Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Church and Politics Under Pope Tawadros

Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)
Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)

Yesterday I linked to my article on Christianity Today about the role of Copts in the current presidential elections season. It is a true article, but space limits the ability to probe the full issue of how they have been involved, particularly through leadership in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Here is a longer treatment, excerpted from my article at Arab West Report:

By appearances, the Coptic Orthodox Church is doing everything wrong. But appearances can be deceiving; officially, they are doing everything right.

But there is a messy in-between which casts doubt on it all. As convoluted as Egypt’s post-June 30 transition has been following the popular deposing of President Muhammad Mursī, the church has matched it step-by-step.

The appearances are obvious. Posters are seen throughout Cairo bearing pictures of Pope Tawadros alongside the front running military candidate. Some call out to the faithful: “The Lord Jesus calls you to support Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattāh al-Sīsī to preserve national unity.” Others give the reason “to stamp out terrorism,” and a third, “to stamp out the Brotherhood.”

Text messages have also been sent bearing similar slogans, calling on Christians to give their vote to Sīsī. This is confirmed by Ihāb al-Kharrāt, a Coptic founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, who in an interview with the author on May 15, 2014 called it “an abuse.”

The question is, by whom? The identity of sponsors is unknown, and the church has publicly denied any relation to the campaign on its Facebook page. Instead, as early as January 28, 2014 Pope Tawadros was rebutting rumors he was supporting a presidential candidate, and on May 4, 2014 he reiterated the church’s stance of neutrality. The church has no political role, he said on May 13, 2014 and his presence in Mursī’s removal on stage with al-Sīsī and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib of the Azhar reflected national institutional backing for the pulse of the street. Thereafter, priests are instructed not to directly support any candidates.

If this official position is clear and correct enough, there is a convoluted undercurrent. On March 23, 2014 Pope Tawadros was quoted by Kuwait’s al-Watan TV channel saying al-Sīsī had a national duty to run for president. Tawadros praised him as having the discipline necessary to run the country, though everyone was free to choose the one deemed most suitable. During the interview he also disparaged the Arab Spring, describing it as a conspiracy to break up the region into smaller states.

The next day the pope backtracked, telling al-Shurūq newspaper that he had not made any official statements or given any interviews over the past 10-14 days. Notably, he did not deny the content of the interview, though this was implied. But the video of his interview was later released stating the opinions in question, though the footage is not of great quality and appears edited, possibly doctored. Even so, it appears the church made a misstep in revealing its private convictions.

But even its public stance is open to interpretation. The Facebook page which denied relation to the posters called on Egyptians to participate in the presidential elections. This itself is a political step, though perhaps legitimate in terms of fulfilling national obligations. But to what end is this participation designed?

It is these national obligations Pope Tawadros once again emphasized on May 27, 2014 the last day of voting before polls were unexpectedly extended to a third day. In the face of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed boycott campaign joined at least passively by many youth, he declared this to be unacceptable negativity and urged people to vote.

But the government campaign begs interpretation that this election is less a contest between candidates than a quest for the legitimacy of turnout. 51 percent of the eligible electorate participated in the 2012 second round vote that installed Mursī over Ahmad Shafīq as president. Mursī received roughly 13 million votes. In his presumed victory al-Sīsī would want to at least match these numbers to validate officially his popular support beyond the many substantial street rallies which buttressed the popular overthrow.

Having given many signals of favor toward al-Sīsī, official or otherwise, is church neutrality now only a superficial position? In calling for participation, is it simply echoing the state call to support, in effect, a referendum on al-Sīsī? If his opponent Hamdīn Sabbāhī stands little chance of winning, should the church position be interpreted otherwise?

It is useful to look back at Pope Tawadros’ papacy to judge the fine line he has walked between involvement in and abstention from politics.

The article continues by examining the pope’s statements about and within the political arena, since his selection in November 2012. Judging from this history, the conclusion tries to examine the current situation:

The pattern that emerges gives an indication of what it means. Despite earlier stated intention to remove the church from politics and allow civil society to speak on behalf of Copts, Pope Tawadros was quickly drawn in. His remarks largely, though not exclusively, pertained to issues that affect the Coptic community. The 2012 constitution opened space for a threatening Islamism, and the attack on the cathedral in April 2013 was unprecedented and largely ignored by Mursī, despite initial condemnation. Statements of allowance for Coptic citizens to protest suggested an effort to stay within church matters, in the spirit of the January 25 revolution in which Copts acted without church direction, even if he earlier discouraged demonstrations.

But in endorsing the protest against Mursī a day before military action against him, Pope Tawadros took a political stand. It was not necessary, and it compromises his interpretation of appearing with al-Sīsī a day later. Yes, his appearance was a national statement of unity, but he appears an eager participant. It was a full endorsement of the order to come, and a condemnation of what came before.

But fair enough, it was a national action. Subsequent reception of al-Sīsī can be seen as honoring a national hero. And endorsement of the constitution can be seen as in line with support for the national roadmap and overall stability. They can also be seen otherwise, but this is the fine line he is walking.

Therefore, urging participation in presidential elections can be seen as more of the same. It is a national measure to rebuild the state, and it can be imagined he will do similarly with coming parliamentary elections. What will be tested then will be his opinion of candidates, as there is likely to be significant Islamist participation through the Salafi Nour Party. They are currently allies against Mursī; will the church be similarly neutral between candidates then, officially?

