Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Martin Luther King’s Legacy Lives On – Among Egypt’s Battered Liberals

MLK Arabic
Translation: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story; how 5000 black men found a way to end racial discrimination

Egypt’s centre-left secularist party has an unlikely mascot: America’s most famous Baptist preacher, Dr Martin Luther King.

King is the inspiration behind a revival of liberalism in a country where prison awaits street protest of almost any kind.

Selma was the surprise choice of film to launch a new cultural moment in post-revolution Egypt.

The 2014 film chronicles King’s march from a backwater hamlet to the statehouse in Alabama.

‘We chose Selma because it shows how civil rights movements can proceed peacefully,’ said Islam Amin, founder of the Egyptian Cinema Club.

‘We also have suffered crackdowns and violence in the streets. The situation of Selma is like Egypt today.’

[Turning to culture: President of the centre-left ESDP AbulGhar (R), with the father of Egyptian cinema’s ‘new realism’ school, Daoud Abdel Sayed. Photo: ESDP]

Leading politicians attended the screening. One – Mohammed Abul Ghar – believes that as in King’s America only the President can make a difference to Egypt’s oppressive politics, as thinkers, writers, and ‘blasphemers’ find themselves facing lengthy prison sentences.

‘We are clearly against these laws, but the situation is very dangerous,’ said Ghar, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP).

‘It must be the president who will take the step to change them; it is the only way.’

Martin Luther King suffered abuse from citizens and police alike, but his efforts mobilized a nation and culminated in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ESDP, which won only four seats in the 596-member parliament, is frustrated with the path politics is taking.

Following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, ESDP members occupied top posts in government, including prime minister.

But now, says Ghar, there is no government, only ministry heads he calls ‘secretaries to the president’.

So instead politicians are turning to culture.

‘It is hard to play politics these days, but we can still play culture,’ Amin, the ECC founder, said. ‘Culture, philosophy, and art spread tolerance and justice, where fascists and Islamists spread only lies and hate.’

[Logo of the Egyptian Cinema Club. Photo: ESDP]

But coming off the back of Egypt’s experience of political Islam, what chance is there for a Baptist preacher’s example?

Bassem Kamel, head of the political training department in the ESDP, drew three lessons from Selma and the life of King: change requires a long and sustained effort; violence is counter-productive, and to win you must win the people.

Selma also highlights King’s deftness with the media – something the new wave of liberals emulates. They invite popular culture-makers to maximize the attention they get, launching the film club cannily on the UN-designated World Day of Social Justice.

‘Culture and politics have a clear influence on each other,’ said Daoud Abdel Sayed, whose 40-year career in Egyptian cinema was honoured at the screening.

His school of ‘new realism’ emphasizes the modern struggles of ordinary Egyptians. ‘But the problem is the state has transformed culture into something only for élites,’ he says.


The ESDP’s film club is not the only Egyptian effort to use the memory of Dr King. In 2009, activist Dalia Ziada translated the obscure, 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story into Arabic.

Two years later in 2011 she found herself distributing thousands of copies in Tahrir Square.

‘The book was being smuggled like drugs,’ she told Lapido. ‘The real challenge we are facing now is how to keep the momentum going.

‘But there is no Selma in Muslim Egypt.’

The problem has been a 40-year process of importing a foreign Wahhabi ideology, says Ziada. A moderate, Sufi-style Islam had declined as culture and state turned conservative.

Earlier sheikhs had looked to Europe for inspiration, she said, now they looked to Arabia.

[‘No Selma in Muslim Egypt’: Dalia Ziada. Photo: Andres Alonso Photography]

‘God knows how many years we will have to wait until a 2011 revolutionary comes to power,’ said Ziada, now director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt.

‘But even if it takes forty years, I am sure this day will come,’ she adds, recalling the four-decade interlude between Selma and the election of US President Barack Obama.


Beyond the comic book there are only eight books in Arabic on the life of Martin Luther King, according to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. But in 2012 he added another: a translation of King’s biography, published by the London-Beirut-based company Dar al-Saqi.

