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The Insanity of a Travel Ban to Siwa

The temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle proclaimed Alexander the Great to be a god.

In defiance of his own nation’s restrictions, Cornelis Hulsman not only went to Siwa, he invited international student interns, Egyptian nationals, media professionals, and just about everyone else in Egypt to travel with him.

“Western travel advice to Siwa is insane,” said Hulsman, the Dutch deputy head of the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU). “We are taking this trip to make a statement. You say it is unsafe, we’ll show you it is safe.”

On the surface, insanity might look a lot like prudence. Siwa, an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, is only 50-70 kilometers from the porous border with Libya. Last year in the Bahariya Oasis, 400 kilometers southeast, eight Mexican tourists were killed accidentally by an Egyptian army hunting for militants. In Sinai on the opposite border, an Islamist insurgency continues to plague the peninsula, with terrorist attacks sporadically spilling over into the mainland. And in broader context, Russia and Britain have restricted flights to Egypt after a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai desert on October 31, 2015, with responsibility claimed by the Islamic State.

Many nations have responded by issuing various travel restrictions to Egypt in general, and CAWU has compiled a complete list. But The Netherlands, France, and Canada have specifically included Siwa, and Hulsman believes this is preposterous. The successful return of his trip of 29 suggest he may be right. So also do the daily and nightly buses departing from Cairo.

Off the beaten path of traditional Egyptian tourism, Siwa’s remoteness has always been the chief hindrance preventing development of the sector. Ten hours is required to move from Cairo to the North Coast, over to Marsa Matrouh, and then 300 kilometers south through barren and desolate desert.

But compared to Alexander the Great’s eight day journey in 331 BC it is practically instantaneous. Modern day travelers can see the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle declared Alexander a god and blessed him in conquest of the world. They can also visit natural hot springs and sand baths, as well as mingle among the only Berber culture indigenous to Egypt. The Siwan people have guarded their independence for centuries and still speak their own language.

Hulsman has looked for opportunities to link CAWU’s internship program with local organizations such as the Desert Research Center. ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Hamīd, head of the DRC in Marsa Matrouh, told him the government has been cutting funding. But universities in countries applying a travel ban to Siwa are prohibited from sending students to restricted area. Interns on Hulsman’s trip went in their personal capacity, not as part of his official program.

But normal tourists are scared off on their own. One issue is insurance, explained Muhammad Hassan, the owner of Siwa Shali Resort, with 36 years of experience in the tourism industry. If anything goes wrong, whether terrorism or a simple car accident, a policy will not be honored if the tourist went against his own nation’s warning. Egyptian insurance is available, says Hulsman, but would the average tourist know how to find it?

At the height of the Egyptian tourism boom in 2010 and before the Arab Spring, 30,000 international tourists spent part of their summer in Egyptian Mediterranean resorts, Hassan said. Eight thousand of these chose to continue on to Siwa. But by 2015 traffic dried up almost entirely, and only an estimated 300 foreigners visited Siwa from abroad. In 2016, no one.

“When you issue warnings like this, you are waging war against our primary economic sector,” Hassan said. “You harm not the government, but the people, who then get angry with the government. I’m not being political, I’m just a businessman.”

There is no military or police authorization needed to reach Siwa, Hassan noted, though several checkpoints are set up between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa to check identification. But to go into the desert on a safari to surf the dues needs three. He first secures license from military intelligence, border patrol, and the local police before dispatching any tourist.

And the military is in constant surveillance of the desert area between Siwa and Libya, Hassan said. Terrorists go where the land is empty, which might be a problem further south. He has no problem with a travel restriction issued for Jilf al-Kabīr in southwest Egypt, for example, where Libya, Chad, and Sudan come together.

Hulsman also noted the different security atmosphere in Siwa. Apart for the normal tourist policeman assigned to the bus, there was no police convoy. Traveling to Upper Egypt, however, he has had vehicles travel in front or behind.

Similar was the on the ground experience. In Upper Egypt police ask that any large group be kept together, as easier to secure. But the foreigners and Egyptians alike freely roamed the grounds during an annual Sufi festival in Siwa, chatting with locals and wandering off with them. The security apparatus is much more relaxed there than elsewhere, Hulsman said, confident in the area’s safety.

Unfortunately, this is a reality lost on many Western governments. Mounir Neamatalla, Siwa’s wealthiest investor and owner of the Adrere Amellal: Desert Ecolodge that welcomed Prince Charles in 2006, is eager to change this. In early October he flew an 80-plus mostly foreign delegation to Siwa, including ten heads and deputy heads of diplomatic missions. But the message has not yet filtered through to decision makers in Western foreign ministries, and the travel restrictions remain.

Not for long, if Hulsman has his way. And now he has 29 more who can attest to his vision.

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

AWR Interview with Safwat Hegazi

Safwat Hegazi
Safwat Hegazi

The following is from the newsletter of Arab West Report. Unfortunately, it is not available at its website due to its recent hacking.


On May 31, 2012, Jayson Casper wrote about the controversial preacher Dr. Safwat Hegazy (Safwāt Hijāzī) for Arab-West Report (AWR) on the basis of what he had found in media reporting and on the internet. Please click here to read this report.

Hegazy is controversial for statements through which he has been accused of inciting violence. On August 21 he was arrested in Siwa Oasis. He is demanded by the prosecution. The Cairo Appellate Court has scheduled a session on the 7th of September to start his trial. He has been recorded on the stage at Rāba’ah protests on July 28 saying, “if a person throws on Morsi water (figuratively: if someone approaches Morsi), we shall throw on him blood (figuratively: kill him).”

We met with Dr. Safwat Hegazy on Thursday, July 25, one day before the military initiated efforts to end the Rāba’ah protests. He made a very pleasant appearance and seemed secure.

Dr. Safwat Hegazy explained when, in his view, violence can be used: anyone can kill President Bashar al-Assad (Bashār al-Asad) because of his crimes against humanity. Also Israeli soldiers can be targeted since they are at war with Palestinians. By the same token, one can imagine what he could have said after the army used force to end the sit-ins—we are attacked and thus have the right to defend ourselves by force. He did not say this in this interview, but we have heard people expressing the opinion that violence is allowed to be used if attacked.