But this narrative is complicated by the controversial statements to al-Watan, along with the semi-denial. Having tightrope-walked for so long on the borders of political-religious legitimacy, it is not surprising to see such a mistake. But it is not enough to undue his official rhetoric. The church is neutral toward all political candidates; it simply plays its role as a national institution to support the state and encourage popular participation in governance.

To say otherwise requires descending into a conspiracy that may well be present but must be proven. But even without the conspiracy, it is possible to criticize the church for playing this national political role. This can be on the basis of principle – that religion should stay out of politics altogether. It can be on the basis of wisdom – that if there is a reversal in favor of the Islamists the church now has an entrenched enemy. Or it can be on the basis of the common good – that Egypt and her Christians are served better by active Coptic citizenry, not clergy.

But this calls for a vocal Coptic lay leadership that is emerging, but not yet mature. This is unsurprising given the decades of church paternalism under Pope Shenouda, encouraged by the long authoritarianism of Mubārak. Perhaps Pope Tawadros is being pushed back into the old paradigm; perhaps he is willing and eager. Perhaps there is little alternative yet and he acts against his better principles. Noteworthy also is that Pope Shenouda began his papacy as a vocal critic of Islamist policies, under President Sādāt. Banished for 40 months in a desert monastery, he returned much more subdued and cooperative under President Mubārak. It can be estimated that contrary to his predecessor, Pope Tawadros was victorious in his criticism; how will he now conduct himself under President al-Sīsī?

Like the meaning of the church’s call to vote in presidential elections, these questions are matters of his intentions, which cannot be known fully. Appearances are not good, but official stances are reasonable. It is the in-between that rightly confuses observers.

Within a still messy revolution, anything other would be surprising. The church and its pope are fully Egyptian, and Egypt is still convoluted.

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

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

As Egypt Picks Next President, Christians Play Biggest Political Role in Decades


From my article at Christianity Today, published May 27, 2014:

For Egyptian Christians, today’s presidential election is not much of a contest.

Most support General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in appreciation for his role in deposing previous president Mohamed Morsi and ending the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. A smaller, younger contingent leans toward leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi out of appreciation for the revolution and skepticism of another military leader. But most on both sides expect Sisi will win handily, and most welcome the new era to come.

“This election [brings] great expectations to welcome a new Egypt with Muslims and Christians as equal citizens,” said Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Cairo’s Kasr el-Dobara Church, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East.

But while most Christians are solidly in the camp of Sisi, many are taking advantage of the opening of political space after the January 2011 revolution to win leadership positions in a variety of political parties.

The article highlights one Christian woman who has become the first to head a political party in Egypt, supporting Sabbahi, and a man who is a founding member of another, supporting Sisi. A third figure is a human rights advocate seeking fair treatment for the Muslim Brotherhood, standing against the tide.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Reality before Results?

Flag Cross Quran


Monday and Tuesday Egyptians will vote for their next president, or, will not vote. Some of the latter will actively boycott, others will passively stay at home—satisfied, resigned, or uninterested. Some of the former will cast for the frontrunner, others will vote for the underdog—believing, protesting, or building an opposition.

And a few days thereafter, Egypt will know its president. Results are likely to return a decisive victory for General Sisi; yet unknown is the turnout on which much legitimacy will rest.

But full legitimacy is preemptively called into question by data from the latest Pew Research poll. After surveying a thousand Egyptians in face-to-face interviews, 54 percent are revealed in favor of Sisi and the removal of Morsi from power. This is far lower than domestic perception suggests.

Only 38 percent have a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is far lower than a year earlier, but still substantial. Surveys in Egypt are generally perceived as unreliable, but Pew is respected for its methodology and experience elsewhere in the world.

But God, it matters little what people say in an interview. May this coming election send a message through the actions of citizens.

Give them safety, God, if there are threats against participation.

Give them wisdom, God, to choose the candidate of their inclination.

Give them courage, God, to positively contest if contrary to their conviction.

But encourage the passive to take up a cause, and deny safety of presence to those who will damage. Give wisdom to authorities to secure the life and dignity of all besides.

If Egypt is divided, God, may the next president unite. May his conduct in office be winsome and effective. May Egypt progress under his watch, and those in opposition press him for even greater accountable gains.

But if the poll skews an already great unity, may the next president heal. There are still many in opposition, of a kind unhealthy for progress. Honor their convictions, God, and bring justice for all. But may they still build Egypt even as they reject. Assist the president to integrate them within the boundaries of law.

In these two days of campaign silence before elections, God, help Egypt to reflect. Then, and thereafter, help her to act. Bless the president, and may his leadership bless the people. Together, may they bless you—active, satisfied, and believing.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Voting Options far from Home

Flag Cross Quran


Nine days from presidential elections, Egypt allows its expats to cast an early tally. But those in prison must choose other options to make their voice heard. Two are said to be close to death after prolonged hunger strikes.

But if the presidential contest is not anticipated to be a battle to the death, it still feels so to many Egyptians. Three years of upheaval make many feel a vote for Sisi is vote to save the nation, while others stress Sabbahi is a vote to save the revolution.

One hunger striker, however, is the Egyptian-American son of a Brotherhood leader. He says he is charged while innocent, just to get to his father. Another is not charged at all. An al-Jazeera journalist has been detained since the break-up of the pro-Morsi sit-ins. Their only vote is with their stomach, hoping it might save something.

Preserve their lives, God. Honor their commitment, highlight their cause, establish all justice. Grant wisdom to the authorities to deal with them wisely. If they die, may it be with peace of heart, and contribute, somehow, to the peace of Egypt.

