Friday Prayers for Egypt: Law, Left and Letter

Flag Cross QuranGod,

The law carries many meanings, but among them is license. Neither state nor citizen may act as they wish; the law – in principle – standardizes behavior.

In Egypt, two laws in particular are illustrative. God, may the proper lessons be both learned and applied.

Several weeks ago the parliament passed a controversial draft law regulating civil society. It was panned even by the government, but sent to the president to sign or return for further discussion. Yet with no comment at all and the mandated period elapsed, many wonder where is the law? Is the president stalling? Was it given to him at all?

God, the law itself is worthy of prayer, and the effect it will have on civil society. You know the importance of the sector; you know the dangers of manipulation.

Whether or not the current draft is optimal, guide Egypt to the balance necessary.

But guide Egypt also to a law. Help her institutions to function properly, and transparently. May the mechanisms of government mesh with the will of the people and the wisdom of experience, from home and abroad.

The struggle therein is good and healthy, God. At least it can be so. Bless Egypt with a winsome fight.

Meanwhile the protest law is contested to the letter. Recently ruled upon by the Supreme Court, protest is allowed with proper notification, not permission.

A group opposed to ceding two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia followed proper procedure, and then did the state. A judicial ruling denied access to the preferred location. The legal and political struggle continues.

God, the issue itself is worthy of prayer, and the effect it will have on both map and relations. You know the owner of the land; you know the stakes involved.

Whether or not this protest is worthy, guide Egypt to the balance necessary.

But guide Egypt also to an understanding. Help her to promote the rights of expression, and to regulate them properly. May the freedom of the individual mesh with the duties of society and the wisdom of experience, from home and abroad.

The balance therein is fundamental and foundational, God. At least it should be so. Bless Egypt with a worthy consensus.

There is a constitution, God. There are laws. There are laws emerging. There is reform. Set Egypt’s path straight in all navigation.

And in her behavior, regulate and license in the light of your word. May it, to all, be illustrative.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Italy, NGOs

 Flag Cross Quran


The facts known or the story straight. Above board or underhanded. In Egypt this week it is one or the other. God, let it be the former.

For there are many who doubt, many who accuse.

Egypt announced the ID of the Italian researcher tortured and murdered two months ago was found in a home connected to a criminal gang killed in a shootout with police.

A joint investigation is being conducted with Italy, but some on both sides of the Mediterranean consider it far too tidy a conclusion. These point figures at Egyptian police, who have made clear they had no role in his disappearance.

At the same time, dozens of civil society organizations have been named in the reopening of a file linking them to illegal foreign funding, sponsored to work against the regime.

Investigations are proceeding, and over the years the state has left a murky legal field for NGO operation. But some on both sides of the Atlantic consider this an assault against independent voices, though Egypt insists it simply wants compliance with the law.

God, provide the truth.

There are criminals somewhere, find them. Civil society needs funds, provide them.

If accusations against Egypt are true, her moral morass grows deeper with each new revelation. If Egypt is innocent, the force of the onslaught against her grows stronger.

Whether guilt is mixed or confined to one side, hold the responsible accountable, God. Sooner rather than later, let there be transparency.

Through it all, preserve Egypt and her people. Bless them, and may their story, with all its facts, one day be celebrated.






Current Events Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: NGO Crisis


You know what is in the hearts of men; you know what moves the engine of nations. Perhaps it is too much to ask international relations to be built on justice and principle – the world of interests is too strong a competitor. You turn the heart of the king as you will, but what design lies behind impersonal state mechanisms? Behind it all are human beings; men and women who know right from wrong.

God, guide them in it. You have conquered powers and principalities – what more are these than the laws, money, and treaties which seemingly bind whole states? Your manipulations are always just. Bring about outcomes necessary for the good of all involved.

Yet the manipulations of men and nations are rarely just. They bring about outcomes partial to power. Worse, they so often cloak themselves in the garb of principle. God, keep men from being deceived; keep nations from swallowing their own rhetoric.

God, you know who is right and wrong in this dispute, or, if both are wrong. Settle accounts, but as between friends. May they gain reconciliation before reaching the judge. Keep Egypt from being at odds with the world.

Yet at the same time, free Egypt from the grasp of the world. Grant her a noble sovereignty within which her people may also be free.

Furthermore, free the world from the necessity of control, from the ignobility of buying friendship.