Several of his statements were different from what we had expected from the reporting about him. “Anyone has the right to insult Islam, oppose it or criticize it,” he says, but not the Prophet Muhammad. Safwat Hegazy has no problems with Coptic Christians in leading positions. He would not object to a Coptic governor or a Coptic president. He also stated that he helped to find an end of tensions in areas where churches had been attacked. But he also stated publicly that he believed that 60% of those who demonstrated against Mursi are Christians: “and this is the truth that we know and the Churches were calling for people to march and participate in these demonstrations, and the Churches and the priests and the chaplains, announced in many videos that they are against an Islamic president and against an Islamic parliament and that they refuse this system and that this system must change.”  That sentiment explains, but does NOT justify, the massive violence we have witnessed against churches and Christian institutions on August 15 and 16.

Dr. Safwat Hegazy also explained the Islamist point of view on what they call the coup d’état on July 3. He agreed with us that there should have been parliamentary elections, but blames the Egyptian judiciary and liberals for creating obstacles to holding elections. He demanded President Muhammad Morsi’s (Mursī) return—a view that we have also heard from many others we have met at Rābaʽah al-‘Adawīyyah. One notices from Safwat Hegazy and many others a strong feeling that they were wronged.

Dr. Safwat Hegazy did not object to any question being asked. As a basis for our questions we used Jayson Casper’s previous article that was based on a media research since at that time he was not accessible for an interview.

There are noted differences between what we knew from Safwat Hegazy through media reporting and this interview with him. He is a conservative Muslim scholar, a man with strong beliefs and ideals who appears not to have been very strong in documenting his own work (references to videos, but texts are much weaker. He gave one statement to the military but did not keep a copy).

Safwat Hegazy was presented as the firebrand who wanted the Coptic governor of Qena to be removed, but from Hegazy’s story one learns that he was asked by the SCAF to go to Qena and quell the unrest by telling the people that the governor would be removed.

On the church burning in Sūl (2011), he said he was opposed to the burning and asked for rebuilding the church. Church building “should be solved by law and that the law should be enforced on who is wrong and who is right, and investigate the issue and judge the guilty. If a Muslim is wrong he should be judged according to the law, and if a Christian is wrong he should be judged according to the law. That was our recommendation to the Prime Minister and to the Military Council and they didn’t take it into consideration.”

From Safwat Hegazy story one can ask about the relations between Islamists, security, and the military. It appears that the security and military have been using Hegazy to end unrest in the streets, but neglected several of his recommendations that, from hearing his side of the story, do not seem to be unreasonable.

Dr. Wafaa Hefny, granddaughter of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, was also at the Rāba’ah al-‘Adawīyyah and told us after the interview (that she did not attend) that Safwat Hegazy is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hegazy also did not claim this. He is an independent Islamist with sympathies for both Salafīs and Muslim Brothers.

Dr. Safwat Hegazy was arrested on August 21 for his fiery preaching against the sacking of Morsi and it seems he will not be accessible for some time to come for interviews. It is sad that obvious political differences could not be addressed in dialogue.

The interview took place in Arabic. Questions were asked by Cornelis Hulsman. It was recorded and later, in our office, translated by Daniela De Maria and Ahmed Deiab.

Cornelis Hulsman: I would like to know about your background. You are a member of the Association of Sunnah Scholars. What organization is this?

Safwat Hegazy (Safwāt Hijāzī): The members of this association are only ulamāʾ (scholars), and must be Sunnī ulamāʾ, from the Four Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence: Hanafite, Malikite, Shafi’ite, and Hanbalite. This is what the association is in brief.

CH: You are the Secretary-General of the Revolution’s Board of Trustees. What organization is this? You said that you are focused on preaching but this is politics.

SH: No, it’s revolutionary. I have no relation with politics. I am not a member of any party or any group, but I was elected as a member of the Revolution’s Board of Trustees because I participated in the January 25, 2011 Revolution as one of the leaders and main figures. The Revolution’s Board of Trustees in Mīdān al-Tahrīr (Tahrir Square) was responsible for organization at the square; responsible for its safety, food, night-camping, cleaning, and for everything that is related to Mīdān al-Tahrīr and it’s made of a big group of revolutionaries and they chose me to be their general secretary. It is not a political entity, but a revolutionary entity to protect…

CH: But isn’t revolution politics?

SH: Maybe.

CH: A revolution is a part of politics.

SH: A revolution is a political action, but [the board] only deals with the revolutionary operations and actions, so the Revolution’s Board of Trustees was the one that organized most of the actions going on in Mīdān al- Tahrīr before the 2012 parliamentary elections. The Revolution’s Board of Trustees was the one to make counter-propaganda to the members of the old regime’s National Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections or any election. The Revolution’s Board of Trustees is the one is the first revolutionary entities to announce its support to the candidacy of Dr. Muhammad Morsi [for the presidential elections] and it was the first revolutionary entity to reject the current coup d’état and to call for this sit-in and to participate to it.

CH: You were the first to reject the July 3 coup [explanation: Hulsman was not at all intending to go in a debate here on whether this was coup d’état or revolution. For Safwat Hegazy there was no question about this, this was a coup d’état.

SH: Yes.

CH: Ok. So, what about the Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation that you are a member off?

SH: It is an Egyptian association, legitimate, also made by ulamāʾ [Muslim religious scholars], but it is only Egyptian, and it is local, inside Egypt. There is an Association of Sunnah Scholars, but the Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation is only in Egypt. It is made of ulamāʾ and established during the Egyptian Revolution. In the January 25 Egyptian Revolution there were ulamāʾ who refused the Revolution and refused to take part in it and ulamāʾ who supported the Revolution and took part in it. This association is made by the ulamāʾ who supported the Revolution and took part in it. The association cares about the Islamic [sharī’ah] side and the scientific side of political rights and rights in general. And I am a founding member of it.

CH: About your membership of the last association, well-known in the West… you are a member of the National Council for Human Rights.

SH: The National Council for Human Rights is a council present in Egypt and founded by Hosni Mubarak (Husnī Mubārak), who set its rules and system, and at the time of Hosni Mubarak it had a basic task which was to make Hosni Mubarak regime look better in front of the world in the context of human rights. And its members were selected, and the rules and regulations were set for this purpose.