But for all those with simpler options, God, may they choose with discernment. Free all minds from the contaminations of rumor to select the man best suited to govern Egypt. May they sense the importance of this moment – whether from idealism or realism, hope or concern – but may no falsity enlarge the contest.

And for those who find the contest false altogether, give them alternate options to express their voice and build their nation. Allow no further destruction, whether to property, body, or soul.

For Egypt has suffered much, has chosen often, and still has little to show for it. Of those abroad and those in prison, give them all an idealism grounded in reality. Give them a spirit of sacrifice to serve their homeland.

And give them a taste, soon, of a nation that moves forward leaving none behind. Coming elections will soon dwarf their various options into near insignificance. But nothing is insignificant to you, God.

May all share in the struggle, as best they are able. Redeem each and every goodness, right each and every wrong. Death has been far too common an option in Egypt; deny it an ultimate victory.

But may its sting fuel vigilance toward liberty. For those who know it abroad, for those who lack it at home, and for the ordinary millions beside, may these be their eternal options.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Getting to Know You

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Bless both Sisi and Sabbahi, as they make themselves known to the Egyptian electorate.

This is different than making themselves known to Egypt, for both already possess developed reputations. Sabbahi has been in an election before and his views are public. But though only 18 months ago, it was a very different time. Why should we vote for you now?

And while Sisi also has been constantly in the media as he deposed President Morsi after popular outcry, his test is different now. His leadership is public, but his views are less clear. On what basis should we vote for you?

This week, both sat down for extended interviews on national television.

It is hard to judge reaction, but at least a reaction was prompted. With official campaigning started the candidates must put themselves before the people.

May they judge wisely, God, with full discernment.

Help them to know the weight of the times. Egypt is three years since revolution, with little progress or stability since. Which candidate can handle the responsibilities of state and right the ship?

Help them to know the depth of the visions. Egypt has been full of wild promises and empty platitudes. Which candidate can convince the public he has thought through the chaos and can enact solutions?

Help them to know the heart of the candidates. Egypt has seen acts of great sincerity and great manipulation, but the prevalence of rumors call all into question. Which candidate has an honest intention to serve the people through transparent means?

Perhaps none fit the bill exactly, God. If so, judge if a boycott will help or hinder the nation.

For many Egyptians are divided between these three choices. But in the three weeks to come, test each idea thoroughly. Run the candidates through the crucible of public scrutiny, that a winner may come out refined.

May Egypt get to know them, and may the candidates truly know the people. In both directions, guide above perceptions into substance, and help all do what is right.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Building, Barring Opposition

Flag Cross Quran


While it is still early in choosing Egypt’s next president, there is also not much time left. The first round is scheduled for May 26-27, giving little over a month to the two candidates who have collected the necessary endorsement signatures: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Sisi is the overwhelming favorite, and though Sabbahi benefits from name recognition and revolutionary pedigree, it is not anticipated he will do well.

The Constitution Party, however, has given him a boost. One of the central liberal parties formed after the revolution, its membership has chosen to endorse him. Their vote was overwhelming; Sisi took only ten percent with a dissenting thirty percent opting for boycott.

But like many parties, their social reach is yet undetermined. Their members are activists, and they represent a revolutionary perspective that has been increasingly questioned by the average Egyptian.

You know, God, if they act from principle. And you know further if Egypt needs to build strong parties regardless. But aid Egypt in the creation of a system that channels activism into polity. Through this party or others, through any and all candidates, translate legitimate partisanship into national benefit.

At the same time, some partisanship has been deemed illegitimate. An Alexandria court has forbidden Muslim Brotherhood candidacies in the elections.

In concept this is not new; under Brotherhood influence, among others, many members of the old ruling regime were similarly barred. The tables have now turned.

You know, God, if they act from principle. And you know further if Egypt needs a restriction on religious parties in general, or on the Brotherhood in particular. But aid Egypt in the societal conversation about the relation between religion and politics, between Islam and the state. Through Islamists or others, through any and all candidates, asses the virtues of religion within acceptable political benefit.

But it is not just Islam in question. Some Christian clergy have indicated political preference, while some Christian activists are building opposition. The pope of the church supports the current crackdown, while ‘the preacher of the revolution’ is on a hunger strike.

Religion can complicate politics, God, but politics is needed. Politics can dirty, while religion can clean, but both are subject to corruption. Both, also, can enable great good.

So in the coming president, God, may good be witnessed. But moreover, establish this good in the choosing. Create parties that will represent society and hold authorities accountable, even as they produce them.

May a ruling party govern strongly, and may an opposition challenge powerfully. In both, help Egyptians to choose wisely.

Build many, God, and bar few. While there is always time, there is precious little. Create the Egyptians you desire to strengthen this country.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Candidate Sisi, 529

Flag Cross QuranGod,

The inevitable came right after the unthinkable. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi finally declared his candidacy for president and resigned from the army. Two days earlier an Egyptian court ruled 529 Morsi supporters worthy of the death penalty, implicated in the murder of a single police officer. Somewhat surprisingly, neither decision prompted massive demonstrations.

But both prompted massive commentary. With Sisi it was more in line with profile, as the debate about him largely revisits the issue of coup vs. popular revolution, as it has since July. The mass judicial ruling, however, resulted in waves of celebration, explanation, and condemnation in the various press.