God, grant this world peace – in this region, in this nation.

God, grant this people peace – in their government, in their politics, in their civil society.

God, grant Egypt honor, her and her citizens. Bless them and have them prosper.



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Religious Dialogue and Civil Society

Representatives of the major Egyptian religious communities

Under the slogan, ‘We live together, think together, work together’, The Egyptian Evangelical Synod of the Nile opened the Religious Dialogue and Civil Society Conference September 20-22, sponsored by the Konrad Adenuer Foundation. The conference featured an impressive array of participants among Egyptian religious and civil society leaders.

Opening remarks were moderated by Dr. Imad Abul Ghazi, the Egyptian Minister of Culture. He introduced each of the many religious representatives to follow.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald is the Papal Ambassador to Egypt. He described the living together of Muslims and Christians in Egypt to be natural, but fragile. He lauded the efforts of the Azhar to create a ‘Family House’ in which religious leaders meet to discuss issues affecting Egypt and their communities. He urged, however, this effort to seep down to the grassroots – its imitation represented in each local community. He also described the necessity for religious communities to have a share in civil society to raise concerns against government policies. For this to be effective, he declared, religion must maintain some distance from the state.

Dr. Safwat al-Baiady is the President of the Egyptian Protestant Council of Churches. Following on the imitation of God who dialogues with man, he urged dialogue between men to transcend baser stages to the more effective. From Shared Monologue to Skillful Discussion to Reflective dialogue to, finally, Creative Dialogue, he declared that partners must enter dialogue as freemen, not slaves to their constituencies. The goal of this effort is not to defend yourself or to convince the other, but to reach common ground on the basis of friendship and love. This requires, he believed, not only self-confidence, but also confidence in the other.

Rev. Albert Ruiess is the President of the Synod of the Nile. He noted that the valuable process of reform often results in the emergence of different groups. This was noticeable in the Protestant Reformation, as it is noticeable in Egypt today. What is necessary is to find the elixir that can make Egypt one again. The Bible, he declares, teaches that humanity is one body with many different parts, and that the elixir needed to unify them is love.

Dr. Mahmoud Azab is the Azhar Advisor for Dialogue and Deputy to the Grand Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib. He stated that as the Azhar views Islam as a religion of mercy, so it also sees Christianity as a religion of love. He noted the historic cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, seen in their opposition to the British occupation, and more recently in the January 25 Revolution. He praised the efforts of the Azhar to guide discussion of the future Egyptian state between liberals and Islamists, declaring the Azhar document demanding Egypt to be a civil state was recognized by almost all parties. He also commended the ‘Family House’ initiative, in which Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican leaders join with the Azhar to promote dialogue, discuss interreligious issues, and confront extremist religious discourse, whether in churches, mosques, or on satellite television channels.

Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church

Dr. Mouneer Hanna is the Anglican Bishop for Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. He provided examples of the commitment of Anglicans in Egypt to serve their communities, as well as of Anglicans worldwide and locally to engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue. He praised especially the agreement between the Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury, crafted after September 11, 2001, to conduct yearly sessions to better know one another. Finally, he urged application in Egypt of wisdom he learned from political leaders during a recent trip to China: I don’t care the color of the cat, as long as it catches the mouse. So in Egypt, religious affiliation should be unimportant in the civil state, as long as citizens contribute to the good of the nation.

The conference was held at the Movenpick Hotel in Media Production City, near 6 October City on the western outskirts of Cairo. Panel sessions included other well known Egyptian figures from the churches of Egypt, civil society, and the Muslim Brotherhood.


Rebuilding the Social Fabric: Muslims and Christians in Community Service Organizations

Yousry Fu'ad Abdel Latif (and me)

Civil society is one of the hallmarks of a strong nation. Conspicuously, it was rather absent in pre-revolutionary Egypt. President Mubarak did his best to depoliticize the people, with even extension of social services neglected. While religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Orthodox Church picked up the slack on both counts, this also contributed to the increasing polarization of the two religious communities, especially Christians, who felt discriminated against in the public square and thereafter largely abandoned it.

These faults have been recognized since the revolution; overcoming them is the current challenge. Yousry Fu’ad Abdel Latif is one man who is trying.

