system of God, and then the law of God is applied,’ he said.

According to other Protestant sources, who asked not to be named for the sake of security, there are hundreds of thousands of ‘secret believers’ who have converted to Christianity. For these, the ‘clarification’ Morsy mentioned is important.

Morsy contends that religion is a private matter – up to a point.  He stated:  ‘Anyone who keeps his trouble in his home, to himself – no one has the legal or Islamic right to knock on his door and ask what he’s doing. But when the home begins to affect society, this is where the law and the sharia have the right to interfere.’

Official Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan backs up Isack’s critique. ‘Egyptian society is not like the West; calling to a different religion causes social strife, even if just one person to another.’

Jerusalem

Morsy’s appeal to liberal voters contrasts with other MB efforts to reach conservatives with a pan-Islamic vision that has horrified some commentators in the wake of the Revolution.

Sheikh Safwat Hegazi, a popular television preacher who appears frequently with Morsy at rallies, was banned from entering France in April.

Safwat Hegazi

Endorsing Morsy, he declared recently before thousands at Cairo stadium: ‘We can see how the dream of the Islamic caliphate is being realized, God willing, by Dr. Mohamed Morsi.

‘Our capital shall not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina; millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.’

Ghozlan dismissed these comments, but stopped short of condemning them.

‘Egypt is a sinking ship, and we need to get back on our own feet before we can worry about regional issues.

‘This is less a strategy than a dream, and his comments are not based in any reality.

‘We are part of the Arab world and we believe in Arab unity and greater integration both politically and economically, but we would need to wait decades, even centuries, before we can see a caliphate realized.

‘Wisdom says let the statement go and seek to clarify, rather than embarrassing the person who came to support you.’

Yet another MB commentator, Hassan Abdel Sattar Mohamed, member of the media committee of the Brotherhood for south Cairo, is clearer.  He stated: ‘Hegazi sees in Morsy one who will apply the goals of sharia, and who has a vision for the unity of Arab and Islamic states.

‘We refuse the Zionist entity which occupies al-Aqsa [in Jerusalem], and we support the Palestinian cause.

‘It is the ultimate goal to have Jerusalem as the capital and to march for its liberation, but reality does not permit this now.’

Politicians around the world seek ‘big tent’ politics, but often by default fall back on the strength of their base. Seeking the centre, the Muslim Brotherhood has made countless statements on their intention to create a civil state with full citizenship rights for all.

The question that remains to be resolved is whether such statements as these on apostasy and the caliphate represent an appeal for votes – or core policy objectives.

This piece was originally published on Lapido Media.

 

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Salafism in Egypt: The Example of the Asala Party in Warraq, Cairo

Essam al-Sharif

Salafi politics has taken Egypt by storm. This has surprised many commentators who underestimated their base of thought and non-political nature. For others, it has been a validation of years of Salafi work in mosques and surrounding communities to preach Islam and help the poor.

As an aid to understanding this phenomenon, and in effort to understand it myself, this text will function as an inverted pyramid. It will start with broad strokes concerning the Salafi coalition in Egypt – the Nour Party, focus on one member in particular – the Asala Party, demonstrate their base in a typical neighborhood – Warraq, and then feature one member in particular – Essam al-Sharif. Appreciation is given for his help in gathering the story which follows.

For a historical background to Salafism in Egypt, click here for a previous post. Though lines overlap, Salafis can be distinguished from Muslim Brothers and Islamic revolutionaries based on methodology, rather than thought. All three groups desire some sort of an Islamic state in which sharia law is the basis of governance. After a history of struggle against the state, the Muslim Brotherhood foreswore violence and sought to transform society while seeking entrance into the political arena. Believing the Brotherhood to have betrayed the jihadist struggle, revolutionary groups such as al-Jama’a al-Islamiya continued to agitate against the state, seeking its overthrow.

Salafis, meanwhile, are understood to be quietist. They eschewed political participation, with some, perhaps many, declaring it to be heretical to Islamic law. At the same time their theology called for obedience to a Muslim ruler. Unlike many in the revolutionary groups, Salafis accepted the broad, liberal, and traditional interpretation of ‘Muslim ruler’, accepting Mubarak as having been given by God.

Therefore, while the state pounded revolutionary Islamic groups out of existence in the 1990s and early 2000s, and placed countless political obstacles and jail terms in the path of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak generally allowed Salafis free reign to propagate their religious interpretations. While strict limits were enforced, Salafi preaching proliferated in the mosques of lower class areas as well as on popular satellite television channels. Rumors are rife concerning extensive financial support from conservative Gulf nations, but the result was the emergence – below the attention of middle class society and politics – of an authentic Egyptian Salafi movement.

Conventional wisdom states given their unique situation in the Egyptian scene, Salafis did not join the revolution of January 25. By and large this is true; many of their leaders declared such activity as religiously haram. Yet many Salafis did participate. This is the testimony of Hani Fawzi, a political activist from Helwan and party leader for the Salafi Asala Party in Nasr City, Cairo. He joined the demonstrations on January 28, as did a few of his favored Salafi sheikhs, such as Nashat Ahmad, Hassan Abu al-Ishbal, Fawzi al-Sayyid, and lastly Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, who will be mentioned later.