In both there is much to analyze, God. But there is more to lay before you. For the 529, give each their individual due. Perhaps some are innocent completely. Perhaps some are guilty of lesser charges. Someone was killed, and at least one is culpable.

But all deserve a thorough examination, as does the nation. May it start with the judge who is said to have violated court regulations. May it continue with the accused in accordance with the law. May it finish with the system which permitted its occurrence. May the coming appeals make clear what is generalized differently in all the above, that justice may prevail. May the people have confidence in this vital institution.

Perhaps of greater vitality, God, is the institution of the presidency. Over the next few months give wisdom to the people to discern their options. Whether Sisi, Sabbahi, or a pox on both their houses, help the different partisans to campaign winsomely and effectively.

Cause candidate Sisi to emerge from both his auras of popularity and contempt, to be judged on the basis of his leadership, platform, and vision for the nation. Maintain and enlarge this popularity if he is deserving; otherwise, may the people see and expose any disqualifying flaws.

But inasmuch as both Sisi and the 529 provoked only their base, renew the belief of the Egyptian people. Belief need not be witnessed on the streets, but stimulate citizens to take hold of their political future. Channel the undeniable energy of the past three years into mechanisms to secure the popular will. May they ever hold their system accountable, or perhaps more aptly, may they truly begin to.

Prevent both a surrender to an imagined inevitable and an acceptance of a once unthinkable. However these are defined, God, judge accordingly. But bless Egypt in all that comes.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Rebellion, and Relevance

Flag Cross Quran


Egypt’s presidential race is shaping up, and its arms race as well. The relevance of each is to be determined.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, who finished third in the presidential race of 2012, declared his candidacy, claiming to represent both the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Many then saw him as the best alternative between the old regime and Muslim Brotherhood candidates, but many wonder now if his popularity remains.

God, give him clarity and courage. May his campaign highlight issues between which the people must debate and choose. Strengthen and equip him to bear this challenge.

Abdel Munim Abul Futouh, meanwhile, who finished fourth in the previous race, declined to run. He lamented the unjust state of the nation and said he would not lend credence to a foregone conclusion. He had some support then as a revolutionary, independent Islamist, but some wonder now if he has any support at all.

God, give him wisdom and prudence. May his campaign of a sort rebuke any foul play by the current authorities. Convict him to be upright and influential now, even if he is saving himself for a later challenge.

And subsequently, the Rebellion Campaign, or Tamarod, splits. They brought the possibility of a presidential election to the people through a massive signature campaign and protest to remove Morsi, but with a choice upon them they begin infighting. Some back Sabbahi, others back the yet to declare army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Millions backed Tamarod eight months ago, but having accomplished their goal, does anyone back them now?

God, give them perspective and chivalry. May their choice reflect the will of the organization, to the degree the organization exists. They have borne their challenge, shall they have another one?

Sisi, however, campaigned in Russia. He returned with the endorsement of the Russian president, but also with strengthened ties and negotiations for arms sales and military cooperation. This is seen as a counterbalance to the longstanding support given by the United States, implicitly protesting the widespread suspicion America is interfering in local developments.

God, give them leverage and diplomacy. May Egypt conduct its foreign policy with independence and find friends with mutual interests for the common good. This challenge is ongoing, and may not end soon.

Nearly everything in Egypt feels weighty, God, but does reality match? Is Sabbahi a real candidate or a willing foil to Sisi? Does Abul Futouh matter? Is Tamarod a discarded shell? Is Russia a replacement for America? Or is the status quo more or less immovable, with developments meant to dodge, distract, and squabble over scraps of relevance?

May it not be so. The heart is divided between selfishness and altruism; politics allows for both and no man is an angel. But may public leaders emerge having been proved as public servants. Satisfy the need for meaning and purify the desire for power.

Above all, God, make Egypt relevant, but only for good. Challenge her, and curb her rebellion. May she find the freedom that comes from doing right.



Family in Tahrir

Sidu and Hannah
Sidu and Hannah

With Egypt on the eve of another potentially massive demonstration, it is time to pull these pictures out from the archive. They are from the day I took my four year old daughter and her grandfather to Tahrir. I didn’t post them immediately, as I didn’t want to scare the rest of the extended family. And to set hearts at ease, I don’t plan to take anyone tomorrow.

It is hard to recall all the events of Tahrir, but on that occasion there were once again clashes – the night before. My parents were visiting to help assist with the birth of our new son; of course my father had to see the famous square. The best time to avoid violence is morning, when all are exhausted from fighting through the night.

‘I smell nail polish remover,’ said Hannah, my daughter. She was sort of right; I had never noticed how it resembled the scent of lingering tear gas.

‘What pretty decorations,’ she said. I looked all around, wondering if she was referring to the graffiti, some of which is rather creative.

‘No, the shiny ones,’ and she pointed toward the middle of the road. Ah, barbed wire.

With a local protestor
With a local protestor

Some lessons I explained, others were left unsaid. My children are getting quite an education in Egypt.

As for my father, he was particularly impressed by an incoming march as we exited the square along Kasr al-Nile Bridge. ‘Such passion,’ he remarked. We even got a quick glance of Hamdeen Sabbahi’s silver locks as he accompanied the procession to Tahrir.

(Sabbahi not visible)
(Sabbahi not visible)

As for tomorrow, the two year anniversary of the start of the revolution, expectations are meaningless. Tahrir could be packed, or victim of protest fatigue and sullen resignation. It could spark a second revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood, or descend violently into anarchy and chaos.