Others agree with Ziada that there is no comparable figure to King in contemporary Egypt. American University in Cairo professor of Arab and Islamic Civilization Mohamed Serag cites nineteenth-century Al Azhar scholar Muhammad Abduh as a  possible model.

One of the founding fathers of Islamic Modernism, Abduh’s students pioneered reforms in politics, economy, and gender equality.

But today, Serag said, poor education and state policy combine to keep another Abduh, let alone a King, from emerging. ‘Despotism is the reason,’ he said. ‘Since 1952 our régimes have controlled society and do not let it prosper.’

ESDP president Abul Ghar cannot envision a change until the collapse of Saudi Arabia and its petrodollar sponsorship of religious conservatism.

‘Egypt is completely polarized,’ he added, ‘and with Islam as a religion it is very difficult. Either you become a radical salafi or you separate Islam from politics completely.’

But pushing pessimism aside, the secular party highlights a Christian minister and continues the grassroots work.

‘Yes, Martin Luther King was a pastor, and we do not have this type of figure in Egypt,’ said Kamel, the political trainer.

‘But I will not wait until we do.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.


Poverty and Politics in Ezbat al-Haggana

As Egypt considers its coming parliament, discussed among pundits and politicians alike, actual voting power lies far off the beaten track in slums such as Ezbat al-Haggana. Nagwa Raouf, founder of the House of Blessing local charity, says two million people live there.

“We have told the people, ‘Do not sell your vote, it is your dignity’,” she stated, but the call goes on deaf ears. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ahmad Shafiq and Amr Moussa offered the equivalent of US $0.83 to cast a ballot on their behalf.

Islamist groups which had been active in Ezbat al-Haggana did not sell their vote, Raouf explained, though she was not happy with them either.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has worked with the people for eighty years, giving them money, clothes, and meals for Ramadan,” she stated. “But what have they done to uplift the people?

“Salafis are the same but worse, as they are close minded.”

In an area where the majority live below the poverty line, Raouf sought out a neighborhood Muslim imam to sanction a unique, if cynical, solution.

“With the sheikh we agreed to tell them to take the money, but then go and vote for someone else,” she said.

Ezbat al-Haggana is located in northeast Cairo, off the ring road, not far from high class developments built away from the downtown. With no housing provided, Upper Egyptians looking for work erected a shanty town not far from construction.

According to Raouf, thirty years ago Egypt’s Border Guard sold the Haggana land to its officers, who in turn sold it to local residents. It took twenty years for the government to provide local sewage and electrical service.

Despite the evident poverty, construction is booming, especially after the revolution. Local regulations forbid apartments from going over four floors, but this is widely disregarded. Contractors from outside the area make a partnership with land owners, offering to build additional apartments upon their one floor home. Contractor and owner split the floors, which in turn are sold or rented to others.

Or, perhaps, they are kept in family. It is common for 15-20 people to live in a single home, as migration trends from Upper Egypt dictate families live together, and near to neighbors of the same region. Though Haggana divides informally its sub-districts by native origin – Asyut, Minya, Sohag, etc – Muslims and Christians are intermingled along the same pattern.

Likewise, religious relations follow the Egyptian pattern. Raouf states that Muslims and Christians are fine neighbors, but the problem of church building traveled with the migrants.

There is one official, licensed church in Ezbat al-Haggana, but several unofficial meetings in family homes. Next to one of these someone recently erected an unlicensed mosque.

Local Muslims, Raouf explains, welcome Christian worship – but to a point. They know full well that services are conducted by their neighbors and have no objection. Problems begin when Copts seek to transform the exterior of their building to reflect formal church architecture. Muslims feel their allowance has been betrayed, while Christians feel their identity is denied by the refusal of official permissions. Fortunately, Haggana’s community leaders have had the wisdom to avoid stoking tensions in this area.

It is these community leaders who guard its people against outsiders, which can make even charity work difficult.

“First you have to love,” said Raouf. “Then you have to get to know them, then trust them, then win their confidence, and then finally you can help.”

Raouf’s House of Blessing succeeded by first working through an already established NGO, The Mountain of Mercy. She asked workers there to recommend ten families who stood in dire need of improved housing. Interviewing them one by one, she looked for who could help themselves.