Nevertheless, upon the success of the revolution and the opening of the political scene, most were surprised to see the enthusiastic participation of newly formed Salafi parties. This was accompanied by much internal discord. Some continued to criticize political participation, and those who formed parties witnessed several divisions and splits. In the end, two main groupings emerged.

The first and largest issued from Alexandria, understood to be the greatest base of Salafi strength. Leaders there created the Nour (Light) Party. Meanwhile in Cairo, the Asala (Origin) Party was formed. Other parties also emerged, but did not come to national prominence. Nour and Asala were not true rivals, however. One Salafi stated the reason to have more than one party was pragmatic. If any difficulties were encountered by one party – political, legal, administrative – the other one could assure representation.

Over the summer Egypt’s political powers negotiated alliances as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party seized the place of initiative. They created the ‘Democratic Alliance’, seeking as broad a coalition as possible. The historic liberal party, the Wafd, joined them, as did the newly created Salafi entities. Newer liberal parties rejected the central place of the Brotherhood and doubted their democratic credentials. The Free Egyptians and the Social Democratic Party allied instead with the youth revolutionary parties, setting up a liberal vs. Islamist electoral battle.

Yet further splintering emerged. The revolutionary parties split from what became known as the Egyptian Bloc, largely over issues of representation and nomination of members. Meanwhile, the Wafd Party decided the Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance did not fit with its liberal heritage, and decided to go it alone in elections.

The surprise came when the Salafis later split from the Brotherhood, although the reason is similar to that which dissolved the Egyptian Bloc. Egypt’s electoral system created a two-thirds ‘party list’ and a one-third ‘individual’ competition for seats. In the party list system, a slate of candidates would be presented, to be voted on as a whole. The number of candidates elected would correspond to the percentage of the vote captured by the list within a particular district. For individual seats, only one person could be nominated and receive support from the coalition.

In the Egyptian Bloc, youthful revolutionaries and established middle-class professionals vied for positioning at the top of the list, and for nomination in individual elections. When the youth felt they were being marginalized, they formed their own coalition. It should be mentioned additionally that leftist-liberal orientation played a role in their division, though it did not take down the alliance. The remaining Free Egyptian Party (right of center economically) and Social Democratic Party (left of center) held together in support of a liberal political system, and perhaps in opposition to Islamist trends.

The story is similar for the Democratic Alliance. The largely middle-class and politically established Muslim Brotherhood clashed with the lower-class and populist Salafis over representation in the coalition. It should be mentioned additionally that moderate-conservative orientation also played a role. Yet rather than this designation, it might be more true to label the conflict as pragmatic versus idealistic. In any case, the Salafi parties left and created a coalition under the name of their dominant partner, the Nour Party.

This coalition included the Reform and Development Party, created since the revolution by al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, the former Islamic revolutionaries. After being greatly weakened by the state, the group controversially foreswore violence in the late 1990s. Laboring internally over their identity and purpose, al-Jama’a maintained a base of support in Upper Egypt, and allied with the Salafis during the elections.

The other partner with Nour is the aforementioned Asala Party, to which the rest of this essay will turn. This largely geographical alliance – Alexandria, Cairo, Upper Egypt – gave the Salafis a national base of support, allowing each partner to draw from their positions of strength. The result has been a solid 25% of the national vote. The Muslim Brotherhood drew support from many Egyptians for its role as major opposition party to Mubarak, as well as a lack of alternatives, and not necessarily from its Islamist politics. Salafis, meanwhile, drew only from their base and their religious-identity based campaign strategy, suggesting their representation does indeed encompass one in four Egyptians.

Yet before moving on in complete acceptance of this fact, it is suspected by many the Salafis also received the benefit of official fraud. If this accusation is true, it does not necessarily imply their complicity. Rather, it is maintained the ‘old regime’ remnants in the state wish to prop up the Salafis for one of two reasons. First, given their political acquiescence to the stability of order, otherwise non-Salafi political apparatchiks and business interests believe they can rule through the Salafis and maintain a Mubarak-style regime. They would allow Salafis to institute a more conservative social order, but themselves exist outside of its reach. The assumed political naiveté of Salafis would also allow the same level of corruption in administration and policing.

The second reason proposed for state-sponsorship of the Salafis is that they are meant as a counter-balance to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is maintained the Brotherhood could not be denied leadership in the post-revolutionary order, but they are pragmatic enough to play political games. Mubarak scared the West by saying support me, or face the Brotherhood. Old regime members can now make back-door deals with the pro-business Brotherhood to say, support us, or face the Salafis. Meanwhile, to keep the Brotherhood honest, the old regime can threaten them with the populist Salafis, who can ‘out-Islam them’ if push comes to shove, especially if the state greases the wheels of low-level electoral fraud. Either way, it is a dangerous game, but many liberals believe it is being played, if only from sour grapes.