Here’s hoping for a protest without nail polish and decorations.


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My Egyptian Run-Off Election Prediction

To open, and to be clear, I have no idea who will win this election. Both Ahmed Shafik and Mohamed Morsy took about equal shares in the first round, the revolutionaries are divided between them and many are boycotting, and who knows what the average Egyptian wants, or if he chooses to vote at all.

Of course, this is simply the difficulty from the polling perspective. Things are equally unclear about the suspicions of manipulation. The status quo opinion, especially after the dissolution of parliament, is that that state is working on behalf of Ahmed Shafik. This is reasonable, but it is also open to other conspiracies.

So amidst this mass of confusion I will wade: Mohamed Morsy will be Egypt’s next president.

First, from simple vote analysis: Both Shafik and Morsy captured about 25% of the electorate. Running amidst many other candidates, it is fair to say this represents the natural constituency of both.

In third place was Hamdeen Sabbahi, who represented the non-regime, non-MB vote. A great proportion of his supporters will boycott, and the rest will likely be split equally between the two as their conscience settles on the lesser of two evils.

In fourth place was Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, and somewhat significantly behind him was Amr Moussa. Abul Futuh’s votes will likely go to a fellow Islamist, while Moussa’s will shift to the civil state advocate. It’s probable most of these voters also are not thrilled about their final choice, but there are more of Islamist ilk, so Morsy gets the edge.

That leaves the undecided. Actually, these might not matter at all. Turnout for the first round of elections was only 46%; it is expected to be lower for the run-off. Both Shafik and Morsy have powerful political machines, so these will probably cancel each other out.

But if the non-committed voter chooses, I think he will have more inclination to lean toward Morsy. Shafik does not have a project; his campaign is based on the promise of a return to stability with a heavy dose of accusation against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood has lost a significant portion of its popularity since their triumph in parliamentary elections, but this sentiment is probably weakest (or least recognized) among the non-politicized voter. For these, Morsy represents either 1) the choice of a ‘Muslim’ president, or 2) the choice of change.

I think these factors will push the edge to Morsy in the end.

Second, no prediction is worth its weight unless it deals also with the underlying issues of interest and possible manipulation. Again, though murky, here is my best shot.

The first issue concerns outright vote fraud. In all that follows, I have no evidence to present, but only a reading of the tea leaves. I do not expect state sponsored cheating.

The reason is legitimacy. The military council won legitimacy by protecting the revolutionaries during the initial eighteen days of protest against Mubarak. They have since lost most of this legitimacy as they have navigated the transition, but their promise was to deliver civilian rule through a democratic process.

The only way for the military to salvage legitimacy is to fulfill their promise. Fraud would evaporate it. So would brute force or coup d’etat. The military likely desires to continue playing a role in Egypt’s politics behind the scenes. The only way for this to occur is to preside over legitimate elections, no matter the outcome.

Have they steered the outcome, through the apparatus of the state? Perhaps. The question is toward whom.

It is easier to guess at whom they have steered it away from. The first elimination was of strong, independent candidates. Omar Suleiman (of the intelligence services), Khairat al-Shater (of the Muslim Brotherhood), and Hazem Abu Ismail (of the Salafis) were all disqualified on procedural grounds – all with legitimate, explainable, though somewhat tenuous reasoning.

The second elimination was the most challenging. This was the electoral contest which promoted the strident partisan candidates over revolutionary centrists. It is far too uncertain to assert the military ‘arranged’ or even ‘steered’ this outcome. Yet it is reasonable they were not displeased by the winning candidacies of Shafik and Morsy, both of whom represented the major players of the old regime.

For the second issue, it is in this context the recent dissolution of parliament and likely assumption of constitution writing can be understood.

If Shafik wins, the constitution will be written under friendly circumstances, while the election of a new parliament would likely see a less dominant Islamist presence.

If Morsy wins, the constitution still stays out of the hands of Islamists, while the absence of a parliament denies the Brotherhood a second source of legitimacy. In this scenario, Islamists are even less likely to win parliament, as the people – already wary of the MB – will keep them from having a strong mandate.

A Morsy victory will set off alarm bells among many, and for those unfavorable toward the Brotherhood there is reason for concern. The presidency will allow gradual Islamist population of the general bureaucracy. A Brotherhood triumph could set a pattern for other nations, and their success could transform the map of the Middle East. The alarm for many will be that geopolitics has shifted, and the powers-that-be (i.e., the US) now favor Islamist rule.

While shifting alliances are possible, even on a legitimate basis of popular rule, my gut still imagines it not to be the case. I think the US and the Egyptian military are fundamentally averse to the Brotherhood.

This blog has done a good job at making the case why the military might not mind, or even favor, a Morsy victory. Chief among them is that it gives the military a cover for a civilian – and in particular an Islamist – to take the fall for all coming problems, natural or instigated.

A popular theory in Egypt claims that the military yielded parliament to the Brotherhood to give it just enough rope to hang itself. Indeed, their popularity has suffered as observers discovered them as a manipulating faction dedicated to the preservation and increase of its own power.

This theory can be extended to give them the presidency in order to complete the job. Losing parliament and the constitution divests them of the tools necessary to cement their control, and leaves the president to flail in the wind.

If indeed the powers-that-be want to rid the region of the specter – and promise – of the Brotherhood, this may be a far better strategy than repression.

Unfortunately, it is a dangerous and illegitimate game – if it is being played at all. The point here is to examine why a Morsy victory may be allowed, or may be accepted, or may even be encouraged.