After the election of President Muhammad Morsi, there was a reforming of this council, and I was elected as a member. In this phase it had a main objective, which was changing the old laws of the old National Council for Human Rights and to make the council an effective entity that controls and monitors human rights in Egypt. And indeed it became effective, but then this coup came and everything stopped.

CH: What is exactly your role in the National Council for Human Rights?

SH: I did mainly three things. The first one is participating in creating the new law and the new organization for the council. Secondly, I presented to the council a project for an Egyptian Charter for Human Rights. The council has the project in which I mainly addressed the laws for Egyptian human rights. The third point is developing of the project for an Egyptian Court for Human Rights. The laws for its organization are complete, but the decision was being studied, until then came the coup. These are the three main things that I did. There was a fourth thing for which I was responsible, which is the Council for the Rights of Palestinian Refugees. Thank God we were able to do many things for the rights of the Palestinian Refugees in Egypt.

CH: Thank you. Are all your activities documented and would you be willing to share this with us?

SH: Yes, of course, everything is documented, but I don’t have it with me right now.

CH: No, I don’t mean now, but I am looking for documentation because we make a lot of studies.

SH: Yes, the laws of the council are documented, and hopefully we will be able to e-mail them to you. The project for the Egyptian charter is documented, as well as the project for the Egyptian Court for Human Rights.

CH: So maybe can you send them to me?

SH: Yes, I will.

CH: Thank you.

About Syria: Western journalists wrote about the fatwá that you pronounced on President Bashar al-Assad (Bashār al-Asad), saying that anybody can kill him. What do you mean exactly by this? Because people keep on mentioning this about you.

SH: Yes, I pronounced this fatwá. Bashar al-Assad, according to human rights laws, is a war criminal. According to the Hague Court…

CH: In the Netherlands.

SH: Yes. According to their classification, Bashar is a war criminal. In Islam war criminals must be executed.

CH: But who decides he can be executed?

SH: It is not Safwat Hegazy who says that. I’m not the only person to make this fatwá, many Islamic associations made it.

CH: Who?

SH: Like the International Union for Muslim Scholars, the Association of Sunnī Scholars, Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation, the Syrian Association of Sunnī Scholars… many.

CH: Did they make the same fatwá or this is only from you?

SH: The same fatwá.

CH: In the news was also written that any Muslim could kill any Israeli walking in the street.

SH: No, this is not true. This dates back to 2007… they refer to the war of 2007, the war between Hezbollah (Hizb’allah) and Israel…

CH: Yes, in Gaza.

SH: Yes, Operation Cast Lead. And it was after the war of Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. And I said it about the Israeli army.

CH: The army. So, not civilians?

SH: Not any Jews (civilians), I said “the Israeli army”, because they are militants and kill our brothers and our sons and they have no right to take our land.

CH: But, we all know that most Israelis served in their army, so what about civilians who are in the reserve?

SH: As long as he is still a soldier in the Israeli army and can carry weapons at any moment and kill an Arab civilian, he is an enemy. And it’s the same in Israel: Meir Kahane, and other Rabbis in Israel, they made a religious decree saying that any Arab should be killed.

CH: And anyone who talks against Islam should be killed? The American film against Islam, “Innocence of Muslims”. There were protests in front of the American embassy in Cairo last year because of this movie. Your idea is that anyone involved in producing such a film should be killed?

SH: No, no, no. Anyone has the right to insult Islam, oppose it or criticize it. I can never say that he should be killed for it, never. It is anyone’s right: your right, this girl’s right [pointing to one of our interns], to say that Islam is bad, that it is terrorism, that it is an extremist religion, that you don’t like Islam, it is your right. I will not judge you, or punish you, or beat you, or kill you—it is not my right.

CH: Because this was in the news and also a Coptic youth in Asyūt was sentenced for blasphemy, he wrote something on Facebook and it attracted  a lot of media attention.

SH: No, no, no, I refuse these talks about killing a Copt or a Christian because he wrote something about Islam that I don’t like. No way, I refuse this. But there is a very crucial point and it is if a person says that [Prophet] Muhammad (peace be upon him) is crazy.

You have to respect me and my belief. This is the problem. But one who doesn’t like Islam, I could never kill him and if a Muslim kills a Copt because he doesn’t like Islam, he should be prosecuted.

CH: The thing is that the Copts in Egypt are scared.

SH: I’m not talking about the Copts in Egypt only, I’m talking about anybody in the world. Let alone the Copts in Egypt. They live with us and we live with them, they work with us and we work with them. Me, in my company, I have Coptic workers.

CH: You have Copts? Where?

SH: At work, I have Copts.

CH: Who?

SH: There is Jirjis Fawzi, who is the carpenter. We have a big contracting company, and the head of carpenters is Jirjis Fawzi. And he is an expert in carpentry, and he is the one who built my house, my villa, he is the one who made it. I have… the engineer (who made the aluminum windows)—he is Christian and his name is Tamir, Tamir Mikhael in my company, and he’s Christian. So there is no problem between the Copts and us, at all, not even daily life troubles. But as there are extremist Muslims, in the same way there are extremist Copts.

CH: But also about the Copts, you said that 60% of the….

SH: That 60% of the protesters in Ittihādīya were Copts.

Yes, I said that. And I say that 60% of those who joined the demonstrations on the 30th of June were Copts. Why do I say this? Because the Egyptian Church took this way. The Egyptian Church participated in the coup with the presence of Pope Tawadros, as well as al-Azhar took part in it with the presence of the Shaykh of al-Azhar. I object to the position of the al-Azhar Shaykh and Pope Tawadros in supporting the coup, and I request that the Shaykh and Pope Tawadros are dismissed. There is no difference for me between Muslims or Christians who took part in this coup. I said that 60% of who took part in the Ittihādīya demonstrations and the July 3 coup are Christians, and this is the truth that we know and the Churches were calling for people to march and participate in these demonstrations, and the Churches and the priests and the chaplains, announced in many videos that they are against an Islamic president and against an Islamic parliament and that they refuse this system and that this system must change.

CH: But do you understand why Copts are against an Islamic president and an Islamic parliament? Because they are scared. The problem is here in Egypt. I’ve been in this country for 35 years, but for the fear, there must be a dialogue. We must cooperate with each other. There is a great fear here, and fear is not good for anybody.