Shifting focus to the Asala Party in particular, it is interesting to note it was not the first Salafi Party formed in Cairo. This honor goes to the Fadila (Virtue) Party. According to reports, the co-founder of the Fadila Party, Khaled al-Said, had disagreements with elected chairman Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, resulting in the parting of their ways. The latter then went on to found the Asala Party.

Afifi had been a general in the police force and the director of the Passports and Immigration Control section of the Interior Ministry. He is also noteworthy for being the brother of the celebrated Salafi television preacher Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, who also served as a government chemist. His Egyptian ministry is based in Shubra, a neighborhood in the north of Cairo.

Afifi was elected president of the party, which he co-founded with Ehab Shiha, an engineer who owns a mid-level building company. Shiha is vice-president of the party, along with Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer renowned for handing the defense of Islamist clients, especially from al-Jama’a al-Islamiya.

Subtitle: A Contemporary Vision of Original Principles

The Asala Party literature declares it to possess ‘a contemporary vision of original principles’. This vision consists of six founding principles which influence eight goals in particular.

Founding Principles

  • Islamic sharia law is the principle source for legislation, which guarantees justice for all denominations of the people.
  • The national benefit will be promoted through the search for professionals of high capability and sincerity to work in government.
  • The Egyptian people have the right to personal freedom of expression, and the Egyptian citizens must have their respect and dignity protected.
  • The Egyptian people have the right to chose their representatives in both legislative councils and executive bodies.
  • Elected representatives are chosen by the people to express their viewpoints, not to be considered better than them.
  • The ruling authorities – president of the republic and the cabinet ministers – are employees who work for the good of the people, who have the right to question, hold accountable, and judge them if they perform poorly.

Party Goals

  • Intellectual, social, and moral development through purifying souls and the elevation of traditional values drawn from Islamic sharia law.
  • Complete economic renaissance in all sectors of the state resulting in an increase in GDP through ideal use of national resources.
  • Just distribution of wealth and lessening the class divisions to improve the social situation of the general Egyptian people.
  • Preserving the dignity of the Egyptian citizen, whether inside or outside of Egypt, without looking to his social position, as the simple citizen is the primary member of society.
  • Complete improvement in social services necessary for the public, including educational, health, and security.
  • Establishing the foundation of justice and equality between citizens in their rights and the rule of law, through implementing Article Two of the constitution to ensure the regulations of Islamic sharia are the true and veritable primary source of legislation.
  • Crafting strong relations with neighboring countries, especially of the Nile Basin to preserve the interests of Egypt both domestically and internationally.
  • The return of Egypt to her position of leadership in the region, in Africa, and among Islamic nations, as deserving of her history, civilization, and the potential of her great people.

The Asala Party then went about the work of building party infrastructure. They chose Essam al-Sharif as party secretary for Warraq, a neighborhood in north-west Cairo. Warraq is a mixed industrial-agricultural area, lower class, with Christians populating in general accordance to their national percentage. There are several churches, one of which is alleged to have received an appearance of the Virgin Mary in December 2009. The name of the area is derived from the Arabic for ‘maker of paper’. As such, it hosted papyrus manufacture from ancient days as well as the first modern printing press in Egypt. It is also well known for production of women’s Islamic dress.

During elections, Warraq constituted a district along with the neighboring areas of Awseem and Manashi. The district was allotted ten seats for party-list competition. The Muslim Brotherhood backed Freedom and Justice Party captured 40% of the vote, while the Nour Party alliance received 30%, capturing three seats. Two of these three – Adel Azayzi and Abu Khadra – are from the Nour Party proper, while the third – Nazzar Ghurab – represented the Reform and Development Party of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya. The Asala Party did not field a candidate in this district, but campaigned for its partners all the same.

The campaign for individual candidates followed national law to vote for one seat for ‘professionals’, and another for ‘workers/farmers’. This peculiarity is a holdover from Nasser-era elections designed to assure better representation for the working class in his socialist system. Over a hundred candidates campaigned, but only a few had enough prominence to secure victory.

One major issue for parties was the dominance of Mubarak’s National Party in all constituencies of Egypt. This did not concern the professionals’ seat, in which Mahmoud Amer of the Freedom and Justice Party defeated Emad al-Halabi from Nour in the run-off election. This was a friendly competition in which the two candidates shook hands after the final result was declared. On the street however, the FJP candidate received the vote of a Salafi partisan, angering some within Asala. Many commentators expect a replication in the years to come. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are ideologically similar, yet competition often brings out the worst in men, even among friends.

Yet the problems of candidacy with the old regime National Party complicated the workers’/farmers’ election. Newer parties were under pressure not to nominate any Mubarak era figures, but this eliminated so many potential candidates. In the end, both the FJP and the Nour Party selected individuals, but their applications were rejected legally for not meeting worker/farmer qualifications. As such, Islamist forces failed to feature a candidate for this Warraq slot.

Even so, they represented a major voting constituency, desired by other candidates. In the initial election neither the FJP nor the Salafis endorsed a candidate. The run-off resulted in the easy victory of Mustafa Sulman, an independent candidate, over Yusuf Khalid of the Egyptian Bloc. Sharif explained both candidates had ties to the National Party, though neither occupied significant leadership. To play in politics under Mubarak meant getting your hands dirty in the party; Sharif believed Khalid’s hands were dirtier. Islamists threw their weight behind Sulman in the run-off, which was decisive.