Yousry is a lawyer, aged 44, who lives in Hadayak al-Maadi. Following the revolution he has created and coordinated the Coalition of Dar al-Salaam Youth, submitting paperwork to establish it as a legally recognized community association. Dar al-Salaam is a traditional, working class area to the north of the affluent Cairo suburb of Maadi; Hadayak al-Maadi belongs more properly within its ensign.

I stumbled upon this group quite by accident. Wandering through the Hadayak neighborhood I saw signs posted calling the youth of the area to join in a trash cleanup campaign. Two things were noteworthy: One, the signs were posted on both the mosque and the church, opposite one another across the street. Two, the campaign was taking place the very hour I was passing by. I met three or four of the youth, wearing surgical gloves and mouth coverings, hauling garbage bags behind them. They introduced me to Yousry, and we set up an appointment.

Poster for the Coalition of Dar al-Salaam Youth

The goal of the coalition is to begin transforming Egypt from the local community outward. Individuals must take responsibility for themselves and their area, seeking reform, development, moral consciousness, social justice, and cultural awareness. It is meant to deliberately include Muslims and Christians together, ultimately producing a democratic society in which all are free to participate. Though the coalition organizes seminars and medical testing to accomplish its goals, garbage collection was the starting point. It is the practical work that will forge youth of the area together as a team.

Yousry introduced me to a few members of the coalition. Mahir Fayiz is a 24 year old Copt, of Orthodox heritage but involved with an evangelical social group. He possesses a high school diploma and works in his family’s neighborhood shop, selling rugs and tapestries. One day he heard the calls of a few youth, who he knew but was not necessarily friends with, to come out and clean the streets of Hadayak. Thinking it was a good idea, he joined in.

Mahir asked specifically if he could clean the steps of the mosque, and was so designated. He saw the goals of the coalition as worthy in their own right, and wished to promote community integration by taking this symbolic act of service. He stated that doing so earned him respect among his peers in the coalition, most of whom were Muslim. “The more we focus on our nation,” he says, “the more our country will grow. The more we focus on religion, the more we will divide.” Yousry was particularly impressed by his attitude and actions.

Sharif Muhammad Zakaria is a 21 year old Muslim. He possesses a high school technical degree and works as an interior painter. He knew of Yousry previously as a neighborhood lawyer, and as such has been involved from the beginning. What originally took his attention for the garbage cleanup campaign, however, was the pile of trash accumulated on the side wall of the church. This was unacceptable, he said, and dishonorable for a place of worship. Sharif is a practicing Muslim, but finds groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to focus too much on religion. “Religion is for God,” he says, “but the coalition is united around service to our country, which is for all.”

Yet despite the intentions of the coalition to integrate community Muslims and Christians, so far it has been slow going. Yousry states there are about 70-80 committed members of the group, but only 3-4 of these are Christians.[1] Meanwhile, though the coalition consists of eight separate committees, none are coordinated by Christians.

Fayiz stated that he hoped to bring other Christians into the coalition, but as his friends are primarily among the fewer evangelicals in Hadayak, he is not part of the much larger Orthodox youth group. Sharif stated he has found a good reception to the coalition among his friends in general, but he has not yet invited the one Christian friend he has. He plans to, however.

Yousry noted this was an issue, and stated he desires to increase Christian participation in the coalition. He noted his instructions to the youth to ask permission at the church and mosque before posting their flyers. In separate conversation with Fr. Arsanius of the local Orthodox church in Hadayak, he signaled receptivity to meet Yousry, which was appreciated when I relayed the news. Hopefully, the two will be able to sit down soon.

Yet instead of critiquing the coalition makeup, it should be remembered the effort is only five months old. The forces which have worked to separate Muslims and Christians in Egypt have been operating for decades, largely overcoming the inherent national inclination for tolerance and cooperation. What is necessary now is commitment to fight the status quo.

Sharif noted that about 80% of his friends reacted positively to the ideal of the group, but far fewer have joined. “They are used to initiatives coming to nothing,” he says. Post-revolution Egypt has given new hope, but old mindsets are hard to change. The power of inertia requires great effort to reverse.

Time will tell if Yousry and his team possess the dedication necessary. Time will tell if Christian youth will emerge from the church to join a Muslim majority community effort. Yet Yousry’s focus may appeal to their Christian virtue: “Love is the basis of my organizing. If they feel you love them, they will follow you.”

Love can be a fickle emotion, or it can be the most powerful force in the world. To be the latter, it requires commitment to serve the interest of the other. May the youth of Dar al-Salaam find the means to discover it together.