SH: What can we do to remove this fear? Shall we decide that Egypt will not have an Islamic president? Or shall we sit and talk and discuss and understand who has fear and what they have a fear of? Did we experience an Islamic president who oppressed the Copts? It did not happen. Did Muhammad Morsi, during the year of his ruling, oppress the Copts? Did he attack the rights of the Copts? Absolutely not. I am one of the people who suggested that we put in the Egyptian Constitution an article that says that when non-Muslims have a controversy it will be judged according to their religious law, in their beliefs and practices and in the individual personal status matters. I am the one who asked for it, I am the one who insisted for the presence of this article to guarantee the right for Copts in Egypt to worship according to their religion and deal with the civil matters, such as marriage and heritage, according to what their religion says.

CH: Is there a dialogue between you and any important Coptic figure, such as Bishop Moussa, for example? He has dialogues with many Muslims; he is very well known for it. I also know people who don’t want such dialogue, but he has a lot of dialogues with the Muslims. Do you know Bishop Moussa personally?

SH: Yes, I know him.

CH: What’s your opinion on Bishop Moussa and people like him?

SH: I absolutely have no problem in dialoguing or cooperating or living with the Copts. I strongly believe that we will solve any problem with the Copts from its bases, if there is any problem. However, we do have two or three main problems. The first problem is the media, the Egyptian media.

CH: Yes, I know [I know of several examples where Egyptian media have not given a fair picture of Islamists or Islamist views]

SH: The second problem is the old cultural heritage of the West. They act according to this heritage. The third problem is the fear, the fear from others, from any other person that is different. And it is human nature to walk away from things that scare me. I don’t see any problem. But there is a fourth problem, which is the Coptic emigrants, who want to create a big problem in Egypt. This is a very important problem.

CH: This is important but it comes from media. They don’t live here in Egypt, so it’s because they are influenced by the information on Egypt that comes from the media.

SH: Yes exactly, it’s the media.

CH: But Jirjis, who works with you, he knows you, so there is no problem.

SH: Yes Jirjis… After the Revolution, for a whole year the company didn’t have work, but the employees still receive their salaries. Jirjis, he got another job offer with a higher salary, so he came to me and said, “I received a job offer for a higher salary but I would like to stay with you, so paying for me a salary without me working, will it cause a problem?” I said, “No there is no problem”. He said, “Would you like me to stay here?” I said, “Yes, I want you to stay here”. So he refused the other job and continued with me. After one month he refused to take more than half of his salary and has been working with me for 8 years, and we’re getting along.

CH: Jayson mentioned in his article Shaykh Umar ‘Abd al-Kāfī. Who is he exactly and what is the relationship between the two of you?

SH: Umar ‘Abd al-Kāfī is one of the ulamāʾ who was living in Egypt in the eighties, and was giving weekly lectures in a mosque called Asad Ibn al-Furāt mosque. He had a huge audience, thousands of people, which caused a problem with the police. They accused him of incitement against Christians. I was a young boy and he was one of my teachers among the other Shaykhs, that’s it, that’s all the relationship between me and Umar ‘Abd al-Kāfī. After that he moved to the Emirates, where he lives until now.

CH: Until now?

SH: Until now.

CH: But he doesn’t talk about Egypt or the Revolution?

SH: No, absolutely. He has nothing to do with the Revolution or with the Christians in Egypt, nor with the leadership of Egypt, at all. He lives in the Emirates, in Dubai, and he is very close to the governors of the Emirates and to Muhammad Bin Rashīd, ruler of Dubai.

CH: I was befriended with Shaykh ‘Abd al-Mūatī al-Bayūmī. Do you know him?

SH: Yes.

CH: He was a great thinker.

[no response]

CH: Anyway, about Qena. In Qena there was a Christian governor, but it has been written that you opposed the presence of a Christian governor in Qena.

SH: It is absolutely not true.

CH: What exactly happened with the last Christian governor in Qena?

SH: In Qena, after the Revolution, Prime Minister ‘Issām Sharaf appointed a Christian governor. The people of Qena refused this decision and revolted against it in Qena, so the Military Council, which was governing the country at that time, represented by Colonel Hassan al-Rūīnī, called me and asked me to go to Qena to dismiss the revolt and solve the problem, because of my good relationship with Christians and Muslims, as there had been a previous problem between Muslims and Christian in a Church in ‘Atfīh, in the village of Sūl, and I was the one who solved it.

CH: I know the issue of Sūl. Let’s continue first on Qena and then we can talk about Sūl.

SH: So Hassan al-Rūīnī asked me and Shaykh Muhammad Hassan to go to Qena to solve the problem. So we went there and met the Muslims and we persuaded them that revolting and using violence is not a solution to the problem. Dr. ‘Issām Sharaf and Hassan al-Rūīnī called us and said that we could change the governor, but the people had to go back to their houses. So I told the people that we could change the governor on the bases of what the Prime Minister and the Military Council said. So people left and went back home and the governor was changed. That’s my whole story regarding Qena. But I never refuse that a Christian governor takes charge of any governorate in Egypt. That’s the story about Qena. I didn’t support the people’s revolt; I didn’t refuse the Christian governor, that didn’t happen. But it was according to the words of the Prime Minister and the Military Council.

Concerning the village of Sūl, what happened—without going into details—is that a church was destroyed and the Muslims revolted and clashed. I was also asked by the Prime Minister and the Military Council to go to Sūl, me and Shaykh Muhammad Hassan, to solve the problem. We convinced the people to dismiss and to rebuild the church and the army will rebuild the church. It’s not the right of Muslims to destroy a church owned by Christians. The youths listened to us, and left and the church was rebuilt. If Sawfat Hegazy opposed, hated or didn’t want the Copts in Egypt, would he have solved these problems?