She settled on a family originally from Aswan who settled in Haggana thirty years earlier. Raouf noticed the woman of the household kept her children in school and carried potable water to her home each day. She was industrious and principled.

The House of Blessing collected money from the Islamic zakat giving of family and friends. They demolished the woman’s home entirely and built for her and her family a two story dwelling, with a small shop attached to the outside. Half of the nearly US $6,000 project is paid by the charity, with the other paid by the family in the form of a no interest loan.

Raouf and the woman exchanged the warmest of greetings.

This type of fundraising is difficult in Egypt, however. To transform a nearby alleyway Raouf caught the attention of a Saudi Arabian television show, whose producer funded and filmed the construction of two complete buildings. Eight whole families were outfitted, benefitting over sixty people. Whereas many alleys in Haggana are stained by garbage or general disrepair, this one sported a dignified cement floor. Many months later, it was still in pristine condition.

“To change people you must change their home,” believes Raouf. “Before, people would look at this alley and say, ‘We are satisfied, should we go against what God has given us?’

“But God wants us to live well.”

Raouf believes residents should also live well politically. As she first benefitted from the reputation of others, she now lends her own to those who believe similarly. Before the fall of Morsi she assisted contact for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, and the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

“I work with different political parties so that people can experience them and compare between them,” she stated.

On the occasion of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, the Social Democrats were in town. They hosted a party and community dialogue on the process of writing a constitution. Held at a park outside of town, attendance was small.

“It is not a long term battle,” said Nancy Muneer, deputy director for the party in East Cairo, “but a very long term battle.”

No natural politician, Muneer has been working in areas like Ezbat al-Haggana since the 2011 revolution – but never before.

“My son joined the revolution, before which he had zero hope,” she said. “I am upper middle class but I can’t stand to see people eating garbage off the street. We have everything we need to live in a better way, we just need a system.”

Muneer is in charge of women and youth affairs in the party, and she has been transformed by the experience.

“I am involved because I love people and love Egypt. Many of us are like this,” she said. “It is very addictive, because you fall in love with these people. They are so simple, genuine, and humble.”

There are also so foreign to her world. Muneer’s experience underscores why liberals may have such difficulty in mobilizing the people. It is not necessarily that the poor of Ezbat al-Haggana are Islamist, ignorant, or easily swayed by religion. They are simply not known.

“We go to Gazira Club and City Stars,” she said, “but Ezbat al-Haggana is what real Egypt is like, and we don’t know it.”


Note: This article was originally written in 2012, but not published. I reviewing some of my older work I believe it is still very relevant to the Egyptian scene, even with the removal of many Islamist parties. The same political dynamics exist. Finally, at last contact, Mouneer is no longer working with the Social Democratic Party, having opted out of politics.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Ehab el-Kharrat: A Protestant Political Leader in Egypt

Ehab el-Kharrat

I met with Ehab el-Kharrat in his office just off Tahrir Square on March 15, 2014, shortly before the presidential elections. Kharrat is one of the founding members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and though the party remained neutral, he endorsed Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the few high profile Coptic leaders to do so.

As we know now, it turned out to be a losing proposition, as he was crushed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But as Kharrat explains, it was a principled vote more than one to back a likely winner. Being principled is important to Kharrat, and the interview explores this theme in relation to his Christian faith and deep involvement in politics.

The following is an excerpt from the transcript published at Arab West Report.

You grew up in a leftist home and had a personal conversion. Perhaps this is not the normal story of Christians in Egypt?

My father is one of the most prominent intellectuals in Egypt. He is old now at 88. He is a novelist, literary critic, and short story writer who has been acclaimed and received the most prominent awards in Egypt and the Arab region. He was even nominated by Naguib Mahfouz to be the second Nobel Prize winner from Egypt.

He used to be a Communist Party leader as a young man though he moderated as he became older. He was imprisoned two years under King Farouk. I read Marx and Freud and Sartre before I read the Bible, actually. I had a personal experience with the Lord when I was 18 with the youth of Kasr el-Dobara Church, and it was an intense spiritual experience.