One of the more prominent campaign tactics of the Nour Party coalition was widely criticized by other parties. Outside the party headquarters of Asala a pickup truck would arrive several times weekly, stocked with gas bottles. These are needed by the majority of residents as the state does not provide independent gas lines into each home. Due to a purported shortage in supply the black market drove up rates, yet the Asala Party sold each at the designated government price. It was assumed there was either money from the Gulf funding this program, or else government corruption to facilitate it.

Sharif explained there was indeed corruption, but that the Asala Party was combating it. The offices of the local governor would authorize certain people as agents, sell them bottles for 3LE ($0.50 US), and allow them to resell at 5LE ($0.80 US). Instead, due to shortages, bottles were being sold for as much as 20-25LE ($3.25 – $4 US). In many parts of Egypt there were protests over these shortages, with the poor bearing the brunt of others’ profit.

The Nour Party coalition went to the governor and threatened to bring him up on charges of corruption if this process did not cease. They then arranged directly with the agent at the point of loading, paying him his due price, and directing the pick-up truck to party neighborhoods in each district. There, to gathered crowds, party coordinators would sell the bottles at price, plus 1LE markup for transportation. According to Sharif, there was neither profit nor expense for the party. There was, however, great popular acclaim. When one recipient entered the party offices and asked who to vote for, Sharif stated (at least in the presence of the author), ‘Whoever you want.’ Upon insistence, he said the Nour Party is good. Asked about the Brotherhood, he said they were good also.

This program could have been done by any party, Sharif explained, but the success of the Salafis stems from their connection to the people. Sharif is a son of Warraq; he is a local businessman who owns a coffee bean shop. He is not wealthy, but is able to travel to Sudan on business to import supplies. Furthermore, he works for the Asala Party on a volunteer basis. He believes in his principles, and sacrifices for them.

As an example of sacrifice, connection to the people, but not fanaticism to the party, Sharif offered his intervention on behalf of his Christian neighbor. Shadia Bushra is a 45 year old widow, living in an apartment complex owned by her extended family. When her aunt decided to move to a more affluent quarter, she attempted to sell the building. Shadia, however, refused to leave. She was paying 10LE ($1.80 US) monthly rent for years, and a now grandfathered housing law dictated the freezing of the original rental contract. If Shadia moved she would have to find a new apartment at current market prices, which would overwhelm her and her three children. Shadia earned around 300LE ($55 US) per month working in a local nursery, and received a 120LE ($20 US) monthly stipend from the government as a widow.

Shadia’s aunt could have sold the building without forcing the move, but this would have resulted in a lower sale price, as the new owner would be legally obligated to honor the original rental agreement. Shadia, however, had long lost the original contract, and her aunt decided to take her to court.

Having been neighbors for many years, Sharif helped Shadia when the priest in the local church took the side of the wealthy relatives. He went with her multiple times to the court, and bore witness she was a long standing resident of the apartment. The judge ruled in her favor, and she is now the sole resident in an empty apartment building.

Shadia asked Sherif if he would have helped her had the litigant been a Muslim. Sherif answered he only became involved because she bore the side of right, and was acting on behalf of a neighbor. Shadia wound up voting for the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, following the general word on the street. She gave no indication Sherif influenced her to vote in any direction.

Egypt is learning the ways of democracy, yet within a historic struggle for power. Part of the acclaim of Islamist parties is they represent a departure from the ways of corruption in the former regime, bound, as they are, by the moral strictures of Islam. Whether they will prove incorruptible is subject to much doubt, and though Sharif’s explanation of the gas bottle campaigning is reasonable, it also seems to skirt the line of the acceptable.

Yet Sharif displays a magnanimity and sincerity bearing well on his party. Its principles and goals may be another matter, requiring further analysis. Whether or not an open-minded, reasonable personality like Sharif is representative of his party is yet another question. To what degree are Salafis other-rejecting extremists, and to what degree are they simply portrayed this way in liberal propaganda, which has rarely descended to learn from or benefit the street?

Answers to these questions will require the wisdom of the years to come, yet requires immediate action in electoral decisions. Salafis are part and parcel of Egypt; their place is demanded in representation. How Egyptians decide – or are manipulated – is subject to debate; this small window into their world is offered simply as a means to understanding.

 

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Ripples

God,

As a tumultuous period has passed, though not been resolved, smaller items follow in succession. Largely Islamist protests the past two weeks in Tahrir rippled out to the governorates, where thousands of people demonstrated to ‘save the revolution’. It is hard to gauge the effect, but if Islamists decide to continue, and if revolutionaries decide to join them, Egypt could be shaken up and down the Nile, not just as previously in Cairo.

But for this week, revolutionaries did not join them. The quotes used earlier reflect their estimate that Islamist protest is only a tool for leverage against the military, not a commitment to the goals of January 25. It is an old question, but viewed through a new strategy. Revolutionaries have railed against the military for months; as latecomers are Islamists true converts or old manipulators? Regardless, should they join hands anyway, or let the two come to blows, if indeed that is fated?