CH: But on Sūl… I wrote about Sūl, I know people from Sūl—a Christian lawyer who is from Sūl, but lives in Cairo. There were mistakes there—that there was Christian man [in a relationship] with a Muslim girl that initiated tensions with Muslims

SH: That was our recommendation that we presented to the Military Council. The first problem was to get people [Christians] back to their houses and to leave the matter to the law, and this is the main point: that we got people back to their houses and that the church was rebuilt. And we wrote to the Prime Minister and to the Military Council that the problem should be solved by law and that the law should be enforced on who is wrong and who is right, and investigate the issue and judge the guilty. If a Muslim is wrong he should be judged according to the law, and if a Christian is wrong he should be judged according to the law. That was our recommendation to the Prime Minister and to the Military Council and they didn’t take it into consideration.

CH: Is that documented?

SH: Yes, it is documented, they have it.

CH: How? Our work needs documentation…

SH: That is documented in videos, we said that in videos. When I went to Hassan al-Ruiny, at the Military Council, he told me to write what I wanted to do, so I wrote what I wanted to do and I gave him the paper and this is why I don’t have a copy of it.

CH: Hopefully you will be able to give us the link to the video.

SH: Yes, if you go on YouTube and if you search the Sūl case, you will find my speeches in the village of Sūl.

CH: Now, Imbābah.  What do you think about the burning of the church in Imbābah?

SH: On the burning of the Imbābah church—in Egypt they call me “The Firefighter”, who extinguished the fire. In Imbābah there was a problem in the church, we went there as the Revolution’s Board of Trustees because this happened immediately after the Revolution. We had nothing to do with the issue and we found out that the Ministry of Interior was responsible for the problem.

CH: What did the Ministry of Interior do?

SH: The information that I have, I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong. As a habit, if the information that I have is right, I say it, while if the information that I have is not verified, I say I don’t know. The information that we got is that what happened there is that a police officer opened fire on the church and he had a group of thugs with him. They threw Molotovs at the church. So the Muslims and Christians inhabitants stood against this and the problem happened. At that time the Ministry of Interior was causing many of these problems to hinder the Revolution; it was playing the role of what was known as “the third party” [when there is two parts against each other and a third one comes up and pushes both sides to fight], and my role was… Imbābah has many churches, nearly four churches, and what I did is that we took some Muslims youths from the revolutionaries to protect the other churches. They protected the rest of the churches so no one would attack any other church. That’s my entire role in Imbābah. After that, one of the main tasks of the Revolution’s Board of Trustees was to stand in front of the gates of the churches and ceremonies of the Copts, so that they can prevent any extremist Muslim from getting near the church.

CH: In Egypt journalists and TV representatives are talking about civil war in Egypt. There are Islamists and non-Islamists, Muslims and non-Muslims. My opinion is that Egypt is a country for all Egyptians, not the Islamists only, not the Christians only, not the Liberals only; everybody.

SH: Let me tell you something about my political view, which you can find shown in some TV programs. Can a Christian run for the presidency of Egypt? I say “yes”. If the Egyptian people chose a Christian to govern Egypt, that’s it, this is the people’s will. This is my principle. The person who the people want to be the ruler, should rule. If the people chose an Islamist to govern, he should govern. We should all support that president. If the people chose a Liberal, if the people chose a Christian, a Copt, then he governs, that’s it; that’s the people’s will and we should respect it. This…

CH: Yes, that’s right.

SH: This is my opinion. Therefore, when an article was proposed for the Constitution–I had a strong relationship with the Constitutional Committee—that the President of the Republic must be Muslim, I said, “No”. The President of the Republic must be Egyptian. Muslim, Christian, Liberal, Communist…

CH: … Jewish

SH: Jewish, if there were any Jews living in Egypt. In Egypt there are no more than 50 Jews.

All of them older than 70.

CH: I know, I know.

SH: That’s why I didn’t mention the word Jews. But he must be Egyptian. This is my principle and my political view. Can the Prime Minister be Christian? Yes, the Prime Minister can be Christian. In front of the civil law, Christians are exactly like Muslims. This is my opinion. And on this basis, the issue is not about Morsi being an Islamic President…

CH: Is he an Islamic president or an Egyptian president?

SH: No, I’m clarifying this to you. The issue is not about Morsi being an Islamic [president]. Instead, it is about being a president—Egyptian, civilian, elected through fair, free elections. And I said on this stage [of Rāba’a al-‘Adawīyah] that if Hamdīn Sabāhī was the President of the Republic and the army staged a coup against him, I would refuse that coup and take this same position and fill the squares in support of Hamdīn Sabāhī. This is the issue.

CH: Now, the people of the coup are not with the Islamists…

SH: Excuse me, before you continue. The Military Council, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (’Abd al-Fattāh al-Sīsī), wanted to make the matter a religious matter. The coup and al-Sisi wanted to make Morsi’s matter a religious one. How? He brought Church’s Pope and from the Azhar Shaykh.

CH:  I am sorry. That’s wrong.

SH: Isn’t it?

CH: That’s a mistake.

SH: Yes. So he changed the issue from a coup to a religious issue between Muslims and Christians. The Muslims were hurt by the fact that the Church’s Pope took part in deposing an Islamic President. Ahmad al-Tayyīb, Shaykh of al-Azhar, as a person, not as an authority, he is a man from the remnants of the old regime and sits in political committees and was supporting Ahmad Shafiq (Shafīq) in the presidential elections. And the presence of Ahmad al-Tayyīb gave a religious dimension to the issue and related it to the old regime. And this was the first step of al-Sisi leading to a civil war in Egypt. His second step, it’s yesterday’s speech, in which he invited his supporters to demonstrate in the streets. How do you invite your supporters to protest while your opposition is in the street? We are absolutely not considering going to Midān al-Tahrīr. Midān al-Tahrīr is our property from January 25. But we refused to go to Midān al-Tahrīr because there are some mercenaries. Concerning the possibility of a civil war in Egypt, we, as supporters of the President [Morsi], would never use a weapon against an Egyptian. Never.

CH: Yesterday al-Sisi made his statement. What is the situation now in Egypt? President Morsi obtained 51% of votes in the elections, while Shafiq got 49. Egypt now is divided. Some are with Morsi, some are against Morsi, but where is the dialogue in Egypt? For Egypt’s economy this is not good. All the people here… I see here, everyone wants to live, everyone wants to eat, this is the human being—that is the people.

SH: You are from the Netherlands, right?

CH: I have been living in Egypt for several years.