I became very active in the church and I had to struggle with the question of should I still be politically active or not. I had been an active member of leftist groups at Cairo University, though never a member of secret organizations.

I became a preacher, a youth leader, and an assistant pastor at Kasr el-Dobara and was instrumental in our phenomenal growth from a couple of hundreds to our current count of five or six thousand. I was the interpreter for Billy Graham and Louis Palau, and for a number of years I was an evangelist. I think I got thirty or forty thousand professions of faith. I was counting at that time.

Most American evangelical Christians tend to lean toward the right rather than the left. Why do you find the left is a better fulfillment of your Christian faith?

If you study the Bible carefully and its emphasis on justice, the rights of the poor, anti-exploitation, and protection of the weak and vulnerable, you cannot escape that this is the brunt of the political position of the Biblical writers.

Of course there is the aspect of creation of wealth and this is a social democratic position too. I am not against personal entrepreneurship, being creative, or being rich. Many evangelicals in America are not giving enough attention to justice or the poor, but if you can find a political tendency in the Bible this is it.

It is not ‘name it and claim it,’ ‘be as rich as you can,’ or ‘trickle down policies.’ You cannot find these in the Bible. Even ‘compassionate capitalism’ as Francis Schaeffer says. When the Bible talks about the rights of the poor it is clear it is not about mercy or compassion. It is about justice.

Please click here to read the full transcript at Arab West Report, including extensive comments about his participation in the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Here is a sample:

You don’t want to over-spiritualize the situation, but here is a spiritual question. In recent days some of the leaders of the popular opposition against Morsi have said there was police and military involvement. This suggests it was not just a grassroots movement, it was also a state manipulated movement.

Look, the movement started from our ranks, young people from the National Salvation Front. They gathered many signatures against Morsi and it was clear they had popularity. They were approached by the police and the military intelligence, and they talked to them. It is not like they became their agents, they cooperated, which is legitimate because we made clear we did not want to destroy state institutions only topple Morsi.

The signature campaign started the first of May, and I signed publicly the 10th of May with all our leaders. By early June it was clear the police and military intelligence were not going to oppose us. We made friends with the institutions, yes, but the movement was not manipulated by the government.

So this is my question, then: A Christian in politics must be straight in all he does, but politics can be about maneuvering, even manipulation. I don’t know if or where the line is crossed, but as a Christian, were lines crossed in the movement against Morsi?

I did not do any under the table negotiations and I think politics should be a clean game. The Brotherhood said that politics is a dirty game, and they played it dirty and paid the price. Whoever is not of integrity will lose. I believe politics should be straightforward whether you are a Christian or not. If you play by principles at the end you will prevail.

If the police or military intelligence dealt with us fair and square, it was ok. If they want to manipulate us we will not be manipulated. If they want to intimidate us we will not be intimidated. But if they ask if we will burn buildings and attack the Ministry of the Interior and we give them our word we will not, this is clear politics, it is clean.


Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Church Burning Reveals Ugly Contest over Truth and Victimhood

Copts Pray in Burned Church
Copts Pray in Burned Church

What mentality of man will burn a church? In Egypt, what should be known as a house of prayer is now the symbol of civil strife amid conflicting accusations of blame.

‘Attacks on churches are being done by the former regime and their thugs, not pro-Morsi demonstrators,’ said Ahmed Kamal, youth secretary for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan, an industrial district to the south of Cairo.

But this is nonsense to Bishop Thomas, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Qussia, 340 kilometers south of Cairo. His church was attacked by pro-Morsi protestors, but neighborhood Muslims rallied to defend it.

‘We recognize their faces and know who they are,’ said Thomas. ‘The Brotherhood is using us as a scapegoat to blame us for their failures.’

Anti-Christian rhetoric has been prominent among Islamists. Since Pope Tawadros, along with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, appeared with General al-Sisi to announce the deposing of President Morsi, many Islamists believe Copts to be part of a grand conspiracy against not just their movement, but Islam itself.

‘We don’t oppose Christians,’ said Kamal, ‘but we are against the pope – as we are against the head of the Azhar – who interferes to direct people to a particular political direction.’