[1] This equals about 4%, whereas the Christian population in Egypt is about 6-7%. I am unaware of the percentage split in the Dar al-Salaam area.


American Interest in Egypt

A surefire way to determine a person’s priorities is to look at his or her budget and expenditures. The necessities of life demand their share, to be sure, but what becomes of disposable income? Check your own most recent bank statement, and take stock of the results. Are they what you would wish, or did you stumble into a situation you would like to revise?

Can the same test hold true for nations? If so, do the results reflect determined policy or simple inertia?

Many Egyptian activists have criticized the decision of President Obama’s administration to cut funding for the promotion of democracy by $5 million. Furthermore, these funds must be directed to NGOs and civil society organizations registered and approved by the government. On one hand this seems only natural – should the US government allow foreign donations to be received by quasi-legitimate Islamic charities, for example, which may or may not have ties to terrorist agencies?

On the other hand these same Egyptian activists would flip this comparison in their favor, stating that the government views ‘civil society’ as a threat in the same manner the US would look at these under-the-radar charities. Though this is a stretch, they maintain that Mubarak’s government only admits registration to those organizations which will not contest its rule. By funding only registered NGOs, it is said, the US ‘promotion of democracy’ only further entrenches the effective one party system which has existed since the military revolution of 1952.

The $5 million reduction is a full one-fifth decline from the previous allotment of $25 million. For all the grief President Bush received in Egypt for his policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, many of these activists will praise him for the pressure he placed on the Mubarak government which, they say, genuinely opened the civil society field and resulted in greater freedoms across the board. Conversely, President Obama stands accused, at least by one prominent activist, as returning to the days in which the US openly ‘coddled dictators’.

When one discusses numbers in the millions a sense of precision can be lost. I live here; I have a general sense of what civil society organizations do. I have no idea, however, where even a reduced figure of $20 million is being expended. Though I don’t know who does or does not receive US aid, there are good organizations doing good work. $20 million is a staggering sum; add it up here and there and surely it can be found. It would be a fair question to research, though: However defined, does the investment result in $20 million of ‘good’?

This discussion is interesting enough, but the opening thought begged a look at priorities. A $5 million reduction suggests the Obama administration is less interested in the promotion of democracy than his predecessor. ‘Less interested’ is found to be a matter of degree, however, when the rest of US government aid to Egypt is considered:

$20 million – promotion of democracy

$35 million – education ($10 million of which is for Egyptians studying in the US)

$250 million – economic aid

Now wait…

$1.3 billion – military aid

Suddenly, $5 million becomes a drop in the bucket.

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyp...
Image via Wikipedia

Egypt solidified its status as a close ally of the US with the signings of the Camp David accords, resulting in the reception of such aid packages every year thereafter. Since that time Egypt has fought no wars, with Israel or anyone else; why is this aid necessary?

While the Obama administration has been accused in the US as favoring Arab interests over Israeli, longstanding American policy, Obama’s rhetoric notwithstanding, has given Israel almost free reign to extend its will in the Palestinian territories. Those who push the envelope, however, suggesting Israel to be America’s 51st state, or more cynically, America’s boss, do not realize the significance of this military aid.

A strong Egyptian military is a necessary counterbalance to the weight of Israeli forces. Both are bankrolled by the US, of course, but if there was not a readiness in Cairo to engage in military combat, Israel would have to pay no attention whatsoever to international (including US) cries for a just settlement of the Palestinian issue. US military aid to Egypt maintains at least a semblance of regional balance of power.

Returning to cynicism, however, there can be another deduction from the breakdown of US aid to Egypt. Where are US priorities? Promotion of democracy? Yes. Education and economics? Yes.

Stability of a regional player? Absolutely. The US maintains genuine interest in political reform and expansion of freedoms. Why else would it invest millions of dollars otherwise available to domestic interests? Cynicism may respond that when differentiation is lost in the understanding of ‘millions and billions’, even the drop in the bucket can appear as a sizeable investment. This number can be paraded to US voters who view America as the city upon a hill with missionary mandate to make the world safe for democracy. At the same time, the other (larger) number can assure the establishment that such idealism will only go so far.