SH: But you are from Holland. And they are from Holland as well? [Referring to the interns.]

CH: No, no, they are from Italy and he’s from England.

SH: In Italy, in England, in Holland, do you accept that the army stages a military coup against democracy and takes over and oust the elected Prime Minister? Does anyone accept that?

CH: No, but in Europe, in England, in Italy, in Holland, there are democratic institutions and if anything happens the Parliament decides if the Prime Minister or the President will continue or not. Here, where is the parliament?

SH: This is what we are asking for and this is what the president, Muhammad Morsi, is asking for. President Muhammad Morsi says that we have been trying to run parliamentary elections and to constitute a parliament for a year now, but the Constitutional Court is hindering these elections, as are the Liberals. We want to continue the democratic experiment in Egypt. We elected a president and he became the elected president. With 51% or 50.5%, anyway what matters is he got the majority of votes and he became an elected president for Egypt. He must continue his term. The parliament is the only faction that can judge the president and depose the president and decide whether there should be early presidential elections or not. We told them to make elections and constitute a parliament and you as opposition to Morsi, since you claim to have 30 million people who went in the streets, you will surely win the elections. Depose Morsi according to the law. Am I wrong? This is what we asked for and what we are asking for. We will not go back again to the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamāl ‘Abd al- Nāsser) or Mubarak where the army rules. It’s impossible. You know that there is a temporary president for the country. Is he a real president? Does he do the tasks of the president? Does he have power? Does he get to make decisions? Who is ruling Egypt? Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. He is the one who is ruling. So this is what we are asking for.

We are asking for the following points: first, the return of the elected president to perform his tasks, without conditions or restrictions. Secondly, running parliamentary elections as soon as possible. Thirdly, the parliament gets to decide on the judgment or the deposal of the president. Whatever the parliament does, we will accept it. Fourth, forming a commission to amend the Egyptian Constitution. Fifth, forming a commission for national reconciliation. The return of the Egyptian Constitution; the return of the temporary Shūrá Council—this is what we ask for. Simple as that. We will go back to our houses and run elections and if they have the majority in the streets they will reach the majority in the parliament. If they have the majority in parliament they have the right to govern and to depose the president, and at that time we will support the deposal of the president, if it’s the parliament who deposes the president. But, if we go to the streets and claim to be 30 million or 20 million and we want to depose the president… I also can make the claim that we are 20 million, can you tell if I am honest or lying?

CH: But if there are parliamentary elections…

SH: This is what we are saying, me and the Revolution’s Board of Trustees, it’s what we are asking and this is what all the Islamic parties are saying.

CH: Thank you. About tomorrow: will something happen? [There were fears that on Friday July 26 there could be tensions and fights]

SH: Hopefully tomorrow nothing will happen. We don’t have weapons, we won’t carry weapons. We don’t know how to kill, we don’t kill anyone. This will continue being a peaceful revolution. I suggest that you take a walk in the square at night with Hussein from the Media Center or Walīd Haddād or anyone. You will see with your own eyes that there is no terrorism or weapons. Tomorrow I don’t expect anything to happen. I only think that there will be some thugs and those thugs are moved by the State Security. We are quite sure of this. They can cause some problems, as it happens every day. Some people from us might die and they could go to Tahrīr, the thugs, and kill some people so we are accused of it. If we wanted to take over Midān al-Tahrīr we would have done it long ago, but we don’t want that. And hopefully tomorrow everything will go fine.

CH: Hopefully. Our interns have questions.

Daniela De Maria: I read that you have been banned from entering France. Why?

SH: No, I’m not banned from entering France. In the time of Sarkozy there was an Islamic conference that me and a group of Shaykhs were invited to attend and to give a speech in. But the Ministry of Interior took the decision. The French Ministry of Interior or the French government was heading toward elections, so they wanted to win the votes of Jews and some French extremists in France…

CH: Did this happen during the time a Jewish school in France was attacked and children were killed?

SH: Yes.

So they wanted to prevent the Borjè conference from being held, but they failed because if they had done it they would have lost the votes of the Muslims in France so instead they decided to prevent from entering all the scholars that were supposed to participate in the conference that year, such as Shaykh al-Qaradāwī, Safwat Hegazy, ‘A’īd al-Qarnī, and a huge group, who don’t have any relationship with politics… Shaykhs like A’ed al-Qarnī or Mahmūd al-Masrī have nothing to do with politics, revolution, or anything else, but they were banned anyway for this trip only, but afterwards I went to France.

Rob Bental: What is your opinion on the role of foreign countries in Egypt right now and what do you think their role should be?

SH: In the current crisis?

RB: Yes.

SH: If this military coup was in any other country, would Europe or the European countries accept or recognize this coup or they would reject it? They would reject it, definitely. This is what we want from the European countries. We want the European countries to reject this coup and this government, and get back the elected president. I requested the European Union to come to supervise the next parliamentary elections. Europe must help and protect the Egyptian democratic experiment.

CH: Thank you very much.


Friday of Rage, No Signs of Reconciliation

The following is from the newsletter of Arab West Report, penned by Cornelis Hulsman. It is a good summation of events so far:

Cairo is burning. Normal Egyptians are scared and stayed as much as possible at home. The Friday of Rage was announced in a statement of the Muslim Brotherhood led Media team of the Anti-Coup, Pro-Democracy Alliance.

Statement: Friday of Rage

(Cairo, Friday, August 16)- Despite our deep pain and sorrow following the August 14 Rabaa massacre and others committed since the bloody coup, the crimes of the coup regime have only increased our steadfastness and firmness in rejecting it and determination to remove it.

The struggle to overthrow this illegitimate regime is an obligation, an Islamic, national, moral, and human obligation which we will not steer away from until justice and freedom prevail, and until repression is conquered.

Our revolution is peaceful, and we will continue to mobilize people to take to the streets without resorting to violence and without vandalism. Violence is not our approach. Vandalism only aims at distorting the image of our peaceful revolt and finding justifications for the coup leaders to continue to govern.

We call on the great Egyptian people to gather in all revolutionary squares on the Friday of Rage.

The starting points for the protests in Greater Cairo are the following mosques. (28 names of mosques were mentioned.)

Afterwards, all marches will meet at the nearest intersection, and will all head to Ramsis square. Meanwhile, million-man marches will be held in all other Egyptian governorates.