God, the ripples are in advance of elections, when a tsunami may engulf them. Stabilize Egypt in the coming weeks that this first democratic experiment might hold and issue confidence.

Such confidence may be waning, as another ripple disqualified a candidate, only to bring him back again. Mubarak’s prime minister following the outbreak of the January revolution has long been a candidate for president. Parliament passed a law to bar all old regime figures, under which he was eliminated. Then, strangely, only a day later he was cleared in his appeal.

God, there is much that makes one shake the head in confusion. For the normal citizen, keep such vagaries from returning perspective to the prerevolutionary days of resignation.

For the political parties, aid their understanding of what must be fought for, and what may be accepted. If all must be fought, then give the strength and endurance to do so.

For Egypt’s judiciary, may members be men of integrity and courage, that they may interpret the law as it was intended, and for the good of the people. If this was not the intention, give discernment in the absence of clear separation of powers.

For the military council, give them steadfastness to complete the long period of transition. May they stand at arm’s length from each pursuant of power, and equip the people to make wise decisions. May they keep the nation from danger, especially that which is self-inflicted.

God, gear Egypt for these final coming stages. May she endure and overcome all challenges; may she emerge victorious in honor of all who have sacrificed for freedom. These are many, from all spectrums of society.

In the end, however different their viewpoints and disappointed their efforts, may they all embrace in celebration of what was wrought, that it may continue.

And God, may such success ripple throughout the region, that it too may know peace. Bless Egypt, God. May she soon have rest.

Amen.

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Personal

On Expat Life and a Sense of Belonging

A little while ago the expat facilitation site InterNations featured our blog to help their readers adjust in advance to life in Cairo. Please click on the link to see their article for yourself, but here is the content. It describes a little of our philosophy in living overseas.

1.      Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Egypt, etc.

I am an American writer living in Egypt with my family, having arrived in the summer of 2009. I write primarily with Arab West Report, but also with other outlets on a freelance basis.

2.      When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

My editor at Arab West Report encouraged me to keep a blog for several reasons. One, it would be a permanent record of our experiences, to draw back upon for all future writings. Two, it would expand awareness for our publication. Third, and most important, it would share our experiences from Egypt in service of increased understanding between cultures.

3.      Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

The first post ever is probably the most useful in describing our hopes in expat living and writing. It explains the title of our blog – A Sense of Belonging. Here is the link: http://asenseofbelonging.org/2009/10/04/a-sense-of-belonging/

4.      Tell us about the ways your new life in Cairo differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?

Life in Cairo is not our first overseas experience, but it did come with significant differences from other Arab nations we have lived in. Due to the great population, it is challenging to deal with pollution, trash, and the pinch on traditional Arab hospitality caused by people already having a wealth of relationships. These are often family, but with other expats as well. Egyptians are extraordinarily friendly, but it has been harder to make friends here than in other nations.

5.      Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Egypt? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

Well, we weren’t prepared for a revolution! Fortunately, we feel our attitude toward belonging equipped us to adapt, sympathize, and celebrate with the people both then and in their continuing difficult situation, amidst so much hope.

6.      Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

The Cairo metro provides women-only cars in the middle of the train. In my early days I was rushing to catch the metro before it left the station and inadvertently boarded the wrong car. Immediately I was hit by a gamut of angry glares. I nodded, touched my head in apology, and switched cars at the next stop.

7.      Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Egypt?

First, realize there are many amenities for the expat community, so not everything of the old lifestyle must be left behind. Second, open your mind and heart to the new lifestyle, because there will be so many differences it can drive you crazy if you don’t aim to embrace it. Third, especially in the beginning, consciously limit making friends among expats, or else the natural bonds of community will squeeze you from making Egyptian friends and entering Egyptian life. If you aim to speak Arabic, do the same and avoid English speaking relationships as much as possible.

8.      How is the expat community in Cairo? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

The expat community is wonderful. There are several social groups, service organizations, churches, and clubs to meet every relational need. Our daughter has especially enjoyed the local (mostly) expat soccer league, as it is difficult for girls to otherwise play sports publicly.

9.      How would you summarize your expat life in Egypt in a single, catchy sentence?

We don’t belong, but we aim to – and in the end we somewhat do.

 

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Personal

Drawing through the Walls: Artists Beautify Cairo’s Barriers

Over the past several months the military council has erected massive stone barriers during street confrontations around the Interior Ministry near Tahrir Square. They have meant either to separate revolutionaries and police forces engaged in pitched battles, or, as a preventative measure to block the path to the ministry itself.

As a consequence, not only has Cairo’s traffic snarled even further, the city has grown ugly.