I wish never to surrender to cynicism. Accounting, however, is another matter. As an idealistic American, I do not wish to believe our pangs for worldwide freedom are insincere. A brief look at our foreign policy, however, makes hopeful belief difficult. How do idealism and the pursuit of national interests mix in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen? The world is a complex place, and realpolitik is the mastery of complexity.

If, however, these international engagements have been completely devoid of pure motivation underneath its justifying rhetoric, faith in our system, this great experiment, is severely tested. Let us then surrender to the ways of the world, the quest for empire, and ultimately, a few pages in the textbook of history for the coming centuries.

No, America is good. I will hold this like a tenet of faith. When faith is measured, though, will it be found to equal $20 million? Slightly more (if adding in education funding), or slightly less (after accounting for inefficiency and corruption)?

What does this mean for Egypt? I’m sure this is not a revelation to experts in the field who have followed US-Egyptian relations for years, but it can be disheartening for the idealistic neophyte wishing good for all. America does care (I trust) for the gradual political reform of Egypt, but it cares far more deeply for the preservation of the existing state of affairs. President Mubarak is aging, there is no clear successor, and no viable opposition. The only candidate currently attracting attention (legitimately mobilizing a popular longing for change) is constitutionally bound from running for president unless he joins an existing political party, which he has stated he will not do. What is coming next?

There is no need for fear, or hope. The ruling system stems from the power of the military, whose strongest ally is the US government. A radical departure from the status quo is highly unlikely.

Simply balance the checkbook and see.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Islam and Civil Society

Dr. Nadia Mostafa is a professor of international relations and the director of the Program for Civilizational Studies and Dialogue at Cairo University. A devoted Muslim, she shared her thoughts about building and developing civil society in Egypt. The conversation began with Dr. Mostafa’s efforts to discover at bit about me and how I had come to visit in her office. While discussing briefly my association with Arab West Report she also asked about my education, and I answered stating at the end my master’s pursuit in Islamic Studies. She was intrigued, and we talked about this for a while. Within this subject we talked about her friendship with, but not membership in, the Moral Rearmament Association, a local Egyptian non-governmental organization, as well as her participation in multi-party efforts at civil society construction.

Dr. Mostafa admires the work of groups like the MRA for seeking to craft an ethical basis for civil society. This is a good and worthy endeavor, but she hesitates to commit herself to their effort because, being a political scientist, she cannot accept their indifference to political aspects. In taking this civil stance they still are making a political decision. Morality is an important part of civil society discourse, but there are realities of power which must be addressed, both nationally and internationally. Specifically, she takes aim at the Egyptian government for stifling political debate within the country. All groups, whether Communist, Socialist, or Islamist, should have full political participation in shaping public policy. The failure to include them results in the increase of violent protest as well as the lethargy in public political participation in general.

Dr. Mostafa also commented that though she freely and eagerly cooperates with non-governmental initiatives to strengthen civil society, she also takes issue with many of their presumptions. First, she mentioned that nearly all of the groups working on behalf of this shared goal were Christian or Western. Islamic groups tend to exclusively work in charity, and she implicitly criticized Muslims for neglecting this important task, while qualifying this is due to the constraints and pressures the authorities put on their activities. Second, the Christian and Western groups which rightly aim at strengthening civil society tend to view Islam as the problem which needs to be addressed. While partnering extensively with Muslims, they see Islam as deficient in promoting a worldview of tolerance, acceptance, and diversity. This, however, is faulty; Islam has proved a source of human rights more than any other thought or religious system. On an international and national government plane, this bias is utilized within the human rights discourse to exclude a priori any Islamist participation in politics. Though this is not the stated goal of non-governmental Christian and Western groups, they are often aligned with the government in pursuit of a secular order, which they label a “civil state”. Islam, however,  though rightly understood as more than a religion by the West, is also more than a political system. Islam promotes a strong human ethic and social justice commitment which admits plurality and the legitimacy of difference. The Islamic world view does not challenge the West as such, but the materialistic, hegemonic faces of modernization and globalization. Therefore, “civil society” should not be addressed as the opposite of religion or as having a religion-free frame of reference. Islamic visibility in the public sphere is not a threat to multiculturalism and civility.