The anger of the Muslim Brotherhood is not unfounded. Maha Azzam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) in London, explains in the Guardian of August 13the bitter irony. The January 25 Revolution was to bring democracy. Morsi (Mursī) was voted, albeit with a very small majority, as the first democratically-elected president.  He was deposed on July 3 by the military, feeling that they had sufficient support from the masses, but, she writes “the fact remains that the ballot box is an essential part of the democratic process. Politically, what Egypt lacked during its experiment in democracy was a loyal opposition. Instead, the opposition that came together under the umbrella of the National Salvation Front decided to back a military coup.” Muslim Brothers feel they were trapped. Maha Azzam is clear in her opinion, that is that “the military and police state has returned in full force to Egypt. A country that for a brief period after 60 years of dictatorship was on a path of democratic transition saw a reversal of that process with the coup on 3 July against Egypt’s first freely elected president.

Maha Azzam describes opinions that I hear often in talks with Muslim Brothers. They strongly feel they have been betrayed.  That feeling is important to understand for the violence we are witnessing now.

The demonstrations followed fiery preaching in line with the belief that they have done injustice to. Well-known Muslim leaders as Youssef al-Qaradawi and Selim el-Awa have preached in this line of thinking. They did not call for violence, but as we have seen in previous demonstrations, armed thugs and snipers use the masses of people to mix among unarmed demonstrators and fire on whoever they believe to be their opponents.

These demonstrators were a mix of Islamists and thugs of very different backgrounds. Of course it was Brotherhood-organized and thus large numbers belong to this organization, but there were also Jamā’ah al-Islāmīya, Salafīs, and radicals of all kinds present and thus it is extremely difficult to determine to what organizations the people who engaged in violence belonged.

We have seen on videos large amounts of weapons found in different places. That shows preparation and makes the claim that this was spontaneous anger impossible.

Volkhard Windfuhr, the well-informed chairman of the Cairo Foreign Press Association is angry and wrote on Friday:

Unfortunately, some of our colleagues succumbed to fatal attacks. They were not just victims of chaos or normal fire exchange, they had been fired at on purpose. Not by police or army officers, but by the self-proclaimed ‘peaceful demonstrators’. Today I myself happily escaped a mean sniper attack on the 15 Mayo bridge at Zamalek. The criminal was not a policeman either, I have witnesses for that fact – normal Egyptian citizen by passers. I was not there for press coverage, but just heading for a coffee shop to meet friends.

It is outrageous what these aggressive ‘protestors’ commit. They attack people at random, attack their own state – attack public buildings and an ever increasing number of churches und houses and shops of Christians.

Most violence was at Ramsis Square, the most important and busiest intersection in Cairo where also the railway and bus stations are located. If this square was blocked the consequences for traffic in Cairo would be far worse than closing Tahrir square.

The Arab Contractors building, the largest building at the square, went up in flames. What purpose does such violence have? Arab Contractors is a very large Egyptian construction company that, for example, has built most bridges in Egypt. The destruction of this building will cause thousands of engineers to lose work for at least a certain period to come. In a country that is already economically suffering this is not what Egyptians need.

Muslim Brotherhood statements speak about a peaceful revolution, but what we have seen in the streets is different. Was this Brotherhood-organized as the opponents of the Brotherhood believe? Or were these thugs? Perhaps even security agents who wanted to create havoc? Conspiracy theories are flourishing!

It is certain, however, that many Muslim Brotherhood leaders do not want to give up resistance. Morsi’s son declared on Facebook: “We will not give up. We will either win or die.”

That is not an approach of seeking a middle ground; a compromise in order to avoid more bloodshed and destruction of Egypt. Morsi’s son is not the only one using this rhetoric, but stating “either win or die” sounds heroic to his followers, but at the expense of Egypt. Continued  violence is also at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which is rapidly becoming more closely associated with the carnage we are witnessing now and further validates calls to ban the organization.

Uncompromising attitudes will not only make the Brotherhood a loser of the conflict—the military and Egypt as a whole will suffer dearly as well. The conflict makes the role of the military domineering, but that may cost Egypt international support. Language of some people “that we don’t need this” is stupid. Foreign companies that had remained in Egypt thus far are now closing their doors, making the economic situation more difficult than it already is.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization with an estimated 1 million followers. Leaders in the past have told us they were proud of being so well organized. In the past two years well-informed Egyptians have told us on several occasions that the Brotherhood is capable of bringing at least 5.5 million voters to the ballot box. Just excluding such a large group of people from the political scene is not an option.

But what does the severe pressure on the Brotherhood mean for the unity in the group? Muslim Brotherhood member, Amr Amru, went public with a statement that there are around 200 Muslim Brotherhood members who want to file a complaint with the prosecutor against their own leaders because they have led them into this violence. Amr Amru spoke about the hierarchical Muslim Brotherhood structure with leaders giving instructions to branches that branches then have to simply execute.  But we don’t  know who Amr Amru and these 200 people are.  Many others will continue to follow their leaders.

Amnesty International came with a strong statement about Egypt: “There must be a full and impartial investigation into the violent dispersal of sit-in protests in Cairo this week, where security forces used unwarranted lethal force and broke promises to allow the wounded to exit safely, Amnesty International said today on the basis of its research on the ground.”

Of course, many may disagree with the conclusions of Amnesty International, but the call for a full and impartial investigation is certainly justified and needed in order to heal the very deep wounds in a deeply fractured Egyptian society.

Pope Tawadros had been criticized for sitting with Azhar Shaykh, Ahmed el-Tayib, when General al-Sisi announced the sacking of President Morsi on July 3, but on Friday he again went public with a statement in support of the security and military. I do not think that to be wise. I have been traveling in the past years through Egypt and have seen people suffering. The Pope knows the consequences of his words and he knows that his statements can be used as an excuse for more violence against Christians. Then why make statements that could make ordinary Christians victims of angry Islamists?

We appreciate the responses we get to our newsletters, in particular if they come from Egypt. Please continue writing about your own experiences. May God bless Egypt and give Egypt peace!

(Note: The website for Arab West Report was hacked several weeks ago; efforts to restore archival content and continue publication have not yet been successful.)