Here is an example:

On Qasr al-Aini Street

On March 9 revolutionaries decided to take a different tack, launching a campaign called ‘Drawing through the Walls’. Artists chose the day to set upon the erected barriers with brush, paint, and stencil. Beginning on Qasr al-Aini Street, across Sheikh Rihan, and down the now-(in)famous Mohamed Mahmoud, here is a collection of their work:

Qasr al-Aini Street, redone
Sheikh Rihan Street
Yousef el-Gindi Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, as with all remaining pictures
el-Falaki Street
Mansour Street
Abdel Magid al-Ramali Street
Noubar Street; translation: Beware of the Families of Abideen; No to the Walls; Abideen - Revolutionaries and not Thugs

I’m not sure why this last wall off Mohamed Mahmoud Street didn’t receive the full artistic treatment. Perhaps the thugs, er, revolutionaries of Abideen preferred their warning? 🙂

Click here for a map of the area, and here, for full coverage of the project in the Egyptian English press.

Some of these pictures are rather simple, others reflect quite talented artistry. The striking resonance is of a world now lost. Paintings which extend the street and sidewalk as if all were normal best reflect this theme.

The world is not normal. Many revolutionaries are accused of sowing anarchy; of some this is surely true. Others, however, long for a world of freedom and beauty. They have registered their protest as best they know how, with creativity.

Beauty and creativity are the hallmarks of God. May these artists be honored in their imitation.

Note: This post was delayed about three weeks by Pope Shenouda’s death and other events, but has come back into the news as activists have partially torn down one wall as of yesterday. Click here for the article.

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Personal

A Salafi Speaks in Church on Shenouda

Fatima Naout and a surprise Salafi guest

The evening was supposed to be about Fatima Naout and Pope Shenouda. It turned out to be so much more.

That it included Fatima Naout is semi-exceptional in itself. St. Mark’s  Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi invited her to be the keynote presenter for a memorial service for Pope Shenouda. Naout is a Muslim.

Yet she is well known in Egypt – and celebrated by Copts – as a staunch defender of citizenship, liberal principles, and Coptic rights. There are many Muslims like her, of course, but she goes further. She has memorized many verses of the Bible and lauds Christians over the sublime teachings of their religion.

She stated she loves to go to church because she is jealous of Christians. She finds much in Islam to be their antithesis.

During her presentation Naout made many beautiful remarks about Pope Shenouda, and was received warmly. It was not until the end, however, that the evening got really interesting.

Mahmoud arrived, complete with the full length beard marking a Muslim of Salafi persuasion.

He was noticed quickly, and must have explained himself sufficiently, for before too long he was brought to the front to speak. He apologized for being late, and offered his condolences over the death of Pope Shenouda, offering kind words about their spiritual leader.

The church was electrified. In the days after Pope Shenouda’s death a popular Salafi preacher forbade Muslims from saying the common cultural expression over a death, ‘God have mercy on him.’ Shenouda was an infidel, and the head of the infidels, and God would not have mercy on an infidel, especially one who brought such sectarian tension to Egypt and wished to create an independent Coptic state.

In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood speaker Saad al-Katatni paused proceedings and asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence out of respect for Pope Shenouda. The Salafi members stayed in their seats, except for those who chose to walk out.

The entrance of a Salafi into a memorial for Pope Shenouda, then, caused quite a stir. Later on Naout’s Christian secretary apologized to Mahmoud publically. When she saw him come in she immediately feared he was going to blow himself up in the church.

Mahmoud stated he was afraid himself. Before coming in he thought he would be searched rudely, if not barred at the gate. Instead, he was astounded at his welcome.

These confessions came later. After his two minute offer of condolences the service ended with a final hymn, and all exited. Mahmoud, however, had a crowd around him outside.

Naout and Mahmoud

Some wanted to get a point across, though were friendly in doing so. It was certainly an opportunity to address a Salafi on their own turf, with numbers in their favor. Mahmoud was gracious and didn’t seem to be bothered by his instant celebrity.

Most of those present, however, simply offered their welcome, and thanked him for coming. He was invited back, so that he might see how Christians pray and get a fuller picture of the faith and the community. He appeared willing to do so.

The whole while Naout was still inside speaking with the organizers of the service, but made a point to speak to Mahmoud. When she exited and found him, the crowd around them doubled in size.

Eventually it led to a spontaneous second seminar. Naout and Mahmoud sat at a quickly arranged table and simply talked about their understandings of religion. Several in the crowd asked questions.

By this time Mahmoud’s story was known, though he repeated it for those who did not hear. He came only to hear Naout speak.

After the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign entitled, ‘Listen to us, don’t listen about us.’ Aware of their poor reputation in the press and their late entry into the revolution, the Brotherhood enjoined people to learn directly from the organization about its principles and values.

Mahmoud wanted to do the same, in reverse.

Given that Naout has such a poor reputation among Salafis, he heard about her presentation and came to the church to listen. Unfortunately, he was late and missed most of it. Yet the swell of attention and the interest of Naout to engage with such an open attitude led to his invitation to speak directly to the whole assembly.

I identified with him, had respect and sympathy for him, but advised him to think twice about doing it. I probably shouldn’t have, but it was my reaction after having been in his shoes. I will never regret wearing them, but I feared he was unprepared, and I feared the Coptic audience.