At this I looked to probe a little deeper, and I referenced our earlier discussion about my Islamic studies. I highlighted that one aim of my research was to demonstrate that what is called ‘liberal’ Islam, that is, a Western preference for Muslims who also favor principles of democracy, tolerance, and human rights, etc., has a legitimate connection to Islam as a religion. It is often seen that liberal political Muslims may also be seen, perhaps by the more conservative faithful, as also being liberal religious Muslims, in that they have moved away from aspects of their faith. My claim was not to assert that either conservative or liberal Islam is the proper interpretation, only that liberal political Islam does not need to be seen as apostate – it may be embraced as a faithful expression of interpretation in the modern world.

Dr. Mostafa appreciated this line of study, but I asked her perspective on areas where I am still lacking. In defense of Christian and Western civil society proponents, while their bias may be evident, can it be understood, and perhaps justified? Specifically, the goal of civil society is to create the principles of citizenship. Many, however, see within Islam a call for dhimmitude. Admitting that the dhimmi system was superior to Western treatment of minorities for much of history, it is clear that the principles of the system do not equal the principles of citizenship. Proposing the question, is dhimmitude a necessary part of Islam, or is it a historical divergence from the religion?

Dr. Mostafa responded by speaking of the true persecution suffered by minorities under dhimmitude during certain epochs of history, but related this to Muslim-Christian geopolitical struggle, which then rebounded upon the Christians within Islamic territory. When Muslim nations have been strong, however, she stated that minorities were treated well. While her analysis was correct, I wondered if it contained an essential defense of the system. She distinguished between dhimmitude as a principle, norm and value, and dhimmitude as a system of procedures that organizes the state of non-Muslims. The earlier reflects a religious Muslim recognition of other previously revealed religions. So their adherents should be respected and fully protected as human beings who enjoy complete religious freedom. The latter is not fully described in Quran; it has been influenced, positively or negatively, according to the national or international context, but the negative one was an exception in history. Currently, when prominent Islamist thinkers and activists talk about citizenship, their ijtihad (reasoning) is not taken seriously by secular or by Coptic extremists. These stress Islamic visibility in the public sphere as a threat to their citizenship rights, which is fully wrong.

In a similar manner Dr. Mostafa had earlier criticized President Obama’s speech in Cairo in a slight way. While his delivery was good and positive, it was incomplete, for it presented only a peaceful, largely personal vision of Islam, in accordance with Western appreciation for religion in general. He avoided, she said, any reference to jihad, which though widely misunderstood as forceful imposition of personal belief, is part and parcel of true Islamic thought, and should not be apologized for. Jihad is incumbent as armed defense of their faith when Muslims are under oppression and occupation. Though this confession was clearer than that of dhimmitude, Dr. Mostafa revealed, openly and proudly, her Islamic core.

Yet at the same time, Dr. Mostafa denied that dhimmitude is a necessary expression of Islam in the modern world, and lives out this belief by her enthusiastic participation in crafting civil society. Islam, she believes, is open, tolerant, and accepting of others, and is not a clerical system like that found in Iran. Instead, the caliphate has always been a political phenomenon, and politics is subject to change. While she never issued an absolute claim that dhimmi status categorically is against the principles of Islam, she gives strong assurance to Christians and proponents of human rights that Muslims and their religion share equal goals as equal members of a society to be built upon the foundation of citizenship.

These Christian and Western groups, however, often go too far, specifically in their demand to cancel article two of the Egyptian constitution which establishes Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation. Every society has its order which defines the state, and by attacking the constitution in this way some extremist Copts are attacking the order of society.

Furthermore, Christian and Western groups do more harm than good as they constantly discuss civil society in terms of overcoming religious sectarianism. Religious relations in Egypt are healthy and strong; this over-focus only highlights the aberrant incidents, and communicates they are more prominent than in reality. As a consequence, civil society is weakened as accusations are exchanged across religious lines, rather than seeing these incidents as usually non-religious in their origin.

As we progressed we were conscious of the time, and I thanked Dr. Mostafa for sharing her views and helping my Egyptian education, but I also wanted to discuss some aspects of our work. I spoke of her colleague who informed me of the reconciliation sessions held in the Dar al-Ifta’ for Muslims who find themselves in personal conflicts with each other, be it business, family, or otherwise. She tracked with me in that if such a sheikh could be paired with a respected representative of the church, perhaps such reconciliation meetings could also be held between Muslims and Christians. She suggested, however, a different source of information. She told me of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, who arranges extensive interreligious dialogue and cooperation. She believed they might be a better path to arrange inquiries about our peacemaking efforts. I agreed this was a good idea, but that our sources, unfortunately, are already primarily Christian, and it would be good also if she would not mind helping to arrange a meeting with the sheikh.