This second half of this message is reinforced by Kamal’s local party representation. The Helwan FJP’s Facebook page notes that ‘burning houses of worship is a crime’, but then all but justifies it in an attack on the church.

After listing a litany of the pope’s offenses, it declares, ‘After all this people ask why they burn the churches.

‘For the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offense. For every action there is a reaction.’

Kamal recognizes this message may have been too general. The Brotherhood sees Islam as both worship and ideology, only the latter of which has been rejected by the church and anti-Morsi protestors.


But for Arne Fjeldstad, CEO of The Media Project to promote religious literacy in journalism, this error reflects the reality on the ground for Islamists.

‘Whatever the Brotherhood says [about nonviolence] is not listened to or communicated on the street,’ he said. ‘So there is a large incoherence among them.’

More than 50 churches were destroyed since Wednesday last week, including two Bible Society bookshops – the first time in Egypt’s recent history.  Some news organizations reported churches being marked for attack before the Brotherhood sit-ins were forcibly broken up.

Fjeldstad believes the Brotherhood will have a difficult time making theological sense about why God ‘turned against them’. But in the meanwhile, the sit-ins were filled with chants about martyrdom.

‘They have prepared the ground for future generations of warriors for Islam,’ he said.

Sarah Carr is an independent journalist and founder of, a web page which exposes the Arabic-only messages the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the FJP Facebook page above.

But she understands the rage of Islamist protestors, for she was a witness to the military-sponsored dispersal of the sit-in which killed over 600 people, not including 40 police personnel.

‘It was completely disproportional violence,’ she said, describing army vehicles mounted with automatic weapons firing into the crowds. Carr did not see any armed protestors, though she does not deny their presence.

‘The army needs to justify their terrorist narrative and use it to crush the Muslim Brotherhood,’ she said.

But the Brotherhood did resist. Political analyst Abdullah Schleifer notes that the Western tradition of nonviolent protest involves non-resistance to state-sponsored oppression.

‘Non-violence does not mean building barricades to hold off the Egyptian riot police and breaking up pavement stones to throw at them.’

Ahmed Kamal
Ahmed Kamal

Kamal freely admits the difference.

‘Gandhi is not necessarily our role model,’ he said. ‘He was good and his people were brave, but we have our peaceful model as well as per our book and principles.

‘We are unarmed in front of their weapons, but we will resist them. To be peaceful is not just to stay silent and wait for bloodshed. We must defend our lives even by throwing stones.’

But Emad Gad, a leading politician with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says they went far beyond throwing stones. His party is collecting evidence of protestors’ violent intent.

‘The army did not attack the people,’ he said. ‘They used tear gas and bulldozers and were attacked by armed protestors, and then they responded.’

For political analyst Eric Trager, both narratives make sense. The Brotherhood cannot win a battle against the security forces, but that may not be the point.

‘The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military,’ he told World Affairs Journal.

To protect itself, the military must now push the issue to conclusion.

‘It [the army] entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one,’ Trager continued.

‘The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.’


Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church in Cairo disagrees.

‘We witnessed bloodshed on our streets, vandalism and the deliberate destruction of churches and government buildings in lawless acts of revenge by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters,’ he said.

‘I appeal to everyone to avoid rushing to judge the authorities in Egypt.’

In attacking churches, though, Carr finds the Brotherhood playing into the hands of authorities – though society provides fertile ground.

‘We’ve seen for decades how you have one person with an agenda [to spark sectarian attacks] and then others are very happy to jump in,’ she said.

‘It doesn’t take much incitement from the Brotherhood or anyone else.’

Yet the authorities, she finds, are not innocent.

‘It is no good to go to conspiracy theories, but why did you break up the sit-in and not protect churches?’ she asks. ‘What should we conclude?’

The conclusion is a morass of relativity, reflective of a polarized society overlooking travesties on all sides.

‘The number of police killed is almost insignificant,’ said Kamal, ‘compared to the two thousand killed and ten thousand injured on our side.

‘This confirms our peacefulness.’


This article was originally published on Lapido Media.