Several weeks ago I was in Tahrir Square, and I stumbled upon a tent representing the Coalition to Support New Muslims. This was a group that provoked/responded to – depending on perspective – great sectarian tension over the summer concerning a woman named Camilia Shehata. She was the wife of a priest who disappeared, fueling rumors she had been either, one, kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or two, converted willingly and was kidnapped by the church to prevent the announcement.

The Coalition to Support New Muslims rallied behind her according to their interpretation, and led multiple marches of thousands of conservative Muslims. On one occasion they marched threateningly past the Coptic Cathedral, the seat of Pope Shenouda.

I had long been curious about this group, but had no idea how to get in contact with them. By this occasion in Tahrir Square the Camilia Shehata issue had long since passed, but here I was at their doorstep.

I was received warmly and learned extensively of their perspectives. Despite the fact that Shehata appeared publically with her husband and child on satellite television and confessed her belief in Christianity, the Coalition held to the fact that she had indeed converted, and the church pressured her to return. Of note, the television station she appeared on was foreign based, and she spoke from abroad.

After a little while, though, the conversation changed. There were ten to fifteen people in the tent, and they began asking accusatory questions about Christianity. The Coalition, incidentally, had begun as individual members identified themselves on Paltalk, a popular chat service that hosts multiple rooms for interfaith, um, dialogue.

In reality it is a place of proselytizing, on all sides. The Muslims of the Coalition were long practiced at combating Christian witness on the site, and doing their best to convince in the other direction.

Unlike Mahmoud, they did not have the attitude of ‘listening to us, not about us’ to learn, but to pick Christianity apart. After finishing the basics about the Coalition and Camilia Shehata, they turned their sights on me.

It was not pleasant. A question would be posed, an answer attempted, and then someone else would jump in from a different direction. They were not rude, just purposed, and in the end, annoying (not all, of course, mostly one in particular). It was as if they had never interacted with a real live Christian before, and certainly not a foreigner.

And now, Mahmoud was in the same place.

He handled himself well, as did the audience. The only challenge came from Naout. She asked him about the difference between Quranic verses composed early in Mecca, which are largely irenic, with those from when he later resided, and ruled, in Medina. This is from where ‘verses of the sword’ issue, and most Muslim exegetes consider later revelation to abrogate the earlier. How could he, a kind and open-minded Muslim, accept such commands to kill and discriminate?

It was the sort of question I feared for him, as Naout is well versed in these matters and a strong personality, while Mahmoud, presumably, just wanted to learn. He ducked deftly enough, and no one was out for blood. The overwhelming sentiment in the audience was gratefulness that a Salafi had joined them. The evening ended with the idea Mahmoud could return with other Salafi colleagues, ones able to answer the question well, and the church could host them in seminars to get to know each other better. Fr. Butrous of St. Mark’s Church even offered to visit a Salafi mosque to do the same on their turf. Mahmoud indicated these were good ideas.

They are, in fact, beautiful ideas. The beauty stems from both sides, though in different manners. Mahmoud made the effort to get to know the other. He risked his own community’s condemnation by offering condolences for the pope. He even risked the chance the police guard outside the church might have misunderstood his intentions and gotten into trouble.

The beauty of the church stems from their reception. Copts feel under tremendous pressure from Islamists in general, and Salafis in particular. By and large, they did not take their unprecedented opportunity to lay into a Salafi who was actually kind hearted enough to listen to what could have been their many legitimate complaints. Instead, they welcomed him, and made certain his visit was appreciated.

It is beautiful, but it is also revealing. The Coptic Church is widely panned as being an insular institution whose people have grown more and more isolated within its walls. Salafis can be understood somewhat similarly. There is very little connection between the two groups, and as such, acrimony is frequent on both sides.

I cannot say what the real Salafi attitude is toward Christians, if it differs from that of many of their high profile leaders. Yet the church attitude demonstrated that even if Christians are isolated, they desire to be known. Most may not desire it enough to be as brave as Mahmoud, but when offered a chance to interact with a Salafi, they jumped at the chance. They are desperate to give a good, and corrective, impression.

Naout closed the impromptu session by referring back to Pope Shenouda. She claimed this evening was ‘one of his miracles’. Indeed, had the pope not died, this memorial service would not have been held, Naout would not have been present, and Mahmoud would never have set foot in a church. Is it a miracle?

The answer is probably dependant on theology. Is it safe to say it is a miracle of the revolution? Is God arranging to bring the diverse strands of Egyptian belief closer and closer together? Is it just a token sociological accident? Or has good already begun to emerge from Pope Shenouda’s death?

Regardless, greater interaction between Copts and Salafis, Islamists and liberals, urbanites and villagers, and all manner of Egyptians is desperately necessary. Tonight, Pope Shenouda, Fatima Naout, and Mahmoud all circumstantially intertwined to begin a small chapter.

Or should it be labeled ‘providentially’?

 

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Personal

CNN in Cairo: Ben Wedeman

It is not an Arab Spring, says Ben Wedeman, CNN’s Senior Correspondent in Cairo, as it has lasted through several seasons, and is likely to continue several more. He prefers the term Arab Revolt, and believes there is no going back.