She did not mind, and gave me his phone number also. The man in question is the director of training in the Dar al-Ifta’, and she has worked with him previously, though not currently. She, with others, had assisted in helping imams expand their knowledge base from simply Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic studies to also include awareness of culture, politics, and society. Apparently, somewhere along the way this program was scaled back, so that this aspect of it no longer exists. Dr. Mostafa was not currently aware of what the remaining training program entailed, or for whom it was designed. In the past however, it was not just for aspiring imams before their appointment, but included even the imams of prominent mosques.

With this I thanked Dr. Mostafa once more for her time and assistance. Though we did not speak extensively of the subject for which I came, she did supply me with the requested reference, and I had opportunity to make a relationship with one who is often mentioned as a sympathetic supporter of our organization.


Civil Society

A few months ago I was able to interview a professor at Cairo University who is the head of the program for civilizational studies and dialogue. She has been a friend of our center for many years, and in our introduction we were able to discuss a favorite topic of hers – the role of Islam in civil society. In particular we discussed dialogue between Muslims and Christians concerning citizenship, tolerance, peace, and acceptance of the other. I hope to post this interview next, perhaps in a few days. I have held off on doing so for a little while, however, wanting first to write about the concept of civil society. This is a term I had not encountered until I came to Egypt, so I am presuming a similar ignorance on the part of many readers. Your forgiveness is asked upon my faulty underestimation.

One of the reasons, I believe, that the term civil society is not part of common parlance in America is that it is part of common life. Civil society represents the interactions of ordinary citizens which serve to strengthen the democratic character of the nation’s fabric. Democracy is not primarily the process of elections in which voters select their representatives. While this is true, this definition is built upon the foundation of a populace which joins freely into public associations which support the common good. As this is a regular feature of much American life, there is no need to speak of civil society; it is already there.

Many observers lament that this is not true of Egypt. More than lamenting, however, they have made civil society the goal for which they strive. Not neglecting the importance of crafting democratic governmental structures, they posit that the implementation of democratic measures is mostly fruitless unless the people already think and act democratically. What is a participatory government if the people are non-participatory in society? One indication of a strong civil society is found in the number of active non-governmental organizations. These can be charity groups, scrapbooking clubs, unions, or voluntary associations of any nature. One expert in the field told me that among an Egyptian population of 80 million there are only 500 of these groups active in the whole country.

I cannot say how many groups are active in the United States, but such volunteerism has been present from the founding of the nation. Having the advantage of a country built by population transfer, involving initiative and personal sacrifice simply to arrive, the United States crafted civil society far more rapidly than the nations of Europe which needed first to overcome the cultures of aristocracy and serfdom. Religious observance also played a leading role. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 in ‘Democracy in America’ about the associational nature of the country centering in near universal church attendance. Though the power of belief has waxed and waned in national history Americans have always been people to bond together, join a cause, and support the common welfare.

Welfare is an apt word for civil society, for the question centers in who is responsible for it. The modern welfare state is a noble invention, striving to share the nation’s resources with those less fortunate. Yet at the same time it necessarily introduces the thought that it is the government’s responsibility to tend to the welfare of its citizens. I wish to make no absolute statements about the rightness or wrongness of this policy; certainly there are examples of both good and poor administration. The point is that the assumption of welfare locates the power base of a people; to the degree that in the modern state welfare is entrusted to / controlled by / abandoned to the government, civil society suffers accordingly.

At the dawn of the last century Egypt was awash in nationalist fervor as both Muslims and Christians actively participated, together, in the cause of complete independence from the British and Turkish powers. Budding enterprises of political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasting were built by the elite and began to filter down into popular consciousness. This process, if not arrested, was thereafter controlled by the state after the free officers’ revolution on 1952. Enacted to rid the country of corruption and lingering dependence on foreign powers, like all modern nation-states the ruling system assumed to itself the care of the people. Altruism, expediency, or Machiavellian power machinations can all be argued about the origin of state motivation; the result is that many Egyptians fault the state, perhaps rightly, for failing to deliver on its promises of care. Welfare, however, is still left to centralization.