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Interview with Dr. Essam al-Haddad, Presidential Advisor

Essam al-Haddad, with Hulsman (L) and Schleiffer (R)
Essam al-Haddad, with Hulsman (L) and Schleiffer (R)

The following is an excerpt from an interview I was privileged to be a part of with Arab West Report. We visited the presidential palace in Heliopolis to meet with Essam al-Haddad, President Morsi’s advisor on foreign and security affairs.

Visiting the palace itself is a strange experience. The walls are covered with anti-Morsi graffiti and lined with barbed wire due to recent clashes in the vicinity. It is a good symbol of the current state of Egypt. An Islamist occupies the top office but faces significant backlash, as the state appears to be breaking down, unable to maintain the respect necessary for such a vital institution. Can you imagine if the White House was similarly afflicted?

Here is Haddad’s take on this, including his explanation on why the conspiracy against Morsi has not yet been brought to light:

Dr. Essam Al-Haddad: The amount of violence against security which was not experienced before, has reached a level where security is now responding but with tear gas and water cannons. But for each rule there are exceptions. Our position is that there is no tolerance for violence against peaceful demonstrations and there is no tolerance for violent demonstrators who are attacking either other people or institutions. So the balance is very tight.

However, if there are any documented incidents of violation, we are taking this very seriously on two sides. First, it has to be investigated and those accountable need to be brought to justice. Second, strategic measures need to be taken to ensure it won’t happen again within the ministry and within the officers. And in this case we would say that we have experienced that the level of restraints, self-restraints by the police is not seen in the Egyptian public for years.

And I invited you to come here to see how we are operating within Ithahadiya [Presidential Palace]. By night on Friday Ithahadiya is attacked by Molotov cocktails and graffiti on walls and everything. Nobody is doing anything to them. So because they are not allowed to carry bullets, the police force, they are only allowed to use tear gas and water cannons. So this is what is going on in the police. But if things are going more violent from some of the violent demonstrators then they have to take action. The rule is using the acceptable level of force in order to stop this from going on.

Any violation of these acts, whether those who have been here in Ithahadiya or anywhere else, will be investigated and those who have been considered accountable will be brought to justice. This is the rule we are working on. Going back to the other side where we have experienced women harassment, huge women harassment at Tahrir Square, there have been claims that these had been organized by the FJP and the MB. This is nonsense, complete nonsense. We have information now that these people are paid by the day, sometimes by hour to demonstrate and to do whatever damage in any part they are and we even know that the fee reaches nearly 1000LE for a day and if they are wounded they could get up until 1500LE, so it is a good job.

Prof. Abdallah Schleiffer: If you have this information why don’t you bring them to charge?
Dr. Essam Al-Haddad: Because this information is not 100% on record. Like drug trafficking, you can see that this person is giving that person an amount of drug to be used and he is selling it and he is getting the price. If you don’t have the license from the public security…

Prof. Abdallah Schleiffer: But you could simply arrest the perpetrators, because there are groups who are fighting them and they could testify evidence, because, again, this is where there is a credibility problem. I have no reason to doubt you at all.

Dr. Essam Al-Haddad: We had a revolution 2 years ago. The dictatorship has been there for 30 years with all its levels of corruption. And people are now experiencing a totally new atmosphere that they are free to do whatever they want and there is no security apparatus enforcing law on them. And they feel this as an opportunity to do whatever they want.

I have been to South Africa for nearly five years after the Apartheid rulers. I was not in Johannesburg, but in Cape Town. I was not allowed to go outside the five-star hotel where I was staying without having a stick and without being warned. When I went around the streets of the five-star hotel everyone was holding a stick. And this was five years after the Apartheid regime.

You don’t have a complete change in such a short time. I always say, you need nine months to have a baby. Can you have a baby in less than nine months? Sometimes, maybe. But you need two years to start to speak two words. And another ten, thirteen years to be mature in order to be a responsible person. This is traditional of course. You cannot expect that after a full collapse and a full blown over of the regime, things would go back to normal immediately.

And you have a counter revolution going against you. But what I can say, we know very well where we are going. And we expect that this time will come and we are determined to carry on building our institutions. And carry on in the reforms we are trying to make in order to make the environment more acceptable and attractive for investors. This is how we want to do it.

Drs. Cornelis Hulsman: The issues we mentioned thus far are all issues for which you need consensus building. How would you find a consensus in Egypt to address all these issues that are of major importance to Egypt because a consensus will help to address this?

Dr. Essam Al-Haddad: Yes you are right, it is important, we are trying our best. Mr. President has invited for dialogue, once, a second, a third time. His invitation was that everything could be discussed, no constraints. You can discuss whatever. But what we are seeing from the other side is that we will not sit unless you are meeting this condition. So, it is a conditional dialogue. “No we will not sit with you ‘cause you are not credible enough”, “no we will not accept this, no we will not accept that.”

Our experience is that, not only experience, our information is that there are elements who are not willing to enter the dialogue, but they are only willing to delay the democratic process. This is their point. Whenever there is an election, they say this is not the right time for an election. If there is a referendum, they will say that this is not the right time for a referendum. If there is any sort of action building democratic institutions in order to go forward there is a sincere trial to hamper and to obstruct it.

This is what we see so in order to archive consensus within this environment, it is not that easy to reach a 100% consensus. But you have to reach out and to open the door and whoever will be joining you will carry on with them. And those who are sending their own agents inside the country and playing outside and sending money, there is more than country and business man who are intervening in our country to avert whatever is going on.

Prof. Abdallah Schleiffer: There is a credibility problem. What countries are you talking about? When you are talking about foreign countries intervening, especially since that is a phrase that has been used over sixty years, so it has a very negative, when I hear that it is like I am hearing…

Drs. Cornelis Hulsman: Mubarak.

Prof. Abdallah Schleiffer: Mubarak or Qadafi. Is there any way you could clarify that? What countries are intervening? I understand why you do not want to, but just asking whether you can.

Dr. Essam Al-Haddad: We do not want to spoil the relations with this country, because this is a brotherly country, which is scared of what is going on here. We prefer to keep it calm. And to avoid it, with the hope that they would realize that intervening in the internal affairs of Egypt is not at ease.

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

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