Of course, Shafik could win, either along the lines of status quo conspiracy, or along the lines of popular legitimacy.

Parliament may have been dissolved because it violated the law. The constitution may revert to the military because political parties could not agree on the writing committee. One should never dismiss the simple and obvious explanations.

Yet even these, I venture to guess, will lead to a Morsy presidency.

Unfortunately, too often in Egypt, there is an angle behind every obvious. This will continue until Morsy, or Shafik, or the continuation of the revolution is able to install transparency as a hallmark of government.

May this day come, through the rule of whomever.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Pending Trials


The nation has settled into the reality of an election between the Brotherhood and a figure from the old regime. They have not settled in happily, nor have they particularly made up their mind. But as the candidates negotiate for support and endorsements, seeking the middle as they only last week were seeking their base, even the final ballot is not yet guaranteed.

But if firm, God, guide the politics. Give wisdom to the electorate to make a sincere and honorable choice. May you reveal the nature of each candidate over the next few weeks.

But tomorrow could be a disruption, or it could be a collective yawn. The verdict in Mubarak’s trial is scheduled to be delivered – on live TV.

God, may justice be done. May the nation recognize the legitimacy of the verdict, and may the various partisans remain calm. Prevent opaqueness and manipulation, but care first for those on trial, and those who await recompense for past ills. In the end, God, bring reconciliation and healing to Egypt.

A little further off lies another trial, in which the constitutional court will rule if the regime figure is a legal candidate. The Parliament passed quickly a law to prevent him from running, but it was referred to the court and he was allowed to proceed.

What is best for Egypt, God? That he continues to the runoff as per the will of the people? That he be eliminated by the law as per the will of the parliament, and by extension, the will of the people?

Should Egypt be spared the choice of an old regime member and have the number three qualifier take his place? Or would his disqualification throw the whole process for a loop? Would the Brotherhood candidate run unopposed? Would the whole first round need to be redone, extending the transition?

So many interests are wrapped up in the possibility, God. Please ensure the process is transparent and the judiciary is independent. May they rule according to the law, but is the law fair? Post-revolution, is there even a law? There isn’t yet a constitution. Who can judge what is right?

Beyond these trials, there are the further pending judgments over the legitimacy of parliament, and even the legitimacy of the military council’s constitutional declaration. Any blow to these foundations could shake Egypt further. There is no timing, seemingly, but are held in abeyance.

God, honor Egypt with justice, with truth, and with transparency. Give her the right to rule over her land, to choose the people most accountable to her will. May these lead with integrity and righteousness in the weeks, and years, to come.

Make Egypt whole, God. Make her vibrant. May she reflect the glory you have given her ancient land.


Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Christians Back to Square One

Coptic priest casting his ballot

Posting to the blog has been a little scarce these days, after a furious run-up to the elections. The good news is that the writing focus has been directed to publications seeking coverage, and the first of these was published this afternoon at Christianity Today. I hope another one will come due next week, but for now, please enjoy this preview, and if it grabs you click below to conclude the reading on their site.


After a year of new forms of political engagement, why do Copts still face the same ‘bitter choice’ of old regime vs. Islamists?

Despite the best efforts of Christian and Muslim revolutionaries, the first free presidential election in Egypt’s history has resulted in an all-too-familiar choice: old regime vs. Islamists.

The nation’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission confirmed on Monday that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy advanced to the run-off election against Ahmed Shafik, former president Hosni Mubarak’s last-ditch appointee as prime minister during the revolution’s early days. Both candidates gathered nearly 25 percent of the vote. Only a few percentage points behind was Hamdeen Sabbahi, whose late surge as the revolutionary choice was not enough to displace Egypt’s traditional combatants.

The majority of Copts voted for Shafik, according to Mina el-Badry, an evangelical pastor in Upper Egypt. “Not from love, but to oppose the Islamists,” he said, “because [Shafik] is from the army and will know how to run the transition, and because he is clear and firm in his word and decision.”

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Watani, also sees the necessity of Christians supporting Shafik. “The revolution is now in the hands of political Islam,” he said, “and Copts must make a bitter choice to support the civil state.”

Yet many Copts wonder why this bitter choice has returned.

Click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.


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Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Felool and Islamists, in my Home

With Ahmed Shafiq

‘Felool’ is the Arabic word designating ‘remnants of the regime’, that is, those who lost power and influence after the revolution, having formerly benefited by proximity to Mubarak and his circles of influence. An Islamist favors a system of government in which sharia law plays a principle role in determining legislation. What then are they doing in my home?

Well, they belong there. They are my two oldest daughters, aged 5 and 4. Our youngest, age 2, does not yet have political consciousness.

Once the revolution began becoming politics, ‘felool’ expanded in meaning to include those who support some continuation of the old regime, perhaps saying things like, ‘It wasn’t so bad,’ or, ‘Not everyone in it was corrupt.’

But in many cases, ‘felool’ also served as an accusation to throw around against political opponents deemed not sufficiently revolutionary, or sufficiently Islamist.

In its final incarnation, used thereafter in this article, it applies specifically to the candidacies of Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, and their supporters.

So why is my oldest daughter felool? Here is the imagined explanation, sufficiently plausible.

The Egyptian political spectrum has evolved into basically three camps. The first camp is Islamist. Mohamed Morsy represents the Muslim Brotherhood, and while Abdel Munim Abul Futuh has sought to position himself as a centrist, he still identifies as an Islamist. Having gained the endorsement of many Salafis, he has scared away a number of former centrist or revolutionary supporters.

The second camp, as mentioned above, is felool. Ahmed Shafiq was Mubarak’s last-ditch prime minister, appointed to stem the tide of the protests. He carried on for a little while after Mubarak stepped down, but continued protests in Tahrir forced Shafiq’s sacking as well. Running for president, he does not outright call for a return to the days of Mubarak, but he does call for a return of stability and opposition to Islamists, with lip service to the youth of the revolution.

Amr Moussa is less felool, having served in Mubarak’s cabinet early in his administration but having more detachment from the regime while serving as chairman of the Arab League up until the outbreak of the revolution. Still, he is old, and certainly a product of the Mubarak era. He will be gentler with diverse political parties, most likely, but still represents stability and non-Islamism, as well as a vote toward ‘reform’ rather than ‘revolution’.

The third camp says a pox on both your houses. Hamdeen Sabbahi is an old school Nasserist, which means he is a nationalist with socialist tendencies. His campaign has been advancing as of late as many voters are fed up with the above choices. They have rejected Mubarak, but don’t trust Islamists.

This is where my daughters come in. We are an American Christian family living in Egypt. We have attempted to live in the culture, speaking the language as best we can. Within this choice we worship at the Coptic Orthodox Church, and my daughters both attended preschool therein. The oldest just completed kindergarten as the only non-Egyptian in her private school.

If you tweak out the demographics of this simple description of our lives, you will find we are predisposed to supporting the felool, and to a lesser degree, Islamists.

We are Westerners, and Islamist candidates unnerve us no matter how many reassurances they issue. (Living here, we can also see the opposite of these reassurances at times.)

Yet we also see the conservative religious make-up of much of Egyptian society, and recognize the right of a people to be governed according to its mores. Islamism should not be dismissed in principle, though certain interpretations may be.

We are comparatively wealthy, having our daughter in a private school. Those who benefitted economically from the Mubarak era are more inclined to support felool candidates.

Yet Islamists are also successful businessmen in Egypt, having much support among the middle class, which populates the private school our daughter attends.

We are Christians, and rub shoulders with the Copts. This community is desperately worried about the possibility of Islamist rule, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Their oft-spoken preference is for Ahmed Shafiq.

As is the preference of my oldest daughter.

Yet we also place high respect on the values which drove much of the Egyptian revolution, and recognize the corruption and lack of representation characterizing much of the Mubarak regime. We sympathize with those who desire an Islamist, yet revolutionary candidate, and their oft-spoken preference is for Abul Futuh.

As is the preference of my second daughter.

My daughters do not know the names of any other candidates. Perhaps they simply picked up on the name their Western, school, and Coptic friends banter about, who themselves have picked up on the name uttered by their parents.

That is the plausible, though invented explanation. The reality is much simpler.

Driving about in a taxi the other day a Shafiq supporter tossed his political brochure into the vehicle. A little further on a truck full of Shafiq partisans beeped their horns loudly, flew high his banner, and chanted as they drove, ‘Ahmed Shafiq! Ahmed Shafiq!’

Now my daughters do the same, even the Abul Futuh supporter.

Many Egyptians have shown political acumen far beyond their nation’s democratic experience. Others, perhaps, have made their decision in a similar matter, gauging the preference of those in the area, or gravitating to the candidate with the greatest name recognition.

Surely, however, they have not done as my second daughter.

Each candidate sports a symbol to help illiterate voters find their preferred candidate on the ballot. Mohamed Morsy, of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has the scales of justice. Sabbahi, the Nasserite nationalist, bears an eagle akin to that on the Egyptian flag.

My four-year-old, simply, likes Abul Futuh’s orange horse.

Translation: Abul Futuh, for president of Egypt; Number 5

As a foreigner I escape the responsibility, and privilege, of having to decide. Yet my respect and admiration goes to the Egyptian people seeking to craft the future of their nation amidst diverse paths.

At times the rhetoric has been strident, and there is sufficient cause for worry in multiple directions. Yet as we have learned much from the Egyptian people, we hope there is at least one lesson we may offer them:

Felool and Islamists may reside peacefully in the same home.


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My Egyptian Presidential Prediction

From left: Shafiq, Sabbahi, Mousa, Abul Futuh, Morsy

Egypt’s presidential election polls are all over the map. Most have had Amr Moussa and Abdel Munim Abul Futuh in the lead, with Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood trailing significantly.

And then results of the overseas ballots were revealed, putting Morsy significantly in the lead.

More recent polling indicates that the nationalist, semi-socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi is gaining, as he is free from ‘contamination’ either from the former regime or Islamist trends. Meanwhile former Mubarak emergency prime minister Ahmed Shafiq is also gaining, as he projects confidence to restore stability and take the Islamists head on.

And in the last days, Moussa and Abul Futuh are seen as reeling, as their efforts to be centrists crumble as the political scene polarizes. See notable Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem – Sandmonkey – for analysis to this effect.

Perhaps a poll off the subject, then, may help to clarify things. Though unlikely, here is the effort. Several months ago Arab West Report authorized a survey consulting five thousand Egyptians through personal interviews throughout the Egyptian republic. They sought citizens’ opinion on Article Two of the Egyptian constitution, which states Islam is the official religion of the state and sharia law is the main source for legislation.

Following the revolution this article became a political hot potato. While some Copts and liberals found it to be a discriminatory element of Sadat-era sectarian politics, it was the conservative Islamist element that made the most use of it. They warned Egyptians at the time of the national referendum in March 2011 that a vote against the army-endorsed transition would result in a wholly new constitution (as opposed to the army-sponsored amendments) which would threaten to remove the article – and the centrality of Islam – from the national identity.

It is unlikely that this campaign affected the referendum results too seriously, but in a nation weaned on identity politics during the Mubarak era, it had an effect.

Arab West Report tested that effect several months afterwards. The results were interesting, and as follows:

  • Only 36% of Egyptians have even heard of Article Two, but once informed…
  • 88% of those polled favored keeping Article Two as it is in the constitution
  • 92% of those favoring desire to preserve Islam as the official religion
  • 43% of those favoring desire for Islamic law to govern all Egyptians
  • 12% of those favoring believe it is too sensitive to change it
  • 9% of those favoring desire a religious, as opposed to a civil, state
  • Only 2% of those polled favored cancelling Article Two from the constitution
  • 6% of those polled favor amending Article Two
  • 74% of those favoring desire to achieve equality between Muslims and Christians
  • 17% of those favoring desire to protect the civil character of the state

Obviously, a vast majority of the population is comfortable with Islam as the designated national religion. Somewhat telling is that of these, a significant plurality desire sharia law to govern as well. Furthermore, a sizable minority wishes outright definition as an Islamic state.

Though ‘significant’ and ‘sizable’, this sentiment remains a minority among the ‘vast’ support for keeping Article Two as is. What might this mean for the elections?

On the one hand, it could mean the victory of an Islamist candidate. Elections are often won by the constituency most dedicated to a particular issue, which can resonate with the population and mobilize their support. 40+% of the population desiring the rule of sharia law perhaps is ripe for activation. (Other polls put this percentage even higher.)

Yet I would argue against this trend, though I am making a prediction based on the unknowns of the Egyptian political landscape, a bet on the average Egyptian citizen.

To run down the candidates, borrowing from Sandmonkey’s analysis, each of the candidates represents a specific element of the general constituency.

Mohamed Morsy of the Brotherhood represents Brotherhood interests, and their very sizable following of adherents. Still, it is a limited and definable circle. The somewhat negative reaction to parliament following the 70+% Islamist victory will hamper their sympathy vote immediately following the revolution.

Ahmed Shafiq represents the interests of old regime, perhaps the military, business and capital, and a large share of Coptic sentiment. He has the potential to win a large number of undecided voters who react negatively to post-revolution instability, and those who favor reform over revolution. Yet over the past year the nation has adopted the idea of Mubarak’s corruption and the validity of the revolution, and he is too tainted with it to succeed.

Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, the other Islamist and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, represents the general Islamist sentiment which is not comfortable with the Brotherhood. He is poised to capture a significant share of the Salafi vote, if not the majority, but also a significant share of the revolutionary vote. He is on friendly terms with Mohamed el-Baradei, who remains a hero to much of the revolutionary core. The unfortunate matter for him is that this core is generally elite. Though Salafis are not, his popularity is likely limited to the upper crust activists and does not spread to the countryside.

Hamdeen Sabbahi suffers a similar problem. Though a long term opposition figure, the opposition to Mubarak pre-revolution was basically a movement of dissatisfied elites. He represents the interests of many Egyptians who maintain their dissatisfaction – now with the front running choices of Islamist or old regime candidates. This includes a number of revolutionaries, liberals, and Copts, but their numbers are far too small.

This leaves Amr Moussa. A very unsexy candidate, he positioned himself early in the revolution as a candidate for president. He is tainted by association with Mubarak, but is also recognized as not having been a vital cog in the regime’s wheels. He is older in age, satisfying those who desire a transitional figure to guide the movement to democracy. He is a statesman with wide name recognition, striking a presidential figure. His skill in diplomacy suggests he will have few natural enemies, able to navigate all competing interests, both foreign and domestic.

Yet his greatest asset, I argue, is that he does not represent any interests in particular. Though it would be naïve to state this unequivocally, it is clear he is not a partisan.

I argue, neither is the Egyptian citizen.

The development of party interests and zeal is (probably) healthy for Egyptian democracy. If allowed to nurture without any one party taking immediate control, and perhaps dominance of the political scene, these diverse constituencies will mature and coalesce and lose the stridency marking current campaigning. This fanaticism is natural following a revolution, but it is also transitory.

The Egyptian public was depoliticized for sixty years. Though awakening, I do not believe it has been transformed. Moreover, the Egyptian personality is not fanatic or partisan. It is national, it is centrist, it is even, perhaps, accepting of the inevitability of a strong, dare-it-be-mentioned, Pharaonic figure.

If the public support for this election was not so strong, the result would likely be taken by the best organized particular constituency. As with the parliamentary elections, this would likely be an Islamist.

Yet the turnout for the first free, and hopefully fair, elections in Egypt’s history is expected to be overwhelming. If so, the average citizen will come to the forefront. I estimate this average citizen will support Moussa.

Might he be motivated by religious politics, perhaps. Might he be motivated by calls for stability, perhaps.

I expect rather his rejection of particular, well-definable interests. Amr Moussa, for better or worse, is best positioned to win their favor.

Alas, and alleluia, no one knows. This is a virgin electorate, and the glory of Egypt. May her vote be true, and may it be accepted by all.

May it be the beginning of popular and national sovereignty.


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