The civil society movement is an attempt to change this attitude. Of course there are many charitable organizations and religiously motivated groups throughout the country. Yet whereas America was founded on initiative and participation, Egypt has a six thousand year history of peasantry governed by a ruling elite. The elite have experienced cycles of ascendancy and decline; the population cycles of prosperity and hardship. Civil society existed during these millennia; especially during the Mamluke and Ottoman periods the mercantile guilds wielded influence which eventually led to the modernization project of Mohamed Ali. Sufi orders also gave religious structure to society. The abortive participatory experiment of the early 19th Century, however, did not produce roots deep enough to maintain a lasting civil spirit.

If America looks askance, it should be careful; civil spirit is not a right of inheritance. Robert Putnam has remarked in his book ‘Bowling Alone’ that civil society in the United States is declining. Conservative commentators may immediately place the blame on the growing welfare state of America; the message of this essay may provide them fuel. Yet simply identifying the problem puts them only in the position of the Egyptian critics who decry their government yet neglect civil participation. A more likely American culprit is the spirit of independence and self-reliance, foreign to Egypt, which while rightly encouraging the individual to ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps’ wrongly chastises the lesser for failure to do so, leaving him to his own devices. Egyptian society is remarkable for the preservation of the lower classes amidst poverty and population explosion, all because at the most basic level everyone knows that welfare is the responsibility of family and community. None are left to fend for themselves, no matter the alleged scandal of government neglect.

Civil society, then, is a middle class phenomenon, as well as a middle class necessity. It is uncharitable to condemn the American welfare state critic as was done a paragraph earlier, for in all likelihood such a one gives to charity, goes to church, and votes in elections. What is uncertain is the degree to which his or her participation extends to the larger society. The question is not of direct visits to an orphanage or soup kitchen; it is about coaching soccer, mothers’ associations, and general neighborliness. Yet the rebuttal is heard and understood: Who has time for more than job and family basics? Perhaps the more accurate critique is of a spirit of materialism that demands maintenance of a certain social or financial level that renders free time a scarcity. It is a fair question to ask the extent to which ‘community’ even exists in American neighborhoods, at least in suburbia. Economic factors are certainly real; but they are equally complained in both the United States and Egypt.

One final comment about Egyptian civil society is necessary before yielding the floor to the professor from Cairo University about the place of Islam. Much of the civil society initiative in Egypt, either in dialogue between Muslims and Christians or more generally, between Islam and the West, has been espoused by Coptic Christians. Their efforts point in two directions. The first is toward their own people. I wrote in a recent essay about the failure of Copts to participate in Egyptian elections. This is but one symptom of a growing tendency to retreat into the church and their own community. The Coptic Orthodox church offers a wealth of meetings, services, and social activities for Christians, but the revival this has accentuated generally requires participation within the walls of the church. Historic American church attendance strengthened the bonds of community, but America was a largely mono-religious society. Catholic numerical expansion later in history had its own church centered activities, but these differently religious citizens were able to fit into an already existing non-religious civil society network, built upon a common Christian heritage. In Egypt the situation is different for the time and relational investment given to the church and to fellow Christians is accompanied by a parallel reduction in social bonds created with Muslim neighbors. These exist, of course, and are good, but simple neighborliness is not social integration. Christian advocates of civil society recognize this, and are doing their best to change this emerging pattern. Strengthening civil society strengthens citizenship, and this is a key Christian concern, leading to their second directional effort.

Among the interpretations of Islam is a civil system which calls for the protection, yet subjugation, of religious minorities. Christians and Jews should have full right of worship in an Islamic order, with freedom to structure and conduct their own affairs, yet they should not share fully as equal participants in the running of government and society. Actual practice of this system has varied widely in Islamic, and specifically Egyptian, history. Christians have been both a repressed and humiliated minority and possessors of important ministerial posts, especially in finance. It is only in the modern age, however, that they have been citizens, equal under the law. Viewing a resurgence of Islam in recent decades many Copts view civil society, built upon a secular foundation, as the best safeguard against the return of dhimmitude. The idea is not anti-Islamic per se, but it is motivated by a fear of Islamic encroachment into the public square.

Yet why should not Muslims, as religious citizens, also share in the crafting of civil society? As they represent over 90% of the population, is it not appropriate that their moral values shape the nation in which they live? Dr. Nadia Mostafa of Cairo University summarizes Muslim frustration with secular and Christian dominance of civil society discourse, though she herself is an active participant. Her testimony will follow in the next post.