Wedeman spoke at the Abraham Forum hosted by St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Maadi, Egypt on March 22. The forum is directed by church rector Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, and aims to promote dialogue between religions and cultures for the sake of peace and better understanding. The title of Wedeman’s lecture was ‘Reflections on the Current Middle East’.

Wedeman began with a question he is often asked: Did you see it coming? While he said the conventional wisdom on Egypt was that with Mubarak’s looming death a power struggle would soon emerge, no one anticipated Tunisia. Yet with the level of education and demographics of youth, the gains of the Arab Revolt are here to stay, even as the struggle will likely continue for a while to come.

Wedeman’s lecture walked the audience through the harbingers of the revolt in Egypt, stating why there was some evidence discontent was in the air. In 2000 several thousand Cairo University students protested Israeli policy in Palestine and Egyptian complicity. In 2003 there were clashes between police and protestors in Tahrir Square over the US invasion of Iraq.

Shortly thereafter the nation went temporarily silent as Mubarak collapsed while addressing parliament on State TV. Finally, in 2008 the protests at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta witnessed significant anger against Mubarak himself, with demonstrators smashing his picture and stomping upon it.

Still, the January 25 protests caught everyone by surprise. Whereas during even the sizeable protests of the past there were at least five policemen per demonstrator, on this occasion the security forces were overwhelmed. Being on the street, Wedeman noticed as well they were largely new, young conscripts, whose fear was palpable in their visage.

Among the noteworthy anecdotes Wedeman shared was his comment to a fellow journalist following an ‘alternate reality’ speech given by then-speaker of Egypt’s upper house, Safwat el-Sharif at the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, given on January 28.

Wedeman told his colleague to take a picture of this building, as he wasn’t sure it would last much longer. That evening, on the Day of Rage, it burned.

The evening grew even more interesting as Rev. Chandler opened the floor for questions and answers. The following is a capsule of the different topics:

SCAF?

I think the military council will hand over power as they have promised, as they do not want the responsibility of running the country. What they want is to keep their significant perks, as they control between 30-40% of the economy. SCAF will go back to their barracks while they maintain an influence, but their fate will be decided by their coming interactions with the elected parties.

Syria?

I can’t predict anything, but unlike Egypt there is a significant percentage of the population which is truly afraid of what will happen if the regime falls. The consequences could get very nasty. I recently spoke with activists in Jordan and asked if they were planning to push forward. No, they replied, we have been watching Syria and we think it is best to give reform a chance first.

Iran in Syria?

Certainly Iran has a lot at stake in Syria, as it is their main connection to the Arab World. Yet the news that their Quds forces have been operating is not sure, as it is mainly reported by Washington and Tel Aviv, where news should always be taken with a grain of salt. Iran’s interest is comparable to that of the Sunni Gulf states, which are heavily calling for the fall of Assad. It underscores a Sunni-Shia split in which the Gulf States are now retaliating against the interference of the Iranian regime in their region following the Khomeini revolution.

Egypt becoming Pakistan?

This is not a realistic scenario, because the Egyptian character will push back against the extremism which is seen in Pakistan. Yes, Egyptians are very religious, but they have a long history of welcoming foreigners and do not have a deep hatred of the ‘other’. Having a significant percentage of the population as Christians also works against a Pakistan outcome, as seen in the example of the historic Wafd Party.

Saudi Arabia?

Ah, they are the elephant in the room. Even President George Bush’s democracy promotion agenda left Saudi Arabia off the table. Their influence through oil is simply too large to ignore. There have been demonstrations there, which have been met with violence. Yet here we see how the interests of the West trump their principles – and then some. But yes, they definitely need change, especially in the area of women’s rights.

Muslim Brotherhood?

I see the Brotherhood as pragmatic businessmen who know they must compromise to get and stay in power. I’m not worried about them in the short term, as opposed to the Salafis, who are more hardline and seem to have come out of nowhere. But it is always a concern when a political group puts religion as a central focus. Religion is a least common denominator which serves to divide. Take Hizbollah, for example. It means ‘Party of God’. If you are against the party of God, you are against God, and if against God, you are an infidel. Still, many in the Brotherhood refer to the example of Turkey, which is not that bad a model, actually.

Democracy with Islamists?

It seems clear that the Salafis are not converts to democracy as an end but as a means to power. The Brotherhood is different, as they have struggled for decades to get into politics, even being persecuted. They talk the talk of democracy, but now they will be put to the test. The reality of governance will probably not allow them to descend into extremism.

Salafis?

Salafi success in the elections was surprising, but they out-Brotherhood-ed the Brotherhood. They engaged in social service work both traditionally and with the elections, and pulled on the power of religious allegiance. Yet it should be noted the Salafis have a long relationship with Egyptian intelligence, which sees them as a counter-weight to their ‘archenemy’ the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance the head of the Salafi Asala Party used to be the head of the Mugamma, the central administrative building in Cairo – just without a beard. Many parts of the regime fell with the revolution, but others remained, chief among them the intelligence services.

 

Ben Wedeman has won numerous awards in his journalism career and speaks many languages, even dabbling in classical Mongolian. He is married with three children.